[A short piece about a trip I took last summer to Switzerland (2011). Not my usual fare I admit, but I hope you enjoy it, as for me it was the trip of a lifetime. Videos are available at Vimeo and on my YouTube channel - Dicky Carter Films.]
|The north face of the Eiger.|
Lou B and I hiked upwards, across a dangerous scree slope; covered in small grey, sharp pieces of rock and shale. As soon as we put weight on it, the shale moved downward, and it felt as though you could go careering down the slope at any moment. Part of me wanted to turn back, but we were so close to the bottom of the Eiger’s north face, that I just couldn’t give in.
Five hours earlier; when we were in the sunshine, back at the campsite in the little
, the slope had looked a lot smaller. During breakfast that morning we had sat eating bacon sandwiches, and had looked across the Alpiglen meadow towards the Eiger Nordwand through an old pair of battered binoculars. The Eiger had looked beautiful that morning; framed by a cloudless deep blue sky. We had decided that today would be the day. Lou B and I would try to get as close as possible to the north face. To get any closer or higher would require climbing equipment. It had long been a dream of mine to see this mountain. I’ve always been an armchair mountaineer, having read many stories about the great ascents of the iconic mountains of the Alps and village of Grindelwald Himalayas. I love tales about the adventures of Chris Bonnington, Walter Bonetti, Kurtz, Harrer, Mehringer, Harlin, Mallory and , and especially of the climbs on the Swiss Alps greatest north face – the Eiger. Irvine
After breakfast we got our backpacks on, and headed for the station where we caught a train up to Kleine Scheidegg; a small grouping of hotels and coffee shops at 2061m (6,762ft). Here we sat outside a hotel, and drank lovely strong Swiss coffee whilst enjoying the view; watching colourful paragliders soaring high above in the thermals. It’s difficult to appreciate, that what you are looking at is real; as you gaze down a long green valley; surrounded by jagged grey mountains; topped with brilliant white snow. I never expect in my lifetime, to see a landscape so stunning again.
To get up to the high alpine Eiger Trail – a path that runs close to the face – we had to walk up to the higher railway station at Eigergletscher 2,320m (7,612ft). This proved in itself to be a real challenge, and I was puffing for oxygen once we started hiking upwards. The path seemed so steep, and my heart was thumping loudly enough for me to feel it in my chest.
Once at Eigergletscher Station, we started off along the Eiger Trail which is, in places only about a foot wide, and very slippery. The trail runs east/west along a steep slope of broken rock and shale, winding its way under the north face, but gradually getting further away from it, as the path drops in altitude. We had been hiking for about 45 minutes when we got to a position under the Rote Fluh – a large distinctive slab of bare rock. When I had viewed this from the campsite earlier, it had looked a short walk to the north face from here, but up close the shale slope that led to it looked huge. It was about 200 - 300m to the face from the trail, up an increasingly steep slope of small rocks, boulders and loose shale. We left the trail and started to trek up the slope towards the bottom of the north face; me leading the way.
As we got further from the relative safety of the Eiger trail, I began to wonder if this was a stupid idea. We could see two other people about 300m away who had obviously walked up to the face, but nobody else had left the trail. When viewed from the green valley below; in the sunshine, the Eigerwand had looked majestic; its snowy alpine face looking beautiful; but now we were in its cold shadow, it felt menacing and intimidating as it towered above us. We were so close that the summit was no longer in view, and we could only see the bottom third of the face. At some stage Lou B must have passed me, because she made it to the base before me. By now the shale slope had become very steep, and the last few steps were hard going, but to be honest I would have crawled up it if I had to. I placed both my hands onto the cold rock surface of the Eiger, and let the freezing cold water from melting snow high above us, run over my hands. I had made it: after years of reading books about the history of this great mountain; I was a high as I could get without climbing equipment. To go any higher from here; would require us to use pitons and rope.
We then headed east along the bottom of the face, toward the Mittellegi Ridge. At the campsite we had viewed the wave like effects of the shale along the bottom of the north face, and they had looked big, but nothing like they did now we were on them. Each wave of shale was as high as a house, and incredibly difficult to climb. I think you get carried away at times like these, by the huge scenery that surrounds you. Everything is so towering that you forget how dangerous falling from a conservative 8 metres could be. Pushing eastwards we kept tight to the face, climbing up and down the shale waves. Every now and then I would have to stop, and look around me; to truly take in where I was; walking along the base of the Eigerwand. In a weeks time I would be sitting at my desk working; but today I’m here, fulfilling a dream. As we passed large patches of snow, it made us realise how high we actually were, and how cold the air temperature was.
I could have continued for hours, but the thing that forced us to stop wasn’t our fitness or health, nor the weather which had remained superb all day; but time. It was getting late in the afternoon and we were aware that the hike back to the campsite could be over three hours away on very tired legs. We stopped for water, crouching down against the face and enjoying the view, while we discussed whether to descend. We both agreed that time was an issue and reluctantly we turned away from the north face and began to weave our way down. A few metres down, I looked upwards, and could now very clearly see the bare rock of the Hinterstoisser Traverse just a few hundred metres above; part of climbing folk law. The climbing history of the Eiger is tragic, and at the same time heroic, and to be so close to such a landmark is humbling.
It’s difficult all these months later to even imagine that I was there in the first place, “Did I really do that?” I keep asking myself. I keep pulling out photos to remind myself that “Yes,” I did climb to the base of the Eiger’s north face. Thinking about it now I should say thank you to Lou B for coming with me that day; I’m not sure that any of my previous girlfriends would have been mad enough to follow me up there; or even had the fitness to do so. This would probably also be a good time to thank my friends who took me all the way to Switzerland by car, which was an immense road trip (but the only way on my budget); just to add a tick to my bucket list: Thank you - you both know who you are.