Outside Staff Climb The North Face of the Eiger

Nothing.  Shake it again.  Nothing.  Fiddle with the wires.  Still nothing.  Take out batteries, replace batteries.  Nothing at all, not a flicker.  Shake it, try again.  Darkness.  Damn.

'Rich' - No answer

'Rich' - No answer



'My head torch is broken.  And some animal just ran off with my breakfast'.


'My lamp, it doesn't work and some critter just came and ran off with my breakfast'

'A critter?  What critter?'

'I don't know. I was going to shine my light at it to discover what it was, but it appears not to be working'

Rich grunts and sits upright in his sleeping bag.

'Let me take a look.  When did you last check it?'

I look at my watch.  The luminous dial shows 1am.

'I put new batteries in and checked it eight hours ago in Grindlwald' I say.

Rich fiddles with my lamp under the light of his own and I lie back.  Above me I can see three lights on the North Face of the Eiger.  I estimate that the lights are separated from each other by a few hundred meters but it's difficult to tell in the dark and with the foreshortening.  I wonder what they are doing at one in the morning, whether they are still climbing, whether the stances they are on are so small they preclude sleeping, whether they are just killing time because they can't sleep.
'I can't fix it', says Rich after few minutes of fiddling and turns out his light and lies back down again.  

Staring up at the wall, the clear night sky and the moon I tell him it'll be fine, that there will be enough moonlight for our early start and after that there will just be no getting benighted.  I feel guilty, culpable for my faulty head lamp and for throwing up an extra obstacle, reducing our options.
'See you in a few hours' I say, and then I lie awake for a time, cursing in my mind before finally slipping off to sleep.

It wasn't my idea to climb The North Face of the Eiger.  Rich suggested it.  Of course everyone wants to climb the North Face of the Eiger but there's a world of difference between the pipe dream and actually conscientiously looking into it.  If Rich hadn't noticed that it was in condition, was being climbed and that the Swiss Alps was experiencing stable weather then I certainly wouldn't have.  From the moment he mentioned it to me until we started to climb I was filled with nervous, sweaty palmed, giddy anticipation.  The thought of the Eiger had never seriously entered into my mind, but once it had I could barely think of anything else.


The very idea of climbing it was superb.  Technical mixed climbing, snow slopes, some ice climbing - the full alpine experience.  There was the 'tick' aspect of having done it.  My god, what a 'tick'.  One of the best 'ticks' ever.  There was the kudos to be had from climbers and non climbers alike.  The excited thought of telling my non climbing father I'd done it made me feel pathetically like a child trying to impress.  Women would surely fall at my feet.  There was the history, climbing it was like taking a tour of mountaineering fable: Death Bivouac, Swallow's Nest, Hinterstoisser Traverse, The White Spider.  In the days before we left I read everything it was possible to read on the mountain.  I trawled the internet for every photo I could find.

All the reading and research meant little once we started to climb.  It took until past the Hinterstoisser Traverse before I started to relax.  This feeling of being at ease on the route did not come with knowledge gained from researching the route, or my limited alpine climbing experience, but the knowledge that after we'd climbed past a certain point, that there'd be no retreat, or that retreat didn't bear thinking about.   I became focused on getting to the summit and with that focus came relaxation.

The first day we climbed for 15 hours and slept at the Brittle Ledges Bivi spot before the Traverse of the Gods.  We missed getting benighted by about 20 minutes, which without one head torch could have caused serious problems.  That night we both sat in the dark together looking down at the lights of Grindelwald and agreed that we'd definitely encountered ground that would get Grade VI in Scotland.  Rich said that he hoped there wasn't too much more climbing like that.  That night I slept the sleep of total exhaustion.  The cloud inversion at dawn and the exposure of the bivy spot was something I'll never forget.

We ground out day two and got to the summit at around 1pm.  The White Spider was dealt with quickly, there was an enjoyable ramp.  Rich dealt admirably with the last crux but the sting in the tail turned out to be the bullet hard water ice that takes you almost to the end of the route and the ridge which leads to the summit.  This easy angled ice climbing burned my calves to death and when I finally flopped like Rich's catch of the day onto the summit ridge I was fairly spent.

We could not linger long at the top.  The clock was still ticking. We had limited food and needed the last train down to Grindelwald.  Another night out didn't look appealing.  We trudged and slid and glissaded down, sucking melt water from rocks when we could and tried not to trip over our own feet that were starting to take on a life of their own.  No longer being on the north face meant we were exposed to the full onslaught of the afternoon sun and our faces quickly became as baked as our minds.

We arrived at the station with 5 minutes to spare.  Once it was done we could hardly believe it.  Switching from the mountain to civilisation in but a moment was difficult to take in.  We rode the train in a daze.  The tourists gave us strange looks.  I felt jubilation.  The North Face of the Eiger.  Who would have thought it.  Tick!

Henry Tyce is the Web Editor for Outside.co.uk

By Henry Tyce
Web Editor

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Henry Tyce
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