Climbing the Original (1938 or Heckmair) Route on the North Face of the Eiger – Bernese Alps, Switzerland.
It is hard to write about the Eiger. What is new to say? The fabled massive, dark, seeping North Face has already played scene to so many epic dramas. Its stories retold countless times in newsprint, books, movies, and blogs. Our own passage, its trials and tribulations, seem so paltry in comparison to the mountains history, its size, its legend.
The Ogre (Eiger), known for swallowing those who would challenge it, posed the “last great challenge of the Alps”. It throws its sinister shadow over the bougie ski town of Grindelwald where tourists flock to watch the epics of man versus nature. The North Face was not successfully climbed until 1938 when competing German Austrian parties joined forces under Anderl Heckmair and completed the route envisioned by the tragic 1936 expedition of Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser. Another nine years would pass before the Eiger’s north face saw a second successful attempt.
Nowadays, with the advancement of climbing gear and access to more reliable weather forecasting, the Eiger sees more ascents, but it still serves up one hell of a fight to the climbers who flock from every corner of the globe to have a go at its relentless north face. You are not only up for a demanding climb, it is you against the elements, you are at the mercy of the mountain and she is ready and eager to launch rockfall, avalanches, and blizzards without warning. It demands the most perfect of conditions; a sustained high pressure weather window with marginal wind, absence of recent snowfall to reduce avalanche risk and a solid freeze to hold the disintegrating mountain together. Even then, pitch after pitch of technical climbing awaits, and while not near today’s ice, rock, or mixed limits, its 5000 feet of climbing with a pack, in crampons and gloves, testing your skills on all possible terrain.
If you consider yourself any variation of the word ‘ mountaineer’, you already knew all of this. You also have an unexplainable, “because it’s there,” burning desire to climb it. After two years of climbing in the Alps and some recent training in Scotland on Ben Nevis and Glenn Coe, I finally felt ready. Weather in Europe has been quite strange this winter, but March finally yielded some more stable weather patterns. I stalked the weather station near the base of the Eiger and a webcam pointed directly at the north face. A small weather window appeared to present itself on Saturday, March 8 lasting for the foreseeable future (at least five days), and so we packed up our climbing gear and jetted to Grindelwald after work on Friday night. We boarded the 07:25 train to Kleine Scheidegg and then tirelessly trekked up the ‘Eiger Nordwand’ ski piste to the Eigergletscher café where we then postholed along the base of the Eiger’s north face to reach the starting point of the climb. The snow was unconsolidated from a storm earlier in the week that dumped a surplus of freshies. This was the first day of the nice weather window and so the snow had not seen enough time to consolidate. As spin drifts spun off the face and a plume of snow fanned off the summit, we still took two hours to deliberate before passing on the attempt. An expensive decision, after purchasing round trip fares on the Jungfraubahn, but nowhere near the expense of some potential alternatives. We descended back to Grindelwald, our smiles turned upside down returning to Germany, and went back on a weather watch.
Our return home was bittersweet. We spent the next days stalking the forecast and perversely viewing the webcam. On Wednesday morning, four days after our return from send attempt one, we heard rumors the route was in and there were a solid two days of stable weather remaining. This is the type of weather window many climbers wait decades for. The conditions had been stable for nearly five days and were to remain so for another three, with a “mild” storm forecasted on the evening of Saturday, March 15. It was go time. We spent Wednesday March 12 acquiring sick notes and pleading for time off, managing to escape our weekday work obligations and with that we returned to Grindelwald that night. Ready to begin the climb Thursday, March 13.
Send Day – Original (1938 or Heckmair) Route: ED2 IV+, 60°, 1800m
More accurately, days. Thursday, March 13, 2014, we awoke cold but eager. We boarded the 07:25 train to Kleine Scheidegg and then switched trains, arriving at the Eigergletscher station, located just before the train enters the tunnel piercing through the Eiger. This spared us hiking the ski piste and gifted us a 45 minute lead off last week’s approach. A nice boot pack existed this time and after a mere 30-40 minutes of traversing, we arrived at the base of the Heckmair route (2561 m) at 09:00. We progressed upwards arriving at the first real difficulty, aptly named the ‘Difficult Crack’ around 12:30, then the Hinterstoisser Traverse at 15:00.
We quickly realized that our original plan to bivy at the ‘Brittle Ledges’ bivouac was egregiously ambitious and we would be lucky to reach the ‘Death Bivouac’ by night, the approximate halfway point of the route. From the historical ‘Hinterstoisser Traverse’ we entered the ‘First Icefield’, more like a snowfield, followed by the ‘Ice Hose’, a vertical section of rock covered by a lattice of ice. This led into the ‘Second Icefield’, starting off steep and moderately protectable, before becoming completely un-protectable until it became ice again on its far side. We navigated some more steep ice sections, two rock pitches, and finally gained our bivy for the night, the ‘Death Bivouac’ (3300 m). We made it well after the sun set at 22:00. The ‘Death Bivouac’ is named after Mehringer and Sedlmeyer, who were found here after having frozen to death on their 1935 attempt, and while the name is ominous, it was a five star accommodation compared to the other bivy sites we noted along our climb. It was about five meters long by one meter wide with an overhanging wall generously offering protection from rock fall and in-situ gear to clip your gear and body. Day One: 0900-2200 (13 hours).
Enjoying our bivy site a little too much, we started off for the second half of the Eiger’s north face at a leisurely 08:00. The clear blue skies stretched beyond the eyes could see and we fueled up with some goMacro bars before setting off for what would be the longest day of climbing in our lives. We quickly followed the ‘Third Icefield’ as it rose up and left and arrived at the base of ‘The Ramp’ in less than an hour.
We spent two hours navigating the ramp before arriving at the base of ‘The Waterfall’, known to be of variable difficulty depending on conditions; sometimes gushing with water or verglassed with ice and other times just snow dusted rock. We enjoyed the latter, and were just thankful it was dry. The following obstacle was the ‘Ice Bulge’. We allowed a faster group to pass us at ‘The Waterfall’ and here is where we caught up with them again. A large amount of snow had filled in the ‘Ice Bulge’ and they elected to climb a water polished variant directly to the left of it. It was a sketchfest and this is where we followed in the footsteps of the great Gaston Rebuffat and likewise accepted a rope from the Austrian team ahead of us rather than wasting time and emotional strength.
A steep snow slope brought us to the infamous ‘Brittle Ledges’ which were brittle, go figure. The traverse right along the ‘Brittle Ledges’ led us to the ‘Brittle Crack’, an enjoyable and exposed arête with an overhanging exit. It is here that we reached the ‘Brittle Ledges Bivouac’, at 15:30, 7.5 hours after leaving the ‘Death Bivouac’. Knowing very well that this was the last “comfortable” bivy on the north face of the Eiger, we took a moment to check the forecast for the following day to see if the forecasted weather had changed for the better or worse. The weather check revealed a storm was well en route and had increased in severity from our last weather check before setting off on our climb. The decision was made for us, we would be climbing through the night to reach the summit and descend, hopefully before the storm reached Saturday. Heartbroken, we pressed on.
The ‘Traverse of the Gods’ was well packed from previous parties and while airy, I was relieved it wasn’t as terrifying as I was expecting it to feel. The long traverse left brought us to the infamous ‘White Spider’ which we covered as fast as possible speeding up the 150m of ice in the warm evening sun. The White Spider is exposed to never ending rockfall from the parties above and the Eiger’s tendency to slowly shed its flesh. It’s named for the way it’s surrounding ice filled gullies coming in and extending out make it resemble a spider. Over time, these ice gullies have melted out and many of its legs are now difficult to identify. The ‘White Spider’ terminated in a gully sporadically filled with ice for another 150m of climbing. We mistakenly followed in the tracks of another climbing party up the left chimney, a harder variation than the right. A horizontal traverse, once we had all realized our mistake, got us back on route and to the base of the ‘Quartz Crack’. The first half of the ‘Quartz Crack,’ that we had seen pictures of was uneventful, but the second was rather valiant. An overhanging gaping crack reached through a squeeze chimney. Not sure if we were to tension swing right from where we were or climb up through the squeeze chimney and ominous crack above, we took it on direct. It was physical. It was soul sucking. We found the fixed lines traversing down and left and arrived at the ‘Corti Bivouac’, a small platform 250m below the summit, with just enough room for two to sit. We stopped, exhausted, taking a break to replenish our long depleted water and reloading with some soup. It was now 23:40. Clouds began creeping up the valley and winds whispered what we already knew, the storm was coming.
We continued down slightly left on a short fixed line and reached the ‘Exit Chimneys’. The first pitch of the exit chimney was quite hard and challenging to protect in the dark but we managed, carrying on for three more pitches to gain the summit icefield. The summit ice field had been exposed to prolonged heat in the late afternoon, erasing traces of previous travel. In the glow of our headlamps four more pitches of hard ice amongst loose rock bands led us upward to the juncture of the NW and NE faces. Two more pitches up the summit ice field led us to the Mitellegi ridge. Memories of watching Ueli Steck run up this section from a video documenting his 2008 2h 47m free solo flooded my mind and made me feel like I was moving in slow motion, probably because I was, and wondering when the snow had changed to bullet proof ice. I had been on the Nordwand for 46 hours, climbing for 36 of those, and the last 24 being one solid push. I was running well below reserve levels. I felt defeated.
200m of razor sharp ridgeline was left to surmount before we reached the summit proper. The winds had increased in strength, leaving me to feel rather uneasy as we navigated the ridge, carefully placing foot over foot to reach the summit. We arrived at 08:00, proudly standing on the top of the Eiger (3970m). We had ascended the notorious Nordwand. All of the physical and emotional pain metamorphosed into unadulterated elation. This is something I had dreamt and even obsessed about, something I never thought could be attained and here I was, we did it! Day Two: 0800 – 0800 (24 hours).
As the saying goes, you haven’t successfully climbed a mountain until you have safely descended it. With the storm gaining momentum, we snapped a few artistically void summit shots and headed toward the West Flank passing, a few Himalayan prayer flags.
The weather held for our descent and with a combination of knee jarring snow romping and glissading, in about three hours we managed to reach the Eigergletscher train station. This is where it all began two and a half very long days ago. We spent the next few hours at the Eigergletscher café chugging water and treating ourselves to an ice cold brew and a cappuccino. Very few words were spoken between the two of us, those hours were spent internalizing the relentless days we had just spent on the Eiger Nordwand as we watched the top third of the Eiger get swallowed by the storm that nipped at our heels for the past twelve hours. We were safe. Frostnipped fingers, windburnt faces, bleeding lips, edema and muscle cramping from excessive dehydration and physical exertion – it all disappears in time. The memory of our journey up the north face of the Eiger, the “Last Great Problem of the Alps”, was ours to revere forever.
Quick Reference Guide
Location: Grindelwald Grund Station – Grindlewald, Switzerland
A few options. If you want an early start, take the last train of the evening to the Eigergletscher station, and bivy at the Guesthouse Eigergletscher. It’s not open, but is a readily accepted place to sleep if you want to get a very early start the following day. Your second option is to sleep in Grindelwald at a variety of hostels or sleep in the Grindelwald Grund parking lot as we did, from here you board the first train at 07:25.
Grindelwald Grund Station, Grindelwald, Switzerland
- By car – see location map above for driving directions. Park in lot adjacent to Grindelwald Grund Train Station.
- By bus or train- Visit sbb.ch for train or bus ticket information to Grindelwald Grund station.
- (1) 60m alpine rope
- set of nuts
- ice climbing tools, one with adze and other with hammer
- ice screws, six
- alpine quick draws
- harness, ice clipper slots are nice
- gaiters, to protect your expensive technical pants from crampon tears.
- Gore-Tex jacket and pants
- Gore-Tex gloves, I swear by my Black Diamond Punisher gloves and carry a pair of Guide gloves
in my pack for the descent or emergencies.
- technical mountaineering boots, I wore La Sportiva Batura (integrated gator)
- warm base layer, I wore a Patagucci R1 Hoody
- warm synthetic mid layer, I wore a Patagucci Micropuff Jacket
- headlamp, with fresh batteries
- bivy gear – foam pad, down sleeping bag
Park at the Grindelwald Grund Train station. Take the Junfraujoch train from Grindelwald Grund Station to Eigergletscher Station. You switch trains at Kleine Scheidegg for Eigergletscher Station, one stop further. Purchase tickets either online or in person. First train departs from Grindelwald Grund at 07:25 and last train departs at 19:22. From Eigergletscher train station, follow the obvious track/groomer to the top of the ‘Eiger Nordwand’ chair lift. Traverse along the base of the Eiger’s north face until just before the large webcam/weather station (?). This is where your upward odyssey begins. Time: 1h 30m from Grindelwald Grund to base of climb.
Descend via the Eiger’s West Flank. Usually takes around three hours. Hopefully you made it back in time to descend via the Junfraubahn. The last train departs Eigergletscher at 17:08 (27 October to 28 March) or 18:09 (29 March to 26 October).
- Download free topo here, courtesy of Rockfax. –> Eiger Northface: 1938 Route