The north face
Up close and personal with one of the most famous peaks in mountain climbing.
The alternative to actually scaling the perilous north face of the famed Eiger, Audi Magazine takes in this iconic mountain face in a safer but no less spectacular fashion.
30 May, 2019
In European climbing circles, any serious mountaineer’s credentials weren’t bona fide until they’d climbed the north face
Every time I gaze at her, it’s like falling in love all over again. A veil of blonde frames an olive complexion that rarely sees the sun. She’s beautiful, yet intimidating. Statuesque and shapely. She’s utterly mesmerising and I can’t take my eyes off her
But she has a sinister side – literally, a dark side. In climbing circles, it’s infamous. Ever since Europeans began testing themselves against the Alps’ highest peaks, the pyramidal Eiger has acted like a siren call, luring climbers to their death. Thus far, more than 60 climbers have perished while attempting to scale its shadowed north face, earning it the nickname ‘Murder Wall’.
In 1858, an Irishman and his two Swiss guides were the first to stand atop the mountain’s summit after ascending its west flank. But it would be another 80 years before anyone managed to reach the top via the menacing north face.
Even now, 81 years later, that Heckmair route, as it came to be known, is considered one of the great mountaineering challenges on Earth. To scale all 1800 vertical metres of it, from the bucolic pastures above Grindelwald to the mountain’s 3967-metre summit, is a passport to a rarefied world. In European climbing circles, any serious mountaineer’s credentials weren’t bona fide until they’d climbed the north face.
I have no intention of climbing it; I’m neither adequately skilled, nor desirous of it. Instead, I’ll view it from the comfort – and safety – of a helicopter. Until I’m prepared to clip on crampons and heft an ice axe, it’s the best chance I have to see it up close.
From the cosy confines of Grindelwald’s Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof, I’m driven along icy roads to our launch pad just outside the Glacier Canyon entrance. Our Ecureuil H125 helicopter is capable of speeds of up to 287km/h and carries five passengers – one in the front next to the pilot and four across the back. I’m allocated the front seat.
After take-off, we skim the ground at a good clip before tracing the Lütschine River upstream towards the once mighty Lower Grindelwald Glacier. As recently as the 1850s, the glacier licked at the door of Grindelwald village and measured 300 metres thick. But in the past 30 years, its length has shrunk by two kilometres, challenging the views of climate change sceptics. Worse is that most of that retreat has taken place during the past decade.
From my elevated perspective, the glacier appears to tumble from the heavens like a crumpled blanket, its creases softened by a pillowy layer of fresh white snow. Up here, there isn’t a tree in sight, and even the rocks are buried beneath a permanent sea of ice and snow.
Without a doubt, the most dramatic moment in our flight comes next, when we fly over the Eiger’s east ridge. Suddenly, the ground beneath us drops away dramatically. My stomach churns as snow and ice turn to bare rock that plunges straight down. We’re now alongside the north face.
Our Ecureuil H125 helicopter is capable of speeds of up to 287km/h and carries five passengers
The ‘Swiss Machine’, Ueli Steck, scaled the wall in just two hours 22 minutes without using safety ropes – the fastest ascent to date
I’d thought the wall had looked impressive from ground level, but I’m awestruck here, trying to imagine how it would feel to be dangling from a rope nearly two kilometres above the ground. It seems foolhardy to mortals like me, but just as many climbers attempt to scale this face during the cold winter months as they do in summer, when rock falls are an ever-present danger. To do so, climbers must cope with sub-zero temperatures and possible storm fronts, perhaps requiring an overnight bivouac in tents suspended above the void on makeshift platforms anchored to the rock face. It’s not something I’d ever aspire to do.
I search through squinted eyes for signs of activity on the rock face, but try as I might I can’t spot anything. Even from our close proximity, barely 100 metres from wall, anyone who happened to be trying their luck would be measly dots against the might of a wall this big. Their only giveaway might be brightly coloured clothing.
If recent history is any guide, this wall has proven that some men and women are capable of superhuman feats. In 1969, a Japanese party persisted in forging a new route that required 30 days to reach the top. Compare that with the feats of ‘Swiss Machine’, Ueli Steck, who scaled the wall in just two hours 22 minutes without using safety ropes. Accomplished in 2015, it’s the fastest ascent to date.
That same year extreme athlete, JT Holmes, from America, skied from the summit with the aid of a wind kite. When the snow became rock and the slope dropped away, he merely soared over the edge then parachuted back down to Earth. Then he jumped back in a helicopter and did it again.
But our flight isn’t solely about skirting the north face of the Eiger. Ahead of us are the peaks of Mönch and Jungfrau, strung out like dragon’s teeth along a ridgeline extending upwards from the Eiger. Together, they form the most famous trio of mountains in Europe.
Below, our pilot points out the audacious railway line that tunnels through the mountain to Jungfraujoch, the highest station in Europe. From the astronomical research station’s observation deck, visitors can gaze across an ice field that looks like a piece of Antarctica dropped into the middle of Europe. The Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the Alps, doglegs around a bend, out of sight, for 23km.
The train snakes uphill from Kleine Scheidegg, the ski resort that hosts the fastest, oldest and longest downhill ski race on the World Cup circuit, the Lauberhorn. Further over is the peak of Schilthorn, and crowning it is Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant that famously doubled as Blofeld’s lair in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Separating the two is the Lauterbrunnen Valley, considered by many to be Switzerland’s prettiest due to the many waterfalls tumbling over cliff faces that have become favourite launch pads for base jumpers who are surely living on borrowed time.
It’s to Kleine Scheidegg that we navigate, our pilot gently touching down just inches from the pistes. All up, our flight has lasted just eight minutes, but it’s surely the most fulfilling eight minutes of my life. And even now, days after our encounter, I still can’t stop thinking about her.
On the peak of Schilthorn, is Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant that famously doubled as Blofeld’s lair in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Mark Daffey travelled to Switzerland courtesy of Switzerland Tourism
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