Marcos Costa and Bruce Normand.
Dates: From March 16th-18th. 3 days
Started hiking around 8am (off the train)
Reached the beginning of the face/climbing at 9:30/10am
Reached 1st bivy at 2:30am
Day 2 Woke up at 6:30 Set off at 8:00am
Reached ridgeline at 3am
Day 3 Woke up at 7:30 Set off at 8:30am
Summit at 10:30/11
Reached Mountain station at 4pm
I spent most of March in Europe alpine ski touring, ice climbing and most importantly doing what I love most. Alpine climbing.
There is something really attractive about the north faces of Europe. They may not be the hardest or the longest faces in the alpine climbing world but one thing they do have is history. It’s in these faces where the history of alpine climbing have been written, where lives were lost on the conquest for greatness and where alpine climbing became a sport of its own. It is on these walls where the greatest alpinists of all time tested their skills and even today it remains the yardstick for people around the world to challenge themselves.
There are 6 great north faces in the European Alps: Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Eiger, Grand Jorasses, Matterhorn, Petit Dru, and Piz Badile. However, three of these north faces—the Eiger, the Matterhorn and the Grandes Jorasses—are considerably harder to climb than the others. This led to their becoming known as 'the Trilogy’. My goal this year is to climb this “Trilogy”.
This year the Alps have seen extremely high temperatures (global warming?) and a lot of snow making the slopes extremely dangerous with high avalanche potential. The high temperature made ice forming on the faces difficult and most of the routes this year were extremely “dry” and devoid of ice making classic routes a whole lot more challenging. While in Europe Bruce and I were eager to climb. We were originally aiming to climb the north face of the Matterhorn, however dangerous avalanche conditions prevented us from doing a safe attempt on it. Meanwhile we kept ourselves busy ski touring around the alps on the Swiss/Italian border around Mount Rosa where the snow was somewhat stable. After a couple of weeks of skiing we finally got a window on the weather and a low avalanche risk update. We decided that our best bet to climb one of the north faces would be to try the Eiger. Bruce has climbed the Eiger north face in 2011 in 12 hours with Kyle Dempster whom he shared the Piolet D’or with in 2010. We knew conditions would be challenging so we debated whether to climb the face in one day or to climb it in 2 days. We opted for climbing it in 2 days just to be safe and it was a great choice.
The Eiger north face has a very intense history. Here is an excerpt form Wikipedia:
The Eiger is a 3,970-metre (13,020 ft) mountain of the Bernese Alps, Switzerland. The most notable feature of the Eiger is its 1,800-metre-high (5,900 ft) north face of rock and ice, named Eigerwand or Nordwand, which is the biggest north face in the Alps.The north face, considered amongst the most challenging and dangerous ascents, was first climbed in 1938 by an Austrian-German expedition. The Eiger has been highly publicized for the many tragedies involving climbing expeditions. Since 1935, at least sixty-four climbers have died attempting the north face, earning it the German nickname Mordwand, literally "murder(ous) wall"—a pun on its correct title of Nordwand (North Wall).
With this in mind and with great respect for the mountain we set off to try and climb this beast.
Our plan would be to climb up to the “Death Bivy”on the first day. “We should be there before 5PM no problem” Bruce confidently stated. Then on the second day we would top the beast, head down “and catch the 6PM train back down to the parking lot”. Little did we know what was waiting for us.
From the very beginning we noticed how dry the route was. When Bruce climbed the route with Kyle they were able to simul-climb from the base of the route all the way to the end of the “Difficult Crack”. About 400 meters of climbing. We on the other hand, had to rope up a short 50m from the base. We found the slabs at the base of the climb to be totally devoid of snow. Where climbers could just easily climb up on firm snow now required extremely technical mixed climbing to get through. We had to lead several pitches on slabby rock with axes and crampons. We found this section the crux of the route. I led a desperate pitch climbing a slab frantically searching for both gear placement and placements for my tools and crampons… all to no avail. I think I might have run out about 20 meters on M6 climbing towards the end of the pitch to a small nut placement leading to a crux of about M7. ON A SLAB!!! Definitely a terrifying endeavor.
Once past the slabs things got more “normal”. We climbed the “Difficult crack” at around M5 and continued to the famous “Hinterstoisser Traverse”. Both of these had very little snow on them, so we used the fixed ropes on the traverse. (I would venture to say that the traverse is impossible to climb free in these conditions). We were moving faster, but not as fast as we would like. When we got to the 1st ice field we noticed how little snow/ice there was. The transition from the 1st to the 2nd ice field is usually covered in snow and ice, but here we found 2 more pitches of technical, dry rock/mixed climbing. It took us quite a long time to get past these pitches and by the time we made it to the “Death Bivy” it was already around 2:30am!! By the time we chopped a ledge for the tent, drank and ate it was around 3:30am.
The next morning we knew we had to start early, but sleep was also necessary so we decided 3 hours of sleep should be enough. We got up at 6:30AM, had breakfast, packed up and started climbing. Above us there was still about half the climb to go. We found many hard pitches above and weren't able to simul-climb anything until the very top when we reached the final ice field below the ridge. On the “ramp” pitch there was quite a lot of rockfall. The wind had started blowing hard and a storm was forecasted for the evening and the following day. The Eiger is made of extremely bad, rotten rock, so unless it is cold and things are frozen in place it becomes quite a dangerous place. I think Bruce got hit a few times, including a big rock that hit his shoulder. I must have gotten hit a few times as well, but that is what helmets are for!
We continued to make slow progress climbing past the “ramp" section and into the “brittle ledges”. This is where you traverse all the way over to the highest snowfield on the face called “the spider”. Again very time consuming and delicate traversing on lose rock covered in a light snow dusting. Alpine climbers know how challenging this can be. You get no stability from the snow, but also lose all visibility of the rock below making every placement a tedious task where you must first clean the snow off to see where you are stepping/hooking with you tools before making the next move ad infinitum.
By the time we got to the “exit chimneys” (the last difficult section on the route) it was getting dark. Our plan of descending the same day seemed to be out of the question now. The “exit chimneys” section is about 150 meters long. At the end of the 1st pitch of this section the battery on my headlamp ran out. Having planned to spend only a night on the wall I did not bring a spare. Bruce, however being the climbing veteran that he is brought 2 headlamps. He handed me one and we continued on up. The wind had picked up significantly and lots of ice and rock were now peppering us. I led the last difficult pitch carefully as very little ice was present and protection was sparse. After clipping a couple of bent, old, rusty pitons I tried to focus on the climb and not on the 15 meter run out below. Climbing with my head down fearing a sizable rock would hit me I slowly made it to the base of the last ice field.
From this point Bruce and I decided to simul-climb to speed things up, however when we reached the ridge we were struck by stormy winds of up to 70km/h blowing from the west. Climbing on this side of the ridge was extremely dangerous and in fear of being blown away we climbed over the ridge to the east side finding a bit of shelter from the wind. Visibility now was no more than a few meters, it was getting late again so we decided to find a place to bivy. We found a sheltered Y shaped sub-ridge that we could cut and make a platform for the tent. The snow was a bit lose so we made an anchor in case the ridge collapsed over night. Since we didn't plan on spending 2 nights on the mountain we were out of food. For dinner we had salt water and one square of chocolate (15g). Breakfast was the same… hot water and the last square of chocolate.
We woke up to a full blown blizzard. It was snowing heavily, visibility was very bad and winds were raging. At least we were on the ridge, so finding the way to the summit was not going to be hard. Just keep climbing up and across the ridge until you start going down again, then you will know you have reached the summit! And so we did, battling wind gusts and the eye piercing ice particles we traversed slowly until we reached the summit. We reached the summit around 10:30/11AM and made our way down immediately. We thought we were safe from the storm then, but soon realized that all that snow had made the slopes extremely dangerous. We triggered at least one big avalanche on the way down and several small ones as we hit wind blown slabs loaded with freshly deposited snow. Because of low visibility I regularly checked on my compass for directions as well as the intermittent break in the clouds hinted where we should go down on the face.
We finally made it down to the Jungfraujoch train station at 4pm. This station is one of the highest in the world located on the west face of the Eiger at around 3,454 meters high.
What I learned from this climb is that you should never underestimate a climb or a mountain. Conditions can change a route completely. You should always approach your climbing target with a humble attitude no matter how hard/easy it is. Instead of the extreme light and fast approach, do pack an extra energy bar or 2 as a back up and always bring an extra battery for your headlamp. Getting stranded on the mountain can be deadly even for experienced climbers. Unless you are trying to break world records carrying that extra 100/200g of weight will not slow you down, but just might save your life! I am glad we decided to climb the route in 2 days (even though it took us 3). We would not have been able to spend a night in the mountain otherwise and this decision made the difference between failure and success. I’ll take success anytime!!