5am. I’m in what seems like a shopping centre, a familiar tune plays along in the background as I casually walk the isles of a relatively innocent setting. The music gains in the distance, no longer a drone of background noise but now beginning to resonate all around me. Slowly I’m transported from the ether of imagination and dreams back into reality. The shopping tune – my alarm, rings sharply in my ears as I turn in my sleeping bag, battling to block out the sound and return to the effortless world of dreaming. It’s always the most painful part of my day, struggling in that awkward limbo between sleep and consciousness. Not oblivious to the world yet not quite awake and active into the forthcoming day.
The alarm always wins
I open my eyes and the reality is harsh. It’s dark all around apart from the dim glow of morning light that seeps in through the only weakness of the tunnel which we’re bivvied in.
We’re inside the Stollenloch. A famous waypoint on the north face of the Eiger. It’s used as a doorway to access the north face from the train tunnel that runs through the mountain from below in Grindelwald up to the tourist viewing point up on Jungfraujoch. The hatch has grown a reputation from the many climbers that have clambered through it in desperation to escape whatever disastrous situation or conditions that they were dealing with out on the face in an attempt to survive. Now though it’s more commonly used by climbers to base themselves in before attempting routes that tackle the Rote Fluh, the largest and most intimidating headwall on the face that lies just a few hundred meters above the hatch.
I get another brew down, as much muesli and biscuits as I can stomach, and take a second to appreciate having enough food to fuel my body for another hard day on the wall. Our first attempt on the wall quickly proved futile when we got stranded in bad weather with only the bare minimum to survive. We approached this route the same as the others on our big alpine adventure – fast, light and carrying the bare minimum. We were quickly shut down by our lack of preparation for the severity and unpredictability of the weather and the seriousness of the Eiger. Looking back, we’d been foolish to think this route would go down as easily as the others had. We spent an entire day descending the ten-thousand meters on foot back to Grindelwald only to have to reascend it with heavy packs full of food and supplies but it meant being able to avoid that situation again and is the reason we’ve been able to hold out this long.Bags packed. Equipment checked. Need to relieve bladder. A simple task, that like everything up here, becomes complicated. Struggle to arrange oneself past several layers of thermals, harnesses and protective equipment. Finally relieve bladder. Much better. Ready to go.
It’s odd stepping through the Stollenloch. Every human element of yourself is telling you to turn around and get on the next train down to safety. You rationalise that the only reason you’re here is to step onto the north face and so force yourself to continue out into one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Opening the hatch, the pressure between the tunnel and outside world battle to equalise, creating a vacuum across the hatch and sucking everything that lies between the portal back into the tunnel. It’s as if a last-minute attempt to pull whoever is exiting back to rational thought.
I step through to balanced pressure and the rushing air stops. I turn and clip myself into the fixed line that’s secured to the ledge, tracing it’s path up over the small roof that protects us. I bring my gaze up and the giant wall of the Rote Fluh comes into sight, golden as it bathes in the morning light. It’s a surreal place to be as a climber. You’ve sat at home spending hours reading books and gazing at photos of this great alpine face, dreaming of it. Then you arrive in Grindelwald. You wonder around the usual tourist shops, perhaps stop for a beer in one of the many bars, but you spend every spare second staring up at the mile high face on the horizon. You study it, identifying all the specific landmarks from afar. ‘Death-Bivouac’, ‘The Traverse of the Gods’, ‘The White Spider’. All named and brought to fame through one historic tragedy or another. It might be my fourth day on the wall but I still have a moment of awe every time I actually stop and realise that’s Grindelwald down there. Below me. I’m on the north face of the Eiger! It’s surreal.
I zone back in to the present situation and put the daydreams aside, time for action. I load the heavy pack onto my back and check I’ve got everything I need, there’s no second chances up here. Ascenders onto the rope, backup lanyard on, detach from the ledge. Start ascending. We have several hundred meters of ropes to climb to reach our high-point from yesterday’s climbing.
On large routes like this the ethics are slightly different from your usual sport climbing crag. On an attempt to climb the route all the pitches must be climbed clean without falling. If a fall does occur, that pitch must be repeated from the start. Once free climbed cleanly, a pitch can be reascended via ropes back to the high point, kind of like a checkpoint of saved progress. This allows you to go down to a ledge or bivvy below then return to your high point the next day.
Over the last three days myself and Robbie have been making progress up the route in a ‘ground-up’ style, effectively trying to climb from the bottom without having previously worked any of the pitches, only moving up to the next pitch after completing the current one. Yesterday we pushed the route out all the way to the crux pitch at around the half way point. This pitch is graded 8a and is notoriously tough for its grade and made even harder by the lead up to it being several pitches of significantly hard climbing. When we arrived at the base of the crux yesterday we were both exhausted after having been climbing hard for the last 14hours. We had made frustratingly little progress on the crux pitch before we finally admitted defeat and called it a day, returning down to the base. It had been the closest we’d got to a real chance at completing the route, for after this pitch, the grades ease and you reach a good bivvy ledge. This would have been a significant turning point on the climb as once here, you can move your base and supplies up to your high point. Rest and recovery are guaranteed as you wake, ready to tackle the next pitch fresh without having to ascend from the lower bivvy.
We were so close.
We returned last night to the Stollenloch, exhausted both physically and mentally and decided we’d catch the first train down in the morning as it returns from dropping off tourists at the top station. We’d sat distraught and in silence as we impatiently waited on our dehydrated food packs to cook through. Few words were exchanged between us as we tucked into our sleeping bags, both of us dealing with the frustration of the situation individually in our heads, uncertain of the future of the project as its fate hung by a thread of sheer desperation and determination.
As I reach the next belay I switch between ropes. Passing the connection point between them, always keeping to the book as I make the transition, double checking everything. There’s no second chances up here. I step high in my foot-loop and start the laborious motion of shifting my weight between each ascender as I repetitively slide them further and further up the rope. Step by step. Meter by meter. It’s the same with all intensive and repetitive tasks, the mind cuts off from the current suffering like a coping mechanism, escaping it all by reflecting on something else. Sometimes it’s to something as simple as a song, especially one that’s tempo matches the motion. Sometimes, like in this case, it’s a memory. My mind tracks back to waking fatigued and aching all over this morning. A rough night in a bivvy is never pleasant but our motivation was so low after yesterday’s battle it made everything feel worse. The easy option would have been to throw all our gear in the bags and take the first train down the tunnel as we’d planned to the night before. I genuinely don’t know what moment of insanity or determination convinced our minds to ignore the agony and force ourselves out onto the face for one last push on the route. So here I am, grinding myself down to the limit on the last rope length to go before reaching our high point. I’m almost there.We’ve rested on the ledge below the crux pitch for the last hour or so, trying to recover whatever little strength we can for the upcoming pitches. I know the crux pitch is beyond me so feel slightly more relaxed as we sort through the ropes, knowing Robbie will be dealing with this pitch and I will be able to bypass it to the next. I watch as he ties-in and can almost see the pressure on him to get through this pitch before the weather comes in. With the current azure skies above us it’s hard to believe that rain was forecast for the late afternoon, but the risk of the wall becoming wet before we can climb through to the safety of the next bivvy, is enough to make us desperate to get through this pitch as quickly as possible. Little did we know what was really coming our way. Robbie sets off, passing the first few draws with ease, taking him up to the main body of the pitch and out of sight from the belay ledge. Fifteen minutes go by without the fierce pull on the rope from a fall. A good sign. The only sounds come from a few grunts of effort from above. I feed out endless rope, watching the slack disappear over the roof above me. My neck’s become sore from staring upwards, there’s no reason to bother, Robbie’s well out of sight yet I focus on upwards in the hope it makes me more likely to hear any shout of communication from above. I’m trying to calculate how far he’s climbed from the remaining rope to see if he’s past where he fell yesterday. There’s only a few meters left. He can’t be far from the top. He’s been climbing for ages…
“SAFE!”. A sigh of relief as the call I’ve been waiting for bellows down from the invisible voice above. He’s made it. I shout up to double check the call before physically disconnecting the rope. No second chances up here. I relax for a second before the routine race to pack up the belay and ready myself to climb, before he can organise the ropes, begins. There’s never a winner in this race, only someone that ends up frustrated at the other as they wait for them to become organised so that climbing can commence.
I reach Robbie and congratulate him on crushing the crux all whilst rearranging the ropes, trying not to waste any time. We’re excited as we realise it’s all going to get easier from here, a few easy pitches then we can rest at the bivvy all night and complete the route tomorrow. Our dying attempt just got a breath of life injected into it. Our chances of reaching the summit feel real. It all feels possible again, perhaps all this effort can pay off. We can do this!
“I think I’m getting rained on”.
“I think it’s just dripping from that roof above us”.
We agree that the liquid that irritatingly plummets onto our faces at any moment we look up is only that. A small seepage from within the wall and by no means the start of rain. Ignoring it, we start up the next pitch.
I wipe my forehead again while looking around for the first bolt, trying to work out what direction the route takes. I hear a hollow knock on my helmet as another droplet strikes it from above. I ignore it, worried more by the lack of gear spanning the large gap between me and Robbie, only a rusted knife-blade peg that wobbles in its placement to catch a fall. No sign of any bolts. Not a good sign.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The tapping on my helmet becomes a rhythm of constant drumming.
“The holds are starting to get wet, it’s definitely raining now!”
There’s a rushed debate of what to do but the decision is quickly made for us as the clouds close in on both flanks and the rain becomes a torrential downpour. A cam is placed to substitute for the lack of bolts to bail from. Climbers will often wrestle with a jammed piece of protection for hours, even ruining on-sights purely to avoid leaving a piece of gear behind yet we happily abandon what we have to to get down to the belay. This is not the time to be tightfisted about meaningless equipment.
The situation has become serious. Visibility now ranges from thirty to three feet and the temperature has dropped dramatically. The rain falls as if it’s a monsoon and every droplet that hits the face above us cascades down to create torrents and waterfalls all around us. The trickle onto the belay that frustrated us earlier now resembles more closely to a burst fire hydrant, firing directly onto us. Water and cold temperatures create dangerous situations with hypothermia setting in 25 times quicker when your clothing is soaked through. Right now it’s not the water or cold that worries me, it’s what it brings with it. Rockfall.
This whole trip we’ve dealt with rockfall in all sorts of conditions and situations. It’s something you have to accept and learn to deal with if you want to climb large alpine faces like these. Whether its learning the delicate style and technique of climbing on loose rock – where killing your partner by pulling off a hold is a serious possibility – or just as simple as learning to mentally deal with the pressure of being in the wall, whilst experiencing the bloodcurdling sound rocks make as they rip through the air only inches from you. It’s something you never become comfortable with. Up here your fate is determined by where you stand. Yes. Risks are calculated, but a rocks flight path is unpredictable and this uncertainty is something you just have to accept if you want to be up here. Only yesterday one of the cameramen filming us for ‘Finalcrux Films’ was struck whilst filming us from fixed lines. Luckily he escaped unharmed except for damaged camera equipment. Filming was postponed to allow nerves to settle and confidence to recover, the effects of rockfall last longer than just your time on the wall. It’s utterly terrifying.We start to pull the ropes through the belay and lower it into the air below us to set up an abseil, tying a knot in each end to prevent the disaster of lowering off the rope. I clip in with my belay device, taking one haul bag with me as I start to lower into the abyss. As I feed the drenched ropes through the device water pours out of them running into my gloves and saturating them too. With the crux pitch being both overhung and traversing to abseil directly back to the ledge below becomes a logistical nightmare. I lower into the clouds with next to no visibility and all perception of distance is lost in the greyness. I look up to see if Robbie is still within sight only to be blinded by the heavy rain. I’m surrounded in a world of grey, no physical material in sight as I hang here suspended above the vast expanse of air. A shiver runs through me as I think about how long it would take to impact the ground below if the rope was severed by a rock. Perhaps ten seconds. Long enough to think about your impending doom. There’s a sudden increase in visibility and I finally catch sight of the ledge that I’m aiming for. Action time.
I lean back and extend my legs infront of me, tensing my core to support the weight of the bag and trying my hardest to build up enough momentum to start a pendulum swing towards the ledge.
Kick. Lean. Kick. Lean.
Finally I get close enough for my foot to reach the edge of the ledge. I give every ounce of effort I have to push from the tips my toes, swinging me out as far as possible. I have one shot to get onto this ledge. I need to release the ropes at the perfect time to drop myself onto it. If I don’t, the stretch in the rope will pull me back off the ledge, leaving me suspended again but lower on the rope and out of reach of the ledge. With a heavy pack and the ropes saturated with water it would be a total mission to attempt to reascend to where I am. This has got to work. I kick as hard as I can to swing forward, the rain striking me even harder as I fly through it. Concentrating, I wait for the perfect moment. Now! I release my grip, dropping myself onto the ledge and throwing my weight into the safety of the wall.
I catch my breath and try to calm the adrenaline as I secure the ropes so Robbie can descend. He appears moments later through the gloom looking tired but not too distressed, totally unaware of the battle that just took place. We pull the ropes and coil them in the safety under the roof of the crux pitch. We both start to chuckle, relieved to be out of the firing line of the boulders that plummet all around us, shredding everything in their path. This wall is madness.
Looking over to our right to where the path of the original 1938 route lies a huge waterfall cascades down onto the bottomless face. Suddenly the air around us erupts with sound. A huge section of rock is plucked from the face by the force of the water. We thought we’d experienced bad rockfall over the last few days but that was like child’s play in comparison. This section of rock the size of a 4×4 falls almost as in slow motion. It strikes the face, splitting into a dozen smaller boulders which tumble in every direction, each shattering again and scattering the entire lower face with golfball sized rocks. It’s total carnage. Every inch of the wall is struck. There wouldn’t be a single place to hide from the destruction down there. It’s just by chance that we hadn’t started down the fixed lines yet. There would have been a zero percent survival rate for anyone below.
The next few hours are spent evacuating the face through the most horrendous conditions imaginable, repetitively abseiling through the storm to make it back down to the safety of the the Stollenloch. Nothing but blind luck got us down without an injury from rockfall. It’s hard to describe the fear. You know that you’re in a dangerous situation and when you think realistically, you could die in the next few seconds but you don’t have time to be scared. It’s a deep fear that doesn’t effect you whilst in the situation, if anything it’s exhilarating. It’s when you reflect back on it all that you feel scared! It’s hard to personally understand and even harder to explain but it’s part of what we do. All I know is that when we finally crawled in through the hatch, frozen and wringing-wet. I’d never felt more alive.I’m glad we gave it one last attempt on the wall and didn’t give in to the easy option. We pushed ourselves past where many would have turned back. We gave it our all, fighting extreme fatigue, unfortunate conditions and only retreating when the consequences of staying became life threatening. Of course the disappointment of returning down to Grindelwald without having reached the summit was devastating, but a good mountaineer knows when to turn back. You can’t return to climb a route if your dead and let’s face, the Eiger isn’t going anywhere!
After all the route is called ‘Paciencia’ (patience).
Thanks to Finalcrux Films for all the photos. Check them out for more awesome shots and footage.