A mountain in the Swiss Alps with a north face (Nordwand in German) so deadly, the Germans nicknamed it mordwand – the death wall. The death wall, where at least 64 climbers have died whilst attempting to scale it since 1935. In 1935, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer from Bavaria had attempted to climb it, but after spending many days climbing, they disappeared, and were discovered much later, frozen on what became known as Death Bivouac.
This year, however, marks the 75th anniversary of the first successful ascent of the Eiger’s north face in 1938. During the 30s, the race was on to scale this face, and different nations took part, with one of the biggest pushes from the German side, eager to prove themselves superior to all others. Even in those early days, experienced as the climbers were, their equipment was somewhat primitive. Though they used climbing gear, it was mainly hand-made and insufficient, such as hand-twisted hemp rope, home-hammered pitons , and woolly mittens.
Back then, mountaineering, or alpinism as it’s known more specifically concerning climbing in the Alps, was highly specialised, because the stakes were so much higher. Not only was the technology not what it is today, but a lot of the paths that mountaineers take today were pinpointed by the earliest climbers.
So why is the northface of the Eiger still so gruelling and deadly?
You only have to watch the 2008 German film North Face (Nordwand) to learn the reason: there is the danger of avalanches and falling rocks, and not only that but the weather is so changeable it still catches out people even to this day – leaving them stranded in severe snow storms. This is what happens to the main characters in the film, who are in fact not just characters, but were real men. And yes, as you watch the film, you keep thinking: This is based on a true story?!
Spoiler Alert! Do not read further if you wish to watch the film.
Meet Andreas Hinterstoisser – German mountaineer who was a highly esteemed, technical climber, famous for his pendulum manoeuvre that enabled him and his partner to traverse impassable faces.
The famous Hinterstoisser Traverse on the Eiger’s north face was in fact named after him. This is his climbing partner, Toni Kurz, skilled in planning and forward thinking.
Both Germans decided to attempt the Eiger’s north face in July 1936, alongside two Austrians Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer.
Only the previous year, the two Germans, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer, had made their fatal attempt at climbing the Eiger’s north face. A year later, this latest group of climbers were very much aware of the dangers, and when they set off from camp at the base of the north face, several other climbers who had also been waiting for a weather window had already left camp for home, deciding the chances too great against them. The four Germans and Austrians began the climb, with Hinterstoisser creating his famous traverse across an icy rock face using the pendulum technique. Though this was the only way across the face, they decided to remove the rope from there, thinking they would only need to abseil back down in a different direction.
But they ran into trouble. The weather changed and became hostile, and Angerer was hit by a falling rock, leaving them unable to continue. They decided to return back down the Eiger. Yet as they lowered themselves down, they once again had to attempt the icy rock face, but with the rope gone, it was up to Hinterstoisser to attempt his pendulum manoeuvre once again.
He tried for hours to cross back again, but eventually had to admit defeat, leaving the group to descend on a trickier route. But, as they climbed down, they were suddenly struck by an avalanche and Hinterstoisser, who was apparently disconnected, fell from the mountainside and died. Following this, Angerer also fell, hitting the wall and dying. The force caused Rainer, who was securing both Angerer and Kurz, to become pulled against the wall where he died of asphyxiation.
Though the film depicts these events in a slightly different fashion, it pretty much reflects the morbid events. After this, Kurz was left alone, with two unresponsive climbers still attached to him – one above and one below.
There was, however, a train – Jungfraubahn – that passed into a tunnel into the Eiger and connected with viewing stations further up the mountain.
The railwayman realised that Kurz wasn’t far from one of the tunnel’s viewing windows, and on hearing him shouting out, decided upon a rescue attempt. Yet, the worsening weather left the rescue team unable to help for another night, leaving Kurz huddled against the mountainside. He was now with one gloveless hand and had lost all feeling in it and his arm. The next day, the rescue attempt continued – Kurz having survived the night – and they urged him to cut himself free from Rainer and Angerer, who were by now unresponsive. The idea was to lower his rope for the team to attach their own rope to that would enable Kurz to lower himself down to their level. But Kurz’s rope was too short, so he had to unravel it to make it longer, using just one hand and his teeth. It took him five exhausting hours.
At this point, the rescue team realised they still didn’t have a rope long enough. Their 60m rope had slipped out from beneath one of the member’s backpacks and fallen down the mountainside, and it was too late to retrieve it. Instead, they tied two ropes together and attached it to Kurz’s. Kurz, now close to death, slowly lowered himself down. He became stuck just metres from the rescuers, hanging in the air, when the knot in the rope wouldn’t pass through his harness. The guides were so close to him, they could just touch about reach him if one stood on the other’s shoulders, but he still needed to be lowered further. Kurz attempted to pull himself up so that, with less weight, the knot would pass through the gear. But he just couldn’t do it. Eventually he gave up, saying, “Ich kann nicht mehr,”. He died, dangling helplessly, his body to be cut down a few days later.
For more information on this, see here.
A tragic story, considering the first mountaineers – another group of Austrian/Germans (Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek) – to successfully climb the north face did so just two years later. As time went on, the Eiger’s north face became more easily navigated by its climbers, from Alison Hargreaves climbing it in 1988 whilst six months pregnant (who sadly died in 1995 on K2), to 2008, when Ueli Steck climbed the face completely unaided.
Having watched North Face after returning from a break in Chamonix just two weeks ago, I am now fascinated by the world of mountaineering. To me, a mountain is like a domineering, living, moving being, that I can’t seem to stop staring at – my eyes forever travelling upwards. No wonder people want to climb them – to be part of a mountain and to conquer it, like breaking a horse. I wish I had the guts to take up mountaineering myself, but for me, hiking and cable cars are enough of an adrenalin rush for the time being! Pictures will never fully represent the experience of being somewhere like this until you go there, but I thought I’d end with some anyway. Chamonix – Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.