Alpinism: North Face of the Eiger

Tuesday Alex Chabot and I left Nice to Grindelwald in Switzerland with the goal to climb the North Face of Eiger (3970m). This north face, also called the Nordwand in German, is world famous. With 1800 meters of vertical height, it is one of the tallest, steepest and hardest face in the Alps. It is also famous for its loose rock, poor gear and bad weather.

Philippe in the Difficult Crack, North Face of Eiger (© Alex Chabot)
Philippe in the Difficult Crack, North Face of Eiger (© Alex Chabot)

Nether less this face has attracted numerous climbers for decades. The first ascent has been made in 1938 by Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek. This route has become a legend and most sections are pieces of history: the Difficult Crack, the Hinterstoisser Traverse, the Icefields, the Death Bivy, the Ramp, Brittle Ledges, the Traverse of the Gods, the White Spider and the Exit Crack. Several routes have been opened in the north face since then but this 1938 route is the most climbed.

North Face of Eiger: the 1938 route is #2 in blue in the center of the face (Wikimedia common)
North Face of Eiger: the 1938 route is #2 in blue in the center of the face (Wikimedia common)

Alex and I had several projects in mind and the 1938 route on Eiger Nordwand was one of them. As there was high pressure over the Alps this week, we decided to take 3 days off and go for it.

North Face of Eiger seen from the Kleine Scheidegg (© Philippe Gatta)
North Face of Eiger seen from the Kleine Scheidegg (© Philippe Gatta)

We didn’t know anything about the conditions in the face beside what we could see from the webcam of Kleine Scheidegg. The face looked relatively well covered with snow, at least in the first half but we couldn’t tell if it was ice, soft or hard snow. I tried to call the guides office in Grindelwald but nobody knew anything…

Eiger (3970m), Mönch (4099m) and Jungfrau (4158m) seen from the Kleine Scheidegg station (© Philippe Gatta)
Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau seen from the Kleine Scheidegg station (© Philippe Gatta)

After a 8 hours drive and some mistakes along the way, we arrived in Grindelwald at 2:30pm, just in time to catch the latest service train to the Eigergletscher station. This station (2320m) is very close the north face and it is the standard starting point.

Philippe and Alex at the Kleine Scheidegg (© Philippe Gatta)
Philippe and Alex at the Kleine Scheidegg (© Philippe Gatta)

We planned to climb the face as fast and light as we could with one bivouac, then finish the climb the following day, get back down to Grindelwald and drive back to Nice to be at work on Friday. Well, things did not go totally as expected…

Alex in the first part of the North Face of Eiger (© Philippe Gatta)
Alex in the first part of the North Face of Eiger (© Philippe Gatta)

We made a bivouac Tuesday night close to the train station and woke up at 3am on Wednesday. We had the same plan as another French team so we were only 4 in the face. We left the station at 4am with 10kg pack each. The two others were in front of us and we could follow a good trail up to the shrund that we reached at 5am. We started to worry a bit about the very soft snow and the freezing level being high.

Alex in the slab of Eiger North Face (© Philippe Gatta)
Alex in the slab of Eiger North Face (© Philippe Gatta)

We could follow the track of the previous climbers up to the first pillar until we lost them. We thought we went too far left and climbed back looking for the correct route. We were skeptical as we didn’t find any other track in the face so we went back to the left. Believe it or not, we did this another couple of times and after 5 back and forth in the 150 meters of the face we finally found the route but we lost 1 hour and some energy.

Alex in the first part of the North Face of Eiger (© Philippe Gatta)
Alex in the first part of the North Face of Eiger (© Philippe Gatta)

We were expecting to cruise the first part of the route until the ‚Äúdifficult crack‚ÄĚ which is the first serious pitch of the route. I finally fought 45 minutes in this pitch and left lots of energy. The snow was very soft so the crampons and ice axes were hitting the slabs underneath most of the time, turning the climb into dry tooling, very hard to protect. There was no ice, the snow was too soft to be useful and was hiding the few old pegs available.

Philippe in the Difficult Crack, North Face of Eiger (© Alex Chabot)
Philippe in the Difficult Crack, North Face of Eiger (© Alex Chabot)

The conditions became even worse -dryer- after Hinterstoisser Traverse. Alex led a couple of committing pitches of dry tooling until we reached the two other French more or less stuck in the Ice Hose.

Numerous traverses in soft snow (© Alex Chabot)
Numerous traverses in soft snow (© Alex Chabot)

After 13 hours we were just below the 2nd icefield and the sun started to shine on the top of the face. A few things became clear: we were way too slow and since the rest of the face looked even dryer there was a lot of fun ahead. With the sun shining, the rock falls were about to start. The long traverse in front of us would make a retreat more and more difficult.

Alex at one of the belays at 10am (© Philippe Gatta)
Alex at one of the belays at 10am (© Philippe Gatta)

Turning back is always a painful decision but this time it was probably the wisest one. We teamed-up with the two others French to abseil down around 400m. It was dark when we traversed on some ledges and reached the Stollenloch; a small door in the north face which communicates with the gallery of the train inside the mountain. We walked down in the gallery to the train station where we spent the night.

Philippe around the first icefield (© Alex Chabot)
Philippe around the first icefield (© Alex Chabot)

On Thursday we went back down to Grindelwald and drove back to Nice. We will come back when the route will be in better conditions…

Alex in a committing pitch between the 2 icefields (© Philippe Gatta)
Alex in a committing pitch between the 2 icefields (© Philippe Gatta)

Topo of the 1938 route in Eiger North Face by Jack Geldard & Rob Greenwood (© Rockfax Ltd. 2009).

Philippe in the North Face of Eiger (© Alex Chabot)
Philippe in the North Face of Eiger (© Alex Chabot)

Eiger (3970m) and Mönch (4099m) (© Philippe Gatta)
Eiger and Mönch (© Philippe Gatta)

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