The Eiger the Hard Way: Britain’s Boldest Take on the North Face
Dave MacLeod and Calum Muskett wanted to climb one of the hardest routes in the Alps, and this led them to Paciencia (5.13b), a route established by Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck that takes a harrowing line up the Eiger’s infamous north face. This is their story.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 215 (January 2014).
The British Alpine Journal editor Edward Strutt may have described the north face of the Eiger in 1937 as “the most imbecile variant since mountaineering first began,” but the mile-high wall has drawn climbers to its flanks for three quarters of a century. Viewed from the hotel Kleine Scheidegg near its base, the triangular wall rises majestically above the bustling tourist town of Grindelwald. The Eiger’s black rock walls and white snowfields contrast starkly with the rolling green meadows and farmland of the surrounding area.
I first glimpsed the face at age 9, in 2004, during a hiking holiday with my parents. The imposing cliffs of the north wall only appeared briefly from the thick cover of mist and cloud, but this glimpse was enough to inspire me to read Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider. Tales of the first attempts on the Nordwand—termed by some the Mordwand or Murder Wall after many aspirants died—made for chilling yet compelling reading.
Although the efforts were heroic in my eyes, perhaps there was some truth in Strutt’s description that the face was “an obsession for the mentally deranged.”
Many young and talented climbers lost their lives on that face; since 1935 over 60 climbers have died on the Nordwand. Sections of the cliff became synonymous with danger, even gaining names following notable successes or deaths. Behind each name lies a gripping story in its own right, such as Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer’s ill-fated 1935 attempt, which ended at the grimly named Death Bivouac.
To this day, the tension traverse where Andreas Hinterstoisser perished remains one of the most technical sections of the 1938 Route when fixed ropes aren’t in place.
Some of my favorite Eiger stories were of the early British attempts and ascents. Don Whillans, on his only attempt on the face, decided that the rockfall danger was too great and bluntly told two Japanese alpinists who seemed unfazed by the risks that they might be going up a lot “higher” than they thought! Eric Jones’ 1981 solo ascent of the face also stood out as a wild ride and became all the more prominent as I regularly visited his cafe beneath the Welsh cliffs of Tremadog. The photos in the cafe of this quiet, unassuming pensioner climbing and BASE jumping around the world were inspirational to me to say the least.
Last March, nine years after my first glimpse, I was again looking at the north face. This time the wall was clear of cloud and I could distinguish the features I had read so much about. Under its wintry coat the ice fields and the infamous White Spider became all the more prominent. Andy Woolston and I walked through deep snow from Kleine Scheidegg to bivi at the base of the wall ready for an early start on the 1938 Route the following morning. My dreams were vivid that night as I anticipated the coming day’s climbing. In one, I imagined I was slowly being smothered by snow.
After a cold night, I awoke inside my zipped-up bivi bag to a muffled world. Snow surrounded me on all sides. After wriggling free I realized that my intense dreams were probably due to hypoxia. A storm had dumped around three feet of snow and my Eiger dreams were put on hold.
Five months later I was back in Grindelwald, this time with Dave MacLeod, our sights set on a very different route. In 2003 Ueli Steck and Stephan Siegrist opened a new line they called Paciencia on the overhanging Rote Fluh and Czech Pillar, huge limestone walls on the far right side of the north face. The climb thoroughly earned its name (paciencia is Spanish for patience), as it wasn’t until 2008 that Steck finally made the first free ascent. It took that long for the unlikely convergence of a strong partner, good weather and suitable conditions to occur. Although the route mainly relies on bolts, it’s no sport route. Most pitches below 5.12b are runout, and on the upper section of the Czech Pillar the rock deteriorates into poorly stacked Jenga. The quality of limestone on the harder pitches is immaculate, however, and if you’re able to free climb the Rote Fluh you should be able to deal with the psychologically trying pitches on the lower-angled exit rubble.
I learned of Paciencia in 2011 when David Lama made his impressive two-day ascent. On his blog he described Paciencia as “by far the most difficult rock route I have climbed to this date in the Alps”—quite a statement considering his previous alpine achievements, including a two-day repeat of Bellavista, a 5.14b in the Dolomites, and a two-day repeat of the Voie Petit (5.13d) on the Grand Capucin, Mont Blanc, on-sighting all but one pitch of both routes. The fact that David, who make the first free ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre, thought that Paciencia was nails hard was worrying for any climber with prospects on the wall.
Although Dave MacLeod and I had never climbed together, when we met in Chamonix in August we both had Paciencia at the front of our shortlist of routes. Dave hadn’t climbed in the Alps, but I reasoned that since he’s one of the world’s best all-round climbers, with ascents of 5.14R/X trad, 5.14d sport, V15 and M12, he shouldn’t have trouble walking on a glacier.
We got on well as we discussed tactics for the route. Dave’s a thoughtful guy who philosophizes about climbing on his blog and has written an entire book on training. He’s also one of the most motivated climbers around, getting after it in all seasons and styles. He made the first ascent of his route The Hurting(M10), for example, ground up, placing all the pro on lead, in a blizzard! Not only did I feel like I could trust him immediately, but he’s someone I could have a laugh with, which is always nice when you’re alone together on a multi-day route.
We arrived in Grindelwald, Switzerland, at the tail end of three days of storms. Waterfalls cascaded off the north face, with huge wet streaks down the Rote Fluh. Procrastinating in the valley was not what we were there for, but having read so many Eiger epics, I knew this was just part and parcel of the adventure.
Two days later, with a promising forecast we prepared for a quick recce of the first pitches of Paciencia. We caught the Jungfraujoch train from Grindelwald in late morning hoping to get dropped off at the Stollenloch, the window cut from the 1912-era tunnel that goes straight through the Eiger and to an observatory and restaurants on the Jungfraujoch, a saddle between the adjacent peaks of the Monch and Jungfrau. For climbers, access from the Stollenloch cuts off the Eiger’s lower rubble slabs, making it possible to quickly access Paciencia and the other rock routes. The conductor gave us bad news, however: We needed special permission for the train to stop at the Stollenloch. He did say that we should not worry because the climb to the window from the outside only takes Ueli Steck 15 minutes! We refrained from saying that it took Steck a further seven and a half years to get from the Stollenloch to the top of the Czech Pillar.
The scramble up to the Stollenloch took three hours on first acquaintance. Scree, snow and loose, wet rock bands weren’t easy for us in our approach shoes while carrying heavy packs, especially when clouds descended. After the precarious climb up the lower flanks, we had to descend all the way back to the base of the Nordwand, pick up the rest of our kit and climb once again to the bivi spot next to the Stollenloch.
It’s a surreal experience waking up on such an intimidating face to the sound of a door opening and two climbers walking out of a train full of Japanese tourists. Robert Jasper (German) and Roger Schaeli (Swiss) both had ambitions of their own on the face—an impressive new route crossing Pacienciaat the 20-foot roof of the Rote Fluh. They pointed out the way to us, still bleary eyed, and were off up their fixed lines before we’d even had breakfast.
When we finally dragged our damp and cold selves out of our bags, we made our way up to the first tricky pitch. Originally graded at 5.12b by Steck, it was pronounced a sandbag by Lama who upgraded the pitch to 5.12d. Keen to make a good start to the route, I fought my way upward to flash the pitch by the skin of my teeth. Despite cold hands—something we had to get used to— Dave led through the following pitch. The climbing was fantastic with sustained moves on small but positive crimps and pockets, reminiscent in many ways of Ceuse or the Verdon Gorge. Although we were both happy with our progress and the feasibility of the lower section, we were concerned about how tired our arms felt after comparatively so little climbing—especially considering the crux pitches were higher up the wall.
Once back at the Stollenloch, we hitched a lift on the train down to Kleine Scheidegg. All you need to do to stop the train is flash your headlamp up the tunnel and the driver will happily let you jump on board. We were joined by Roger and Robert who spoke eagerly about the north face. Their current project will be an amazing route and perhaps the next step up in difficulty on the face. When we arrived at Kleine Scheidegg, I decided to hop off the train to save both money and my return ticket for the descent after our send. This was naive of me as the descent to Grindelwald was significantly farther than I anticipated and running in my approach shoes and softshell trousers on a summer’s evening left me hot and sore.
We rested for several days, letting the wall dry, and headed back up, joined this time by the talented alpine photographer Alexander Buisse who was keen to get shots. We were mainly unburdened scrambling up the lower part of the face, having stashed most of our kit at the Stollenloch, and the scramble passed pleasantly. Unfortunately for Alex, on one of the steeper sections a hold broke and he saw his life flash before his eyes. Despite having recovered his balance, Alex was understandably rattled. I climbed down to him and cautiously plucked the bag off his back, which contained the only rope between the three of us. I quickly passed an end to Dave and he found a belay before Alex climbed onto easier ground. “I owe you guys a drink,” Alex said nervously, and we continued upward trying to pretend that nothing had happened. The experience reminded us of just how dangerous this wall is. The treacherousness was further underscored by the fact that our relatively comfortable bivi was little more than a stone’s throw from where Toni Kurz met his untimely demise in 1936.
That evening, we climbed the first four difficult pitches up to the crux in thick clouds so that we could spend as much time as we needed the following day on the 5.13b. The climbing went quickly and relatively easily, filling us with confidence for what lay ahead. We fixed our ropes and rapped to the bivy.
The next morning we woke to blue skies and fresh arms and after hauling our bags, we were back at our highpoint. The crux of Paciencia is spectacular, breaching a roof 650 feet above the approach slopes before continuing up a gently overhanging wall. From here, we had a perfect view of the BASE jumpers and wingsuiters who lept from the giant mushroom feature now nearly level with us on the right side of the face.
Although never desperate, the crux is sustained, requiring endurance and a thoughful pace to prevent blowing any moves. The holds are perfectly spaced, square-cut edges and small pockets, and as Dave set off on lead he said, “This is what we came here for, Calum!”
We both managed to redpoint on our first attempt, though not without a fight. Jubilant after having climbed such a great pitch, we progressed steadily up the difficult and time-consuming upper section of the Rote Fluh, reaching our second bivi beneath the Czech Pillar late in the afternoon. Satisfied and tired after our day’s work, the ledge seemed a comfortable hang and was sheltered from rockfall by a large roof.
We rose the second morning to a remarkable cloud inversion and slightly cooler temperatures. The tinkle of cowbells emanated clearly from the meadows several thousand feet below us as we prepared ourselves for more hard climbing. Both Dave and I felt tired and, although we succeeded quickly on a bouldery pitch, we felt utterly wasted on the next pitch of the same grade, a long and technical 5.13a. Our skin was so thin at this point that every small hold seemed to burn our fingertips. It ought to have been my lead but, with nearly no gas left in the tank, I handed the reins over to Dave, who kept it together and redpointed the pitch despite a hold breaking near the top. After a couple more pitches, climbed with extremely cold hands, we fixed the ropes to the bivi ledge to spend what we hoped would be our last night on the face.
We were exhausted and dreaded the next day, which would involve one more difficult pitch and a number of moderately tricky ones. It must have been worse for Dave, who found that his dehydrated meal tasted of burnt rubber.
“It really must be bad if a cold and hungry man on the north face of the Eiger can’t eat it!” he said.
That night the whooshing sound of a large rockfall from directly overhead woke us. Fortunately, the big roof protected us. Unfortunately, the experience cost us our sleep.
We rose early to cool conditions ready for the final push. This time, the sound of cowbells was accompanied by the rumble of the train, encouraging us to return to the mundane world we had left behind. Surprisingly, we both felt better than on the previous day and we swiftly progressed up the final difficult pitch. From there the leads were long and the terrain more broken, making hauling difficult. This was heartbreaking, especially when the bags snagged and had to be re-lowered to free them. The rock quality also deteriorated and we simply couldn’t rush. The final pitch was wildly under-graded at 5.11b with steep climbing on poor quality rock.
Nevertheless, a glimmer of sunlight on the ridgeline spurred us on and we were soon basking in the warm evening sunlight as we stripped down to t-shirts for the first time in four days.
We rapidly descended the scree slopes of the west flank of the Eiger, keen to make it down in time to catch the train. Ironically, my carefully saved return ticket was wasted—we missed the final train and, laden with the heavy bag and ropes, endured the long stomp down to Grindelwald. It was nearly midnight by the time we reached the car and Dave’s feet were covered in angry blisters. We cracked open the Irn Bru, his favorite Scottish soda pop, and shoveled down stale chocolate cookies.
Nine years after my introduction to the Nordwand, it seems strange to me now that the Eiger is mostly known for its original 1938 route. To me, the north face is a modern rock wall. From its first ascent almost 75 years ago, climbing standards have continued to be pushed here more than any other alpine area. From the staggering speed ascents of Dani Arnold and Ueli Steck, to cutting-edge mixed routes such as the Young Spider put up in 2001 by Steck and Stephan Siegrist, the Eiger is a testing ground for today’s alpinists just as it was for Heckmair and his team in 1938. There are still new routes to be climbed and unrepeated challenges to savor, if you have the guns and the patience.
Snell’s Field, the climbers’ camp outside Chamonix, France, was for 20-odd years a squalid (if free) conglomeration of makeshift rain shelters, tents and rolling wrecks typically populated by British, American and German alpinists, none of whom especially liked the others. When it rained in the Alps, which was often, the football-field-sized campground became a fetid bog. Wine by the cheap liter was the elixir for depression, anxiety and boredom. There were fights and police raids—the Brits were especially fond of pilfering from the Cham merchants.
Sometime around 1990 the officials and townspeople had had enough and the place closed for good. In “Climbers’ Camp Chamonix,” first published in Ascent in 1972, John Svenson (an artist by trade) succinctly captures this madcap bygone era, with a sobering continuum.read more