The mountain with the most famous north face of them all...
Located in the Swiss Alps, the Eiger is one of the world’s most iconic mountains, made famous by the often tragedy-marred attempts to make the first ascent of its huge north face. Both its historical significance and hulking beauty mean that it cries out to be climbed, be that by one of its classic ridges or by one of the serious routes crossing its daunting north face.
The West Flank
The Eiger was first climbed via its West Flank in August 1858 by Charles Barrington, led by the Swiss guides Christian Almer and Peter Bohren. Almer would go
on to play an important role during the Golden Age of Alpine Mountaineering, guiding other Victorian gentleman-mountaineers on significant first ascents, including those of the Aiguille Verte in the Mont Blanc massif and the Barre des Ecrins in the Dauphine Alps. The West Flank remains the easiest route on the Eiger and is often used in descent, but features tricky route finding and some suspect rock.
A classic alpine ridge with sweeping exposure and little in the way of objective danger, the Mittellegi is probably the most popular route to the summit of the Eiger. Starting from the Mittellegi hut this gives a short but enjoyable outing, and should be on the hit-list for any alpine peakbagger.
The 1938 Route
Numerous routes now cross the Eiger’s severe north face, yet the most often climbed remains that taken during the first ascent in 1938. Heinrich Harrer, Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg and Fritz Kasparek spent several days ascending the route with shockingly inadequate equipment, aided only by medical-grade amphetamines prescribed by Heckmair’s doctor for use in an emergency. Their ascent came at a time when mountaineering was a cause of national pride, and the first ascensionists later posed for photographs with Adolf Hitler. Harrer chronicled his ascent of the face, along with the history of other attempts made on it, in ‘The White Spider’, a classic of mountaineering literature. The 1938 route is still considered to be a serious undertaking, despite having been raced up in less than two and a half hours by the late Ueli Steck. With almost 1800m of climbing on both steep rock and ice, this route is the preserve of experienced alpinists.
The Harlin Direct
The first ascent of the Harlin Direct took place during the winter of 1966, under the watchful eye of the world’s media. Climbed by an all-star cast including Dougal Haston, Don Whillans, Chris Bonington, Americans John Harlin and Layton Kor, and a large group of strong German climbers, the team used siege tactics, meaning that ropes were fixed down the length of the route, with climbers ascending these ropes as they progressed towards the summit. Tragically one of these fixed ropes snapped whilst being climbed by John Harlin, who fell to his death. One of the last routes in the Alps to be climbed in siege style, it received an alpine-style ascent in 1976 from the talented pairing of Alex MacIntyre (UK) and Tobin Sorrensen (US). In 2010 the route finally came of age, with Robert Jasper and Roger Schaeli making a free ascent, meaning that they did not use aid climbing techniques to ascend difficult sections of rock.
‘Eiger Dreams Realised’, by Lawrence Smoker (T&M issue 64, Sep 2015)
How to get there:
The Eiger is accessed from Grindelwald, a picturesque alpine village nestled beneath the north faces of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. The village is easily accessed by both car or public transport, and lies equidistant between the major airports at Geneva and Zurich.
Mountain guiding in Switzerland is strictly regulated, meaning that only IFMGA mountain guides are allowed to lead clients in the high mountains. Several British companies offer week-long programmes culminating in an ascent of the Eiger, or for a more tailored approach you can look for a
British Mountain Guide at www.bmg.org.uk