Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Nordwand

Its funny how realising a six year dream can suddenly sneak up on you.

Last week, Ally Fulton and I took a massive gamble on conditions and made an attempt on the Eiger North Face. Two years ago my first attempt ended a short way up the wall due to bad conditions and I was unsure conditions would be any better this time.  Much to my surprise our gamble paid off and  I am now back in Chamonix getting my head around the adventure of a life time.

At fourteen years old I first read Henrich Harrers ‘the white spider’, the classic account of the first ascent of the Eigers North face in the summer of  1938. At the time, it didn’t actually have much of an effect on me. I didn’t climb, and although the idea vaguely intrigued me, I didn’t think much more about it. A few years later after I had been taken on a few winter climbing trips in Scotland. I re-read the book and was completely captivated, Harrer was a master of understatement. They had barely any equipment, and were seemingly fuelled only on coffee, amphetamines, and the boldness of youth. It all just seemed perfectly wild, anarchistic and brilliant.
The first ascent team on july 24th 1938 : braver than most!

Today, with modern equipment and accurate weather forecasts the Eiger’s north wall is no longer the alpine harbinger of death it once was, however it is still a pretty scary place to pass through and has the potential to become serious very quickly. Although it no longer represents the pinnacle of alpine climbing, what remains on this iconic face is an absolutely fantastic voyage through the history of climbing, and a pretty unique  psychological experience. It’s THE route I’ve aspired to since setting foot in the Alps so I couldn’t be happier to have it ticked off. 

                                                 1,800 meters of loose alpine madness.

Leaving Chamonix at midnight was a ridiculous time to be setting off for an attempt on the Eiger the following day. I had just finished a 12 hour shift in work and Ally had been away from Chamonix with his girlfriend so it was the earliest we could manage, but with a weather window that was only due to last  50-something hours we had to leave that night. Arriving in Grindlewald at 3.30am was only going to allow us 3 hours sleep before the biggest route either of us had ever attempted. On the train up the next morning we sat mostly in silence, forcing as much water down as possible as the shadow of the Eiger’s 1800 meter high north face loomed over the carriage. Arriving at the station a staff member, who having guessed we were about to make an attempt on the Nordwand, warned us about the large amounts of new snow. I made a half-hearted joke that we would be back down for coffee in a couple of hours, unfortunately knowing all too well that it was probably true.

The 1938 route (photo from

The first four to five hours of our day were spent wallowing through deep snow. Fortunately the walk to the base of the route could have been worse, but once arriving at the easy angled lower slopes the snow had been deposited in deep drifts and our pace ground to a halt. We took it in turns breaking the deep trail up the face, occasionally passing short tricky rock steps devoid of any useful ice and covered with lose rocks fallen from the face above. Eventually, much later than we would have liked, we arrived at the ‘difficult crack’. It’s the first crux of the route and the start of the steeper climbing. This is where my previous attempt had ended two years earlier.
breaking trail towards the face

feeling small under the Rote Fluh
 After my previous failure I had a strong feeling that leading the first crux would lay to rest any remaining doubts about my mental resolve. Dense windblown snow partially blocked the steep crack above but thankfully after not too long I had scraped my way up it and we were both moving together below the vast monolithic wall of the Rote Fluh; a minor feature on the face, but it’s absolutely monstrous when you are directly under it. Ahead of us lay The Hinterstoisser Traverse, the key to unlocking the heart of the face. This blank technical wall was first climbed by Andreas Hinterstoisser during the 1936 attempt on the wall. Although the team almost managed a successful retreat from high on the face, it was an attempt that ultimately ended in tragedy when they were hit by an avalanche not far from safety.  Toni Kurtz, the final surviving member of their 4 man team died only 10 meters from the reach of his rescuers.
big exposure on the difficult crack

Fulton running across an ice plastered Hinterstoisser.

With every meter gained the conditions had been steadily improving, however it was a bit of a shock to find the Hinterstoisser Traverse completely plastered in perfect snow-ice. Realising this was our chance to make up for lost time we set off as fast as we could. The rest of the day passed in a blur; moving together though the traverse and across onto the first ice field, whooping with joy at the perfect conditions we continued on up the ice hose. This section of the route is strikingly familiar to Green gully on Ben Nevis, which was one of my earliest climbing experiences with my dad, and a route I have very fond memories of. It was nice to suddenly feel at home in the midst of this vast intimidating face.

Racing the sunset to death bivvy

As we crossed the third ice field the sun steadily swung through the sky. Dipping close to the western horizon it illuminated the very top of the face and set off a few spindrift avalanches from the parapets above our heads. The lower snow slopes had been exhausting and we hadn’t stopped to eat or drink anything since hitting the better conditions and I could see ally had hit the wall. His pace had slowed right down, and he regularly had to double over to rest his head on the ice. I lamely shouted a few words of encouragement over to him and tried to ignore my worries that he might not recover for our second day on the face.  Thankfully we managed to reach the final snow slope towards Death Bivouac just as it began to get dark. Death Bivvy received it's name after Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer froze to death there during an early attempt on the wall in 1935.

5 star accomodation at death bivvy

Awaking in the dark early the following morning I stiffly sat up to melt snow. Stars still carpeted the dark sky and there was only a hint of dawn on the horizon. Despite feeling good the previous night, the lack of food and water on our first day had taken its toll and I now felt wasted. Thankfully Fulton seemed to have recovered remarkably well and our roles had definitely swapped. Just before sunrise I awkwardly climbed out of Death Bivvy, and thudded my way across the third ice field, aiming for the line of the ramp. Here conditions deteriorated again and we found ourselves on loose, sloping rock obscured by deep powder.

The nature of the rock on the Eiger is partly what makes it so intimidating, unlike the beautiful, golden granite of the Mont Blanc Massif, the Eiger is made up of decrepit, rotten limestone.  A long dead ocean floor that was resurrected and then abandoned by the earth. Left exposed to the alpine elements for almost 65 million years.  Nearly two kilometres of tottering loose rock still remains towering above the town of Grindlewald. It seems fitting that a mountain face nick named the Morwand (German for death wall) is entirely composed of a dead ocean and its former inhabitants. The lower portion of the face is relatively solid ashen-faced, pale-grey limestone, however further up the wall the rock changes to black, rotten, shattered shale.  It looms overhead in tottering piles, and evidence of previous rock fall is left scattered over sloping ledges.

Pulling out of the steep waterfall chimney, only to be faced with an overhanging snow mushroom.

Fulton had finished his lead block which had brought us up an incredibly snow choked waterfall chimney and circumnavigated the ice bluge above, which is currently an unclimbable, overhanging snow mushroom. We were now tied in directly below the brittle ledges. Up until this point I had felt like everything had hung in the balance, but I think that it was then that we both knew we could make it to the summit. I was knackered but it didn’t seem to matter.  Gently making my way up the incredibly loose entry to the brittle ledges, and onto the wonderfully exposed brittle crack above; I was, for the first time, not scared, and was simply enjoying passing through this grandiose face which is so deeply entrenched in climbing folklore that it’s unlike any other route in the world. We tip-toed across the Traverse Of The Gods with 1000 meters of air stretching away below our feet. We ran up the Rock-fall peppered white spider, and finally, we were out of the heart of the face. The sunshine was almost within reach, and we marched our tired bodies and minds onwards to the exit cracks.
Traverse of the Gods

The final sting in the tail, barring our entry to the easier climbing to the summit was the quartz crack, and it was my lead. I was well and truly knackered but felt I still owed Fulton after handing over my lead to him on the Drus all those months ago. I wobbled my way upwards towards the snow choked steepening, clipping two ancient and rusted wires as I went. I leaned outwards in an attempt to clear the dense snow from the corner above me, but my arms felt weak, and my axe was beginning to resemble a sledge hammer.  My rucksack dragged on my shoulders and my feet began to shake. The dreaded Elvis leg. The sign of an impending fall. My crampon points began to jitter, threatening to skip from the sloping holds into the void below.

Within the thick soup of my tired brain, a half formed plan began to stir, I knew I just needed to get my foot one hold higher and I’d be within reach of a good axe placement.  But I was just too tired.  A few moments later my foot jittered off and I exploded outwards with the violence of an unexpected fall.

I was left dangling just a short way below the crack. The rusted wires had held.

I lead the crack cleanly on my second attempt: Ally above the quartz crack and on the home straight!

It was later than we hoped by the time we found ourselves tottering our way along the knife edge arĂȘte to the summit. The sun was already low on the horizon and it bit into my eyes, unused to the brightness after spending two days in the grip of the Eiger’s shadow.  As our weather forecast was now three days out of date we both wanted to get as low on the mountain as possible that night. After stopping briefly on the summit to take in the vista around us, we began to make out way down the west flank. It was the usual anti-climax of reaching the top. Too tired to feel happy and too worried about the descent to really bother. 

Summit ridge on the Eiger
We had hoped to descend a large portion of the west flank in the light  to allow us to safely navigate our way towards the serac choke at mid height, but it was obvious that nightfall would be over taking us shortly. The top of the west face had been stripped of its coat of snow, and was instead left with a black skin of brittle ice. We both decided attempting to down climb this in our current state would be too dangerous, so resorted to 3 or 4 abseils from V threads, until we reached the snow below. By this time the moonless night had overtaken us and it took us a very long time to descend the narrow snow runnels of the west flank, navigating our way around steeper bands of choss. The weather was showing little sign of changing and we had found relative safety under a flank of rock, so opted to dig out a snow ledge here for our second night on the mountain. My sleeping bag was now sodden and we were being periodically doused with spindrift from above. I fell asleep shivering but I was too tired for it to matter.
Standard summit mugshot: tired and just a bit happy

Day three dawned cold and bright. Directly below us was the serac choke, revealing that we were exactly where we wanted to be. Lingering in our bivvy bags till the sun was above the horizon we slowly moved off. With almost all of the objective danger behind us and the train station in our sights the elation finally hit.  It was an easy hour down-climb to the base of the Eiger and the end of the route of a life time.
Day 3 on the Eiger, almost down and time to celebrate!

Cheers to Graham and Dawn Pinkerton for lending us their roll matts! (sorry they are a little bit battered)

I’d also like to apologise to Ally and the lady who served us in the cafĂ© we ate in afterwards, for how bad my feet smelt. ( lesson learnt, always take your inner boots off and dry your socks in your sleeping bag otherwise it is NOT pretty)


  1. Well done to both. A great achievement...

  2. Great write up Graham and nice one on the ascent! I bailed from the second icefield in awful conditions a couple of years ago. Sooooo psyched to go back and do this route! Kev Avery

  3. geo-poetry, YAS. Inspiring stuff

  4. Well done. Amazing write up and a superb achievement.

  5. Thanks Ally for sending this on. Fantastic account and well done to you both. Scottish ice might be a bit boring now!