Extreme Eiger: The Race to Climb the Direct Route up the North Face of the Eiger, Peter and Leni Gillman, with Jochen Hemmleb (Simon & Schuster 2015)
A book that’s easy to read about a climb that’s hard to imagine: the north face of the Eiger by the direttissima, the most direct route. That first attempt in 1966 was like taking the Ogre by his throat and daring him to bite. For John Harlin, the “blond Greek god” who led the English-speaking half of the climb, the dare didn’t come off. He died when a rope snapped and he fell hundreds of feet to his death.
For the other climbers, the tragedy either strengthened or shattered their resolve. Harlin’s team had consisted of Layton Kor, a fellow American, and the Scot Dougal Haston. Kor abandoned the climb; Haston joined forces with the larger German team also making the attempt. He made it to the top, but he too could easily have died. In mountaineering, skill is no guarantee of survival. Nothing is a guarantee: you need luck when you pit yourself against stone, snow and ice. Haston’s luck ran out in 1977, when he was killed by an avalanche while skiing.
He was only thirty-six, but he had taken a lot out of his time on earth. When you risk your life, you experience it more intensely. On level ground, fetching a portable stove that’s a hundred metres off isn’t a memorable event. Half-way up a mountain, it can be very memorable:
Their trials were not over. So far they had brought over two rucksacks, which meant that two were at the far end of the 100-metre traverse. The missing equipment included their stove. Neither [Chris] Bonington nor Kor appeared keen to fetch it. Bonington pointed out that he was there to take photographs; Kor said his feet were cold and he was worried about frostbite. Without saying a word, Haston departed into the snowstorm with the one functioning head torch. (ch. 10, “Parallel Lines”, pg. 202)
Next comes one of the moments that will make you hold your breath: Haston “lost his footing and slid on his back towards the drop above the second icefield, only too aware how insecure the rope anchors were.” The ropes held and he made it back with the stove:
He had been gone for more than an hour and his colleagues’ relief was clear when he arrived. He later described the traverse as the wildest he had ever done, all the more memorable for taking place on the North Face of the Eiger in darkness and a storm. ‘As an experience it was total.’ (Ibid.)
If Chris Bonington declined to take a risk over a stove, he took big risks elsewhere. He was indeed only there to take photographs, but he ended up leading part of the climb when Kor, expert on rock but inexperienced with ice, was defeated by an icy gully leading to the top of the Central Pillar. Bonington took over, made good progress and then got worried: the “veneer of ice” became “ever thinner” and he “imagined it shearing away, most likely carrying both him and Kor to the bottom of the face” (ch. 12, “The Turning Point”, pg. 232). His judgment in 2014 was: “It is the hairiest thing I have ever done.” (pg. 233)
Peter Gilman covered the climb in 1966 for the Daily Telegraph, but has re-interviewed the surviving members of both teams for this re-assessment of one of the most famous stories in mountaineering. Harlin is still a controversial figure. “Complex” is one way of summing him up. He was a poseur and fantasist, but he could inspire love, loyalty and respect too. Not in Don Whillans, though. The Mancunian maestro thought Harlin was a bullshitter.
Whillans also had a complex personality. Alcoholics often do. He doesn’t play much part in this book, but as one of the great figures of post-war mountaineering it’s appropriate that he appears. The war itself has an important part, because it was one of the obstacles that the German team had to overcome. Men like Peter Haag, Jörg Lehne and Günther Strobel were too young to have fought in the war, but they all experienced the poverty that followed Germany’s defeat. Mountaineering was not the cheapest or safest sport and by the time they set out to challenge the Eiger they had all proved their dedication and determination.
And while they were the bigger team, they also had the poorer equipment. Not that anyone in 1966 had good equipment by today’s standards: “The climbing equipment historians Mike Parsons and Mary Rose offered a startling metaphor for the comparison between the two eras: it was as if the 1966 climbers were in a ‘bare-knuckle fight’.” (ch. 8, “The Opposition Has Started”, pg. 154) Clothing got wet and didn’t dry; ice axes and boots were primitive; ropes frayed and broke. The direttissima still isn’t easy, but it was a lot harder in 1966.
There was also the psychological barrier: it had never been done before. Harlin hadn’t expected competition, but his own smaller team might not have succeeded without German help, even if he had survived. But “German” isn’t the most exact word. Apart from Lehne, Haag and Co were from the distinct region of Swabia, whose inhabitants were typecast by the rest of Germany as “penny-pinching Scrooges who needed to get a life”. In response:
They are given to a self-deprecating humour that mocks the stereotypes, referring to Swabian intelligence, Swabian humour and Swabian workmanship. They delight in confusing non-Swabians with the formulation ‘Janoi’, which means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time. In 2009 the world ‘Muggeseggele’ was chosen by a group of Stuttgart newspaper readers as the most beautiful Swabian word. It denotes a tiny unit of measurement and means, literally, the scrotum of a male housefly. (ch. 7, “The Unknowns”, pg. 123)
There is much more than mountaineering in this book: it’s about a confrontation not just between men and mountain, but between different cultures, nationalities and personalities. And it follows the climbers not just up the Eiger, but into the rest of their lives, which were sometimes cut short. Like bikers and drug-addicts, mountaineers tend to know a lot of people who died young.
Haston died young and so did some of the German team, pursuing the same thing: adventure in high places. The Nordwand – “north wall” – of the Eiger has been the scene of some of the greatest adventures of all and has claimed more than its share of young lives. As the Gillmans explain, Eiger doesn’t really mean “Ogre” in German (pg. 20), but the urban legend is easy to understand. The Eiger can fling you or freeze you to death. It never sleeps and never gives up and the Mordwand – “murder wall” – was still trying to kill Dougal Haston during the last few metres of the climb:
Below him, Hupfauer and Votteler were watching in trepidation, as aware as Haston that they had only a poor belay and one slip by Haston could kill them all. ‘He scraped his way up,’ Votteler said in 2014. ‘It was more than a masterpiece.’ (pg. 306)
By then, Haston didn’t have an “ice axe or functioning crampons”, and, to reach a rope, he had to set up on a “tension traverse” by driving an ice dagger into hard ice. As he himself put it in his book Eiger Direct, co-written with Peter Gillman, it was “Three lives on an inch of metal.”
Life itself is like climbing a mountain and we all fall off in the end. Mountaineers risk falling off sooner than most, but they play with high stakes for great rewards. This is a book about extraordinary men, extraordinary experiences and an extraordinary achievement. If you want to understand mountains and the men who challenge them, it’s an excellent place to start.
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