Climbing the Eiger

24-25 Jul 2008 - by Ted Lenzie (view roster page)

This year I decided that I wanted to climb the Matterhorn. That was not to be with recent new snow and high winds on the mountain. I had just finished with my climb on Mount Blanc in France and sat there staring at the Matterhorn with clouds streaming off the Hornli Ridge. Although Mount Blanc offered some unique challenges, it was nothing like the Matterhorn with its 4,000 feet of exposed ridge and summit. As the train pulled away from Zermatt on its way to Grindelwald there was one more chance to climb a classic. The Eiger.

I arrived in Grindelwald with my climbing partners and guides. There were five of us in all. Dave Miller, owner and guide for California Mountain Guides, californiaalpineguides.com, and his friend and lead guide, Doug Nidever, TheMountainGuide.com. There were three clients, Erik, from Norway, David, from Fresno, and myself. Looking up at the Eiger I knew this was to be two of the most challenging days of my life. From below, I could see the lights far above at the Mittellegi hut on the exposed ridge. I was fighting a cold I caught earlier, but I was determined not to let it stop me. The next day we met and boarded our train to Kleine Scheidegg station. Here we stopped to change to a cog train designed to climb the high angled track inside the Eiger tunnel and on to the Jungfraujoch. As we waited for our train, I could see the white snow and ice patch on the north face known as the White Spider from Heinrich Harrier's climbing book The White Spider, which has made the Eiger such a classic, not to mention Clint Eastwood's movie The Eiger Sanction.

Boarding the cog train, it was up the steep slopes and into the Eiger itself. The tunnel cut into the Eiger is amazing, with its engineering, steep angles, and length. We stopped and jumped off the train for a quick view out one of the tunnel windows. Then it was off to our next stop and exit at the Eismeer station. Still in the main tunnel, we headed for the glacier exit tunnel. A warning sign at its entrance warned of dangers ahead. We opened the gate and entered the tunnel's darkness. As the tunnel became more and more narrow, the ice on the floor thickened so that we had to place our crampons on our boots. Once at the exit door we opened it wide as the glare off the glacier made me squint. We had gone from a dark underworld to the expanse of the glaciers. The terrain reminded me of the glaciers at Denali National Park.

Climbing out the door, I could see below me that the ice had pulled away from the warm granite of the Eiger. This created a mote, and it was no place to fall. Once on the glacier we roped up and began our trek across the glacier's slope. Weaving through the crevasse fields and seracs above, I would look down into the crevasses open cracks below.

We approached the rock climbing section. My guide Doug led, placing protection along the way. Then Erik started, and then it was my turn. I found the stiff wet boots made it difficult to feel secure on the class five rock. I felt as if my feet would peel out from underneath me. Once this crux section was complete the next few sections were straight forward, but the loose rock required constant diligence. Both in climbing and in dropping rocks (rock fall) on my partners below. I did this once and yelling ROCK! ROCK! scaring the heck out of them. Not so much the rock fall, but more from the warning.

We continued up and up toward the precariously perched hut, looking up at the small observers above us we got closer and they became larger. The slope began to ease up a bit, but not without an occasional move across some tricky rock sections. Once at the hut I could see the next day's challenges. It made what was behind us seem trivial.

Once at the hut, we were welcomed by the caretaker with hot cider drinks. The hut itself was an amazing place with it being secured on to a narrow ridge. The ridge held the hut's foundation, but the walkways around the hut were catwalks of metal grating, which we could see far below to the glaciers and the train station at Kleine Scheidegg. For entertainment we would take photos, enjoy the view, talk to other climbers, and occasionally watch the hanging glaciers ice fall as they made a thunderous roar that echoed off the mountain walls.

The next morning we started behind the other teams allowing them to take the route and keep ourselves out of any bottlenecks at the more technical sections. It was hard to believe there were more technical sections than what lie in front of our immediate view. We roped up, with three on my rope and two on the other. This day started with a narrow ridgeline walk across a short saddle between the hut and the real climbing. Normally, not a difficult walk, but the crampons added a less secure dimension. The light was surreal before sunrise with the lights of the towns below twinkling and the sky with a blue-gray hue. We started across then up the first of many rock steps anywhere from a few feet to over one hundred feet in length. This was the most sustained narrow ridge I had ever been on, more than the Palisades of the Sierra Nevada, and even Denali. This day would take all of my strength, skills, and concentration. This was no place to let your mind drift or casually climb. Although the guides did a fantastic job trying to protect the route with anchors both manmade and natural, sometimes there was just nothing to anchor onto. This was especially true the last half mile or so of ridgeline when we were on our feet walking with no handholds and thousands of feet of drop on each side. Not to mention, the ridge was only wide enough to place our feet side by side. However, lower down on the ridge we just climbed. Hand,-hand- foot-foot, over and over. Once in a while we came upon some fixed ropes. These lines made for some quick progress, but at the same time it was easy to forget about using the feet as the arms became too pumped up. I felt like I was in gym class and at times it reminded me of the old Batman TV series when he and Robin would walk straight up the sides of the buildings.

The wind was another factor. While the day before it was calm this day was a bit windy and cold. It was almost impossible to change gloves or change into a heavier jacket. The exposure was too great and it was too easy to lose important gear. Erik at one point helped me put a jacket on while holding my pack. Even then I lost a glove, glasses, and a bag to the wind and open air.

Over each shoulder we climbed and at times down again into some small notches. The rock was solid enough, but was angled downward like climbing on the shingles of a very steep roof. There was ample snow and ice allowing the crampons to do their job. Then it was up onto the final fixed line to the summit ridge. It was at least one hundred feet, and it was exposed to the north face. We passed a few groups along the way and so began the precarious ridge walk. I just looked at my feet and walked. My guide Doug watching me and preparing to jump off the opposite direction if I were to fall. That is all you can do here is try and create an opposing force to balance out the fallen climber. Later, Dave made the comment "This is high level guiding". Meaning, sometimes it is just unprotectable and falling is just not acceptable. We made it to the summit, but not without being buzzed by a fast moving jet plane just a few hundred feet above. I was too focused on my feet to notice, but Dave being just below us saw the pass over.

Doug, Erik, and I made the summit and we were ecstatic. It was an intense climb with just about everything thrown in. We hugged, shook hands, took photos and watched as Dave and David came over the ridge's knife edged bumps. Once again we were together. Dave and David just had enough time to drink and eat before we were off toward our descent onto more ridgelines and on to the glacier and the Jungfraujoch station to catch our train. We would have enjoyed staying longer, but the last train left in six hours and there was no time to waste.

We descended fast and lowered over several cliffs. Fortunately, there were plenty of anchors along the down climbing route. The slabs of shale along with the crampons made the down climbing a bit precarious. Often we would just slide across the slabs, but since we were roped in it was unlikely we would slide any further than a few feet. We continued down the ridgeline to one of the few broad flat spots that allowed us to take a short break for food and drink.

From the saddle the trip was long from over with more ridgelines to negotiate. Up and down, through a mixture of rock, snow, and ice. The ridges never seemed to end. It seemed as soon as we climbed one, another waited in front of us. Route finding wasn't too difficult with the previous climbers' tracks in front of us, but often they would disappear over the rock sections. One rock section I remember well. It was a corner that was exposed on a cliff. We had to move from one wall across to the other on a small ledge biting the rock with our crampon fangs. Normally, this wasn't too hard, but after a day of climbing I found it to be mentally challenging. After this section we moved fast and separated from our other teammates. Soon we were on the broad glacier and made our way back to the Jungfraujoch station, but not without the last sections of crevasse to be negotiated. Later, we were told David had punch through a crevasse, proving that dangers still laid beneath.

Back at the station it was time to celebrate, first with some orange juice, then a beer. We boarded our train to Grindelwald and saw many of the climbers we spent the night with in the hut.

It was an exciting trip with plenty of challenges, culture, great people, and fantastic food, with trains, lifts, comfortable huts, and beer. Never, have I climbed in such a civilized way.


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