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Eiger's North Face Even More Dangerous As It Is Melting

April 28 2004 at 11:02 AM
News Telegraph  (Login dipper)

It is one of the world's most difficult climbs - but may soon be impossible. Mountaineers are being warned that the North Face of the Eiger has become too dangerous to attempt because its ice fields are melting.

Guides working on the 13,000ft-high mountain in the Swiss Alps say that a combination of last summer's heatwave and poor snowfall since has caused a loosening of the permafrost that holds the rockface together.

The result is that the North Face, which has claimed more than 60 lives since the first successful ascent in 1938, is "falling apart", leaving climbers at severe risk of being injured or killed by falling rock and ice.

Hans Ulei, 38, a mountain guide from the nearby town of Interlaken, said: "We are telling people, 'Don't go on the North Face'. It is too dangerous.

"The mountain is falling down. These days I am often woken in the night by a sound like thunder. At 5am recently I heard that noise and when I looked from my window the North Face was half obscured by a grey cloud of powder from broken rocks."

A spokesman for the Swiss Alpine Club said that recent climatic developments have made the 1938 route up the North Face too dangerous. "My advice to anyone contemplating the Eiger is not to try the North Face.

"The conditions mean you will have a much higher chance of getting knocked out by rock or ice fall. There are many other routes up the mountain and the straightforward rock-climbing actually improves when the temperature goes up."

The North Face, or Nordwand, is 6,000ft high and has long been regarded as the "ultimate" challenge by those attracted to its cruel beauty: a vertical mile of shattered limestone rock and polished ice fields on a mountain known locally as the Eigerwand, or "Eiger wall".

It is regarded with awe by climbers, for whom its deep fascination was heightened by the 1975 spy film, The Eiger Sanction, in which Clint Eastwood played a rock-climbing assassin hired to kill a fellow mountaineer.

Joe Simpson, the author of Touching The Void, a best-selling book about the adventures of two climbers that has been made into a successful film, wrote about the Eiger in a previous book, The Beckoning Silence.

For the past century, Mr Simpson said that "it has been the climb that has defined extreme mountaineering". "For over 60 years it has killed some of the finest climbers of their generation. And for those brave enough to attempt the face there is the added weight of its tragic history," he wrote.

The first successful assault on the Eiger was made in 1938 when Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek, Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vorg climbed into history.

They became national heroes in Austria and Germany, and although Hitler subsequently claimed the ascent as a triumph for the Aryan race, there was a vitriolic disagreement within the group over the way their feat was used for propaganda.

Subsequent dramas on the mountain have included Sir Chris Bonington's first successful British attempt in 1962, during which he and his climbing partner, Don Whillans, rescued another British climber, Brian Nally, after his partner, Barry Brewster, was killed by falling rocks.

James Edwards, 28, a British teacher who attempted the climb at Easter, said that the conditions had made it impossible even to consider an ascent. "I spoke to two very experienced guys who had already made an attempt and they had had to turn back after 500 metres because there were rocks and stuff coming down on them."

Marc Ziegler, one of the mountain rescue team for the North Face, said: "Things are certainly changing. The first ice field doesn't exist any more and the second and third are getting much smaller."

Dr Rolf Burki, a lecturer at Zurich University who produced a recent study for the United Nation's Environment Programme on the changes occurring in the Alps, said that warmer weather was to blame for the difficulties.

Temperatures on the mountain have increased by one degree Celsius since 1850, but were now rising more rapidly, with a projected warming of 1.5 to 5.9 degrees during the next century. "In that area of the Alps there is a great problem because of retreating glaciers and melting permafrost. A lot of the climbing routes that have been possible in the past will not be possible in the future because of rockfall," he said.

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Ken Akerman
(Login KenAkerman)

Man retraces Eiger climb that killed his father

October 25 2005, 2:08 AM 

Challenging the Man-Eating Mountain

by Richard Bangs

In the shadow of the most notorious rock wall in the Swiss Alps, John Harlin III contemplates the climb of his life — the one that claimed his father 40 years ago.

One rope length from the White Spider, the last great defiance on the mountain wall that is one of the world’s deadliest, the 7 mm fixed line broke. John Harlin II, the first American to climb the legendary North Face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps four years earlier, fell 4,000 feet into the void.

A short time later his nine-year-old son, Johnny, heard the news from his sobbing mother. It was news he couldn’t fathom. His father was among the world’s greatest climbers, a pioneer of straight-up routes, a man almost mythically at home in the vertical world.

That was 40 years ago.

Now John Harlin III, just shy of his 50th birthday, has returned to attempt to climb the hard, black limestone wall that killed his father. He has brought along his daughter, nine-year-old Siena, who will wait with her mother at the Bellevue des Alpes hotel at the base of the spearpoint-shaped mount. This is the Eiger, a 13,025-foot peak amidst the Swiss Alps. It’s not the highest mountain here — Dufourspitze is almost 2,000 feet higher and the distinctive Matterhorn is more recognizable — but the North Face of the Eiger has long been known as one of the climbing world’s most difficult challenges.

Click here to read the article.

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Olivier Kozlowski
(Login kozesq)

The movie should be fun

October 27 2005, 1:39 PM 

One of the video clips at the site Ken linked to shows them setting up IMAX equipment at the start of the Hinterstoisser (sp?) Traverse. Can't wait to see the movie. Best of luck to them!

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Olivier Kozlowski
(Login kozesq)

Bad choice of words

October 27 2005, 1:42 PM 

...ok, "fun" was probably a bad choice of words given the purpose of the climb. "Visually stunning" is perhaps better.

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Jack S
(Login cyberfool)


October 28 2005, 4:24 PM 

Dougal Haston, John's father's climbing partner on that fateful climb, wrote a book called "Direttissima". It was a great book, but sadly out of print.

John Harlin (The father) was in the US Air Force. He was (to my knowledge) the first to use aerial photography to plan mountain climbs. Actually they chartered a helicopter and saw the monster first hand, as well as photographed it.

John the elder was a fabulous climber whos early great firsts were in the Western US.

I also believe that parts of the movie Eiger Sanction were loosely based on this fateful climb.

Sadly, Dougal Haston also died in Switzerland, but in 1977 while skiing, not climbing. He held the record for the highest altitude bivouac, Everest with Doug Scott, after a successfull summit.

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