Deemed the “murderous wall” by the most expert of climbers, the north face of the Eiger continues to claim lives of ambitious mountaineers, following the first ascension in 1938. Its unique combination of loose rock, ice and snow makes it terrifyingly difficult to scale. Although magnificent to look at, the 6,000 ft. Swiss mountain has an elusive aura created by its concavely shaped form, the sun never reaching it. With the death toll exceeding 60, the Alpine Journal voiced the common perception that the Eiger is “an obsession for the mentally deranged.” However, Jon Krakauer insightfully counters this from the perspective of a climber, saying, “Most climbers aren’t in fact deranged, they’re just infected with a particularly virulent strain of the Human Condition.” We can come close to understanding this abstract perspective by looking at the history of climbing the Eiger. By 1935, the Eiger’s north face remained the last major peak in the Alps to be climbed. Fierce competition to reach the top ensued, with multiple fatal attempts exacerbating the desire to conquer “the Ogre” (the true meaning of the word “eiger”). The German climbers Max Sedlayer and Karl Merhinger were the first to seriously attempt the north face in 1935, but died from exposure after spending the night trapped in a violent storm.
An attempt in 1936 had a greater impact on the world’s perception towards the Eiger. This was the famous struggle by the four friends Andreas Hingertoisser, Edi Ranier, Willy Angerer and Toni Kurz to scale the north wall. They found a strategic passage called the “Hinterstoisser’s Traverse,” in which one must fasten a peg above a large unscalable rock overhang, and swing with a rope across the vertical spot. A few days after this success, bad weather struck and the group was forced to retreat. Then an avalanche hit. An unsecured Hingertoisser fell to his death, while the other three roped-up men fell, still connected to the mountain. Only Kruz survived the fall. Rescuers reached the scene a day later and stood around 10 feet below his dangling body. They asked him to cut the rope so they could catch him, but his fingers were frostbitten and he couldn’t move. Weak and injured, Kruz’s famous last words were “Ich kann nicht mehr” (I cannot go on). And he died there, just yards away from his rescue party. Local Swiss authorities banned climbing the mountain following the tragedy, but this ban only lasted for a few months. The mountain already had a grim reputation that triggered the testosterone of young men willing to risk everything to conquer its face.
A team of two Germans, Andel Heckmeir and Ludwig Vorg, and two Austrians, Fritz Kastarek and Heinrich Harrer, became the first to successfully reach the top of the Eiger and return alive in 1938. The impossible had proven possible, and from there on, the Eiger’s north face entered the realm of legend, or as might be expected, Hollywood. Clint Eastwood’s famous 1975 thriller “The Eiger Sanction” has him play a climber assassin, who famously notes, “If the target’s trying to climb the Eiger, chances are my work could be done for me.” However, the Eiger was far from easily conquerable and fatalities continued into the 1960s. Ironically, the mountain became a theater for tragedies to unfold before the public eye—the north face is within easy view of villages below. And the hope, desire and perhaps naiveté, of climbers continued to provide the actors for such gruesome scenes to play out.
Today, fatalities are much lower with the improvements in safety equipment, so much so that the most elite mountaineers now have their sights set on breaking records. Climber Dani Arnold set the speed record for climbing the Eiger’s north face at two hours and 28 minutes in March 2011. The Eiger continues to take lives, although not as frequently as before the 1960s. This is because of the monstrosity of the mountain due to violent storms, loose ice, slippery sheets of rock, nearly vertical incline and unpredictable avalanches. There is no defeating nature when it comes to climbing. John Harlin III, whose father died attempting the Eiger when he was nine-years-old, later ascended the north face himself. He provides some insight into the dangerous strain of the “Human Condition” that drives man to attempt such undertakings: “Many have noted that when you climb this face, you’re climbing with the ghosts of those who came before. It challenges you, calls out your name and says, ‘Do you dare?’ Climbers from now until eternity will have to wrestle with that question.” And those who dare climb the Eiger.