Cragging on the Eiger

Posted on: May 19, 2008

Brian Phillips

Admit it or not, the majority of us live vicariously through the stories of great climbs and epics and as armchair mountaineers we climb higher, faster, and two grades harder than in reality. When we plan climbing trips we plan routes that are perfectly feasible ensconced in the safety of a recliner but usually have to be adjusted when the expectation hits the fan of reality.

My adjustment started when I leaned out straight-armed from an undercling and ice cold melt water slapped me in the face. “This move would be no big deal at the Gunks,” I thought with little conviction. I locked my hand in the crack, committed mentally, and my boots and momentary confidence skidded off into space. I hung by my hands wedged in the crack lined with jagged shards. The blood from my skinned knuckles mixed with the water trickling down my sleeves, the adrenaline blocking the pain. I quickly got my boot re-planted on an edge and glanced down at the rope running without protection to my belayer questionably anchored thirty feet below. The gaping void loomed beyond. My expectation met reality.

We had been climbing for twelve hours and it was becoming increasingly difficult, dark, cold, and wet. I finished the pitch and built yet another dubious anchor in the limestone choss. We were 2500 feet up on the North Pillar of the Eiger on snot-slick rock, without trustworthy protection, climbing in mountaineering boots, with 20 pound packs. An 800 pound Ogre sat on my shoulder planting doubt in my ear.

Legend has it that Eiger translated from German means ogre. There are three adjacent mountains: the Eiger (Ogre), Monch (Monk), and Jungfrau (Maiden). The Monk is situated between the Ogre and the Maiden and his job is to protect her virtue. The Ogre is the neighborhood bully who lurks in climber's heads messing with the psyche and planting doubt. “What are you doing here? You don't belong on the Eiger. You're not a hardman. You're a weekend cragger,” the Ogre chided.

My friend Peter and I came to Switzerland to climb the Eiger because it is “The Eiger.” We chose the Austrian Route on what is alternatively referred to as the North Pillar or Northeast Pillar a buttress that stands between the north and northeast faces. When we arrived in Grund it had just stopped raining and waterfalls streamed off the mountain. Grund is at the bottom of the valley at an elevation of about 3,000 feet. The Eiger, at a little over 13,000 feet, looms 10,000 feet above the village. Just gaping up at the wall is enough to let the Ogre into your head.

The next morning was crystal clear and we started climbing at daylight. The North Pillar being a buttress is relatively safe from the rock fall that the Eiger is so infamous for. The climbing was not technically difficult but it required complete focus as it was all loose with almost no protection. The higher we got the more doubt seeped in. “And what if you get to the snowfield above and it is all unconsolidated snow?” the Ogre asked.

Peter caught up to me at the belay and his hands were bleeding too. “Off route maybe?” the Ogre whispered. We looked up at the flatiron above and knew that we could not make our intended bivy ledge and had to find a place soon. We couldn't find even a semi-flat ledge and nothing dry. At 9:00 p.m. we decided to rappel down to the last place where we remembered a possible bivouac. Three pitches down on a small ledge Peter pounded in a couple of knifeblade pitons that we were reasonably confident in and we anchored everything and crawled into our bivy bags at 11:30 p.m.

Sleep was intermittent at best. We huddled shivering in freezing temperatures, the rock sucking the warmth out of us, the wind fluttering our bivy bags with every gust. However uncomfortable, we were in control. No Ogre haunted my dreams.

The next morning a waterfall was running full torrent from the snowfield over the route. I noticed that one of our ropes had an encounter with a rock and the core was showing. The Ogre was sitting on my chest with my arms pinned down. “Give yet?” he taunted. It did not take much to convince one another that we should head down with the plan to climb the Mittellegi Ridge instead.

We started rappelling at daybreak searching for good rock, pounding in pitons and leaving gear for anchors as we descended. We did so many raps that I lost count but it took most of the day and a good chunk of my rack. The Ogre got in a final kick in the teeth when we rapped down a waterfall and got our rope stuck, requiring me to solo in a shower of ice water to free it. After glissading down the Honysch glacier we were back at the Apiglen train station in the throngs of Japanese tourists who descended on us like paparazzi on pop stars. The weekend craggers survived the Eiger, but got their ass kicked. Out of my flash burnt retinas I saw the Ogre triumphantly swagger off through the crowd wearing the slings I left behind as a necklace.

A week later on August 1st, 2005 we reached the summit of the Eiger via our Plan B, the Mittellegi Ridge. As we descended down the south ridge I saw the Ogre on the summit muttering and shaking his fists.