Under the Wall of Death

This plaque along the Eiger Trail depicts Heckmair’s first ascent in 1935.

There I was in the heart of darkness, in the Swiss Alps, standing in a field of scree, possibly at a spot where dead bodies had layed.   Harrowing thoughts of 9/11 rushed back.  I remembered leaping bodies flying out of tall buildings.  That strange, incongruous feeling set in.  Part excitement, part sadness, part fear.

I had seen Clint Eastwood’s film, The Eiger Sanction, I’d read the stories, seen the memorial crosses of the dead climbers along the upper part of the trail.

A typical Alps trail sign.

I craned my neck so I could look up and up and up and find the icy summit of the Eiger.   But I was too close to this sheer dark wall, the North Face, the Nordwand.  Yes, the infamous Wall of Death.   I could see no more than a few hundred feet above my head.  The Red Wall, the Traverse of the Gods, the Death Bivouac, the White Spider and all the other historic points on this wall that climbers know so well, all of that lay far above my vision.

Looking east at the top of the Eiger Trail.

It was a sunny afternoon in August as I stepped along under this fearsome wall in the relative safety of the Eiger Trail.  The steep gray path down to the little village of Alpiglen, five miles away, spread out in front of me like a gently-meandering glacial stream easing through the pebbly scree, boulders, wildflowers and meadows.  Brightly-clad hikers, snow-capped peaks, blue sky.  It was dazzling and yet it wasn’t.

A memorial to one of the 64 or more who have died on the North Face.

I tried to push back bad thoughts that somewhere up there on the Eiger climbers might be in trouble.  I wanted to enjoy the hike, not think of danger and tragedy.  But it was hard.  I was exposed too much to the Eiger’s history.

Jon Krakauer, the author of “Up in Thin Air,” described the perils in his book of climbing essays, “Eiger Dreams:”

The problem with climbing the North Face of the Eiger is that in addition to getting up 6,000 vertical feet of crumbling limestone and black ice, one must climb over some formidable mythology.  The trickiest moves on any climb are the mental ones, the psychological gymnastics that keep terror in check, and the Eiger’s grim aura is intimidating enough to rattle anyone’s poise.

Cows and cowbells, the soul of the Bernese Alps.

By the time, Krakauer finished writing his book in 1990, the death toll on the Eiger was at 44.  At least 20 more climbers have perished since then.  The North Face was first scaled in 1938 by Anderi Heckmair and three others.  In one grotesque account, Krakauer tells of an Italian climber whose body “hung from its rope, unreachable but visible to the curious below, for three years, alternately sealed into the ice sheath of the wall and swaying in the winds of summer.”

Nebra and the North Face.

Just as I started to feel good something would happen.  Like a wisp of a cloud.  It was a thin grayish thing and caressed the wall ever so slightly, like a shark eying prey.  I knew that cloud could morph into a raging storm up there.  This is a land of deceit where idyllic beauty can suddenly suck you in to life’s realities.

Below the scree you see a postcard of green meadows,  ski lifts, the cog train laden with tourists chugging upward along the hillside from Grindelwald, and farther down a deep valley and yet another train, this one heading to Interlaken.  You see the station and hotels on the barren col at Kleine Scheidegg, where most climbers begin their trek, where Eastwood stayed during the filming of “Sanction,” where Krakauer himself had his tent blown away in a fierce foehn wind that reached 105 mph as he waited to take a crack at the North Face more than 20 years ago.

The Wetterhorn emerges to the east, Grindelwald down below in the distance.

But most of all you hear the soothing sounds of cowbells, big ones, clanging like sweet music from stout necks of a grazing herd.  Climbers, I’ve read, hear the bells high up on the Eiger wall hidden in cloud and unable to see the cows, and I think how eerie that must be, perched on a cold hard ledge up there in the danger zone and to hear the music of the bells float up and yet be only a loose piton, a sudden storm, an avalanche or a falling rock from disaster.

Wildflowers hug the trail below The Eiger.

It seems strange now to think, knowing the mountain’s infamous history, that I had never heard of the Eiger until about 10 years ago.  It started with a book.

Eiger’s North Face from the station at Kleine Scheidegg.

In his novel, “The Fall,” author Simon Mawer describes in riveting detail of over 60 pages an attempted ascent of the North Face by two men caught up in a love triangle.  As they scale the mountain wall, their female companion observes them from a telescope at Kleine Scheidegg.  It is one of the most enthralling pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  The book won the 2003 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.

So I wanted to hike the Eiger Trail, to be as close to the death zone as possible.

The Swiss Alps are not like mountains in Arizona.  They are very steep.  We decided to hike down the trail rather than up, a descent of about 2,300 feet to Alpiglen,  a distance of five miles or so.

A refreshing level segment of the trail.

So we took the 10:47 cog train out of Grindelwald and 35 minutes later reached Kleine Scheidegg, at an elevation of 6,760 feet, or a gain of about 3,370 feet.  The air is thinner here but I didn’t feel it.  Breathing was fine.

From there we caught the crowded Jungrfraujoch train for a short hop of eight minutes up to the Eigergletscher station, another 900 feet higher.  Eigergletscher sets near a large glacier coming off the west flank of the Eiger.  It marks the start of the rail tunnel that carries trains up through the Eiger to Jungfraujoch, the tourist attraction and high observation point between the two highest peaks in the Bernese Alps, the Monch and Jungfrau.  Across the tracks east of Eigergletscher is where the Eiger Trail begins.

Water from Eiger carves limestone.

Near the ski lift the trail splits.  The one going upward, on the right, is the one climbers use to reach the start of the North Face routes.  We took the left one, a downhill ribbon through the gray scree.  A trail sign says our destination is 3.6 miles and hiking time is 1:50.  In our six days there, I have come to the conclusion these signs are haywire, that they are designed to embarrass hikers like me.  Only galloping horses could cover these trails in the time listed.

You come right away to the memorial for dead climbers, small crosses screwed into the base of the Eiger wall with names and dates on them.   I took a photo of one, Joze Vidmar’s.  He died up here in 1991.  I later did a short search on the Internet for him but found nothing.

They say it’s a 50-50 split between hikers going up the Trail and those going down.  That day, on August 14, it seemed most were trudging up, trekking poles firmly gripped, near-exhaustion painted on most faces.

To reach Alpiglen (center), it is a steep, rocky path down.

As we steadily made our way down, the snow-capped Wetterhorn began to dominate the eastern horizon.  Resting beyond Grindelwald, the Wetterhorn has its own memorials to dead climbers.  And less than two months before our hike, a 32-year-old man fell 650 feet there to his death.

A scenic view-point rests about halfway down the Eiger.  There is a plaque and benches set in a pretty meadow with boulders poking about.  A small herd of cows with bells hangs around waiting for hand-outs.  One tries to stick his snout into Nebra’s backpack.  The plaque depicts and the Heckmair route in that first ascent of 77 years ago.   Two women sharing binoculars claim to see two climbers on the Eiger, little dots barely discernible.  I try to pick them out using my camera’s zoom lens but come away disappointed.

It is there in the scenic area that we ran into a friendly German family.  An attractive middle-age woman sat on a boulder watching two-frolicking children, a boy and girl, chase the cows.  All three spokle near perfect English.  Their friendly little white terrier scampered about in bliss.  When we asked if someone could take a photo of Nebra and I together under the Eiger, the children insisted on shooting one of the photos with the dog.  So we bundled “Honey” in our arms and posed.  It was a very nice moment.

The end of the Eiger Trail dropping down into Alpiglen is exceedingly steep and rock-strewn, and the mud created by the three waterfalls left the path slick and treacherous.   At our rambling, lackadaisical pace and stopping to lunch on deli sandwiches, carrot sticks and fruit, we completed the trail in the whopping time of three hours and 40 minutes.  Almost two hours longer than the suggested time.

Hike over, refreshments at Alpiglen with socked-in Eiger behind.

At Alpilglen, we stopped for a bite to eat at the outdoor restaurant and wait for the next train down to Grindelwald.  Two waitresses served a dozen tables set under blue umbrellas with the increasingly clouded Eiger as a backdrop.  Nebra had ice cream and I latched on to a large glass of Hefeweiss, a tasty wheat beer I quickly drained.

An hour later we were resting back at our suite in the chalet, a wonderful hike ended on a beautiful afternoon.  But I had not forgotten the dark side of the Eiger.

Even now as I finish writing I feel somehow ashamed, ashamed in the larger context of tragedy, that I would devote even this small space to a few hours of our safe hike down the Eiger Trail.   But this is the paradox of the Eiger’s North Face, it seems to me.  When it comes to death, we are both attracted and repelled.  And I am left fascinated why climbers do what they do on a heartless mountain like the Eiger.

Back in the U.S. again, I wrote my won a short message.  I told him I could see myself in another life as a big-wave surfer on Oahu’s North Shore.  But a mountain climber out here in the Alps, never.  Never-ever.


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