We stood imperially on the summit of this wondrous peak. We had conquered the mighty North face of the Eiger, the most treacherous ascent in the Alps. Daniel Anker and I sat astonished on the summit grinning insanely at each other, unable to fathom words to describe our exultation.
We watched the sky in awe as clouds rolled by. Just then, Daniel, who was naturally anxious about practically everything, spotted a group of storm clouds approaching menacingly towards our position.
“Stop being so worried, its just some minor storm clouds, they’ll pass,” I said trying to comfort him. He was a fantastic climber and companion, but easily traumatised. The clouds did look slightly perilous, and my slight trepidation bubbled to my usually ice cold exterior.
“You look kind of scared” Daniel replied.
I ignored him. I felt a tension that hung in the atmosphere. There was a fizzing, crackling feel in the air around us as we pulled on the hemp ropes and our jackets rustled in the electric atmosphere. I looked deep into Daniel’s eyes. He was horrified at the helplessness of our situation. We were at the mercy of nature. My worst fears had been realised. A storm was upon us.
Just then there was a colossal explosion of thunder. We stared in mute amazement as ostentatious lightning, the colour of burnished gold, burst in white-bright flashes flaming against the crenellated ridge. Thunder, colliding in sheets of monstrous sound, rattled the air and practically deafened us. We just sat, timorous almost to the point of death. The wind rose to a shrieking, venomous pitch in its furious battle with mountain. The air stank of scorched stone and the storm had absorbed us into an unknown world of pain and power.
We both huddled together, tears streaming down our pallid faces, wondering why we even dared to overcome the mighty Eiger. As white-hot rock shrapnel rained upon us, I went into a sort of dream state, neither living nor dead. Our journey up the mountain played before me in vivid detail, like I was watching a perfect movie of our voyage;
We stood solemnly at the foot of the massive North Face, gazing upwards. The great black amphitheatre of the north face rises for over a vertical mile straight out of the sunlit meadows of the Bernesse Alps. It has an intimidating and brooding menace, which fills all who approach, no matter how fearless they are, with an aching sense of dread. We approached the starting point on the first pillar with a great sense of respect for the mountain, but also with a burning desire to surmount it.
The ice and limestone was excellent until we reached the Hinterstoisser Traverse, about 1,500m up. It was called so because a four-man team; Hinterstoisser, Kurz, Angerer, and Rainer, had all perished trying to traverse it in 1936. We were perched on an eighteen -inch wide bivouac ledge sheltered by an overhanging, perched spectacularly on the edge of a huge rock band. Daniel glimpsed round like a frightened mouse. You could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he thought of what to do next.
“What now?” he stammered.
“We use those old fixed ropes to get up to the ice hose and then we can rest for a while” I answered. The old ropes were absolutely safe but as usual Daniel would find something to be anxious about.
I started to traverse the thin ice and crumbly limestone, always looking down to see how Daniel was doing. He was a magnificent climber but when told this he thought people were making fun of him. I smiled to myself as he ascended with striking ease up towards me. He noticed my smugness and gave me a funny look. We carried on upwards for a while when with a snapping sound one of my ice screws became dislodged from the rock. I slipped down a few feet but managed to catch my footing on a jut of limestone rock. Small chunks of rock rained upon us which Daniel and I dodged routinely.
“You okay” Daniel stammered, clearly shaken by what had happened.
“I’m fine. The ice up here is rubbish though. It can scarcely hold an ice screw” I responded.
We carried on, albeit with much more concern in our actions. I kept looking downwards to check on Daniel, who navigated the ice and rock wall with masterful skill. It seemed he was born to climb. When we reached the second ice field, about 2,500m up, we knew this was where the mountain would sort the unworthy from the worthy. The difficulty of the mountain seemed to increase ten-fold. The ice was almost wafer thin, and the limestone seemed to have the texture of biscuit, giving way at the slightest touch. An eerie mist seemed to engulf us, as if the mountain had its own life-force which was ensnaring us.
Miraculously, we reached the Death Bivouac without much hazard. We sat together and stared all around us. We could not make out the summit, for the mist was hindering our view. As we looked towards the floor, we could see just how much the mountain curved inwards. It was almost like an enormous spoon, but slightly more precarious. Daniel and I looked at each other. A wave of optimism engulfed us as we realised that the end was so near. We beamed at each other, without saying a word. Now we started the final push.
I started to scale the rest of the face. In what seemed like seconds, we had reached the Exit Crack. Adrenalin was pumping through me, and the summit was now in view. I glanced down at Daniel who smiled back up at me. It seemed he had overcome his acute anxiousness for once, and I could feel his energy and enthusiasm.
At the Mittellegi Ridge, the last leg of the ascent before the summit, our expedition was almost finished in an instant. I had encountered a difficult area where no ice would hold my crampons or pick. In a fit of rage, I smashed my hammer into a cluster of rock and ice, which was extremely unstable. Football-sized chunks of ice and jagged shards of rock hailed upon us which I tried to evade. One seared through Daniels support rope which almost sent him to plummeting to a rocky death.
I did not look downwards at him until we reached the summit, unable to look him in the eye. I finally realised our accomplishment. Daniel and I had overcome our mental and physical blocks, and we sat exhausted but jubilant on the pinnacle of the Eiger. I stared around still unable to look Daniel in the eye.
“Its okay” he said cheerfully. “Don’t worry I’m fine. Just look around, look what we have done”
I smiled at him. It seemed we had traded roles for a minute. I had become the hushed, nervous one, and Daniel had become the cheerful, strong character. Anyway, we both sat silently on the summit like Kings on a throne, excitement flowing from us like a river.
I slipped out of my delusion, and my senses gradually returned to the malicious storm. Hail washed over us in waves of stinging needles. Ice formed on the narrow rocky shelf we were perched on, crunching under our feet as we winced and slipped on the sliver-thin shards of raw glass. Boulders blasted skywards by bolts of flame tumbled against the searing light. The crashing roar of thunder, pounded relentlessly against our ear drums and the smell of scorched rock flooded our noses. It seemed the tempest would never end and we sat huddled for almost an age.
Suddenly, everything went dead. The storm passes into the horizon bickering and snapping angrily. It seemed the storm was livid at not defeating us. A tranquil rain fell about us. The storm was over. The setting sun painted the emptied clouds with glowing pastels. The beauty of this site enthralled us. Against all the odds, we had conquered this amazing piece of nature’s handiwork. Daniel and I had broken all our physical and mental barriers, and beaten the Eiger.