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Eiger North Face 1980

Between 10 and 18 February 1980, Roger Mear and I climbed the North Face of the Eiger, a climb every mountaineer wants to have done but few actually do. During the week-long ascent Roger turned thirty and I, ten years younger than him, failed to grow any visible facial hair. He was the steady-handed master and I was the over-zealous apprentice, and between us there was a kind of magical levitation as we swung leads for sixty pitches up iron-hard ice and snow-plastered rock, and shivered through seven nights while hanging from slings inside an envelope of ripstop nylon. For both of us, it was the climb of our lives.

My memories of the Eiger are so vivid that it’s hard to believe that forty-plus years have passed since then. I can still feel the fear and the excitement, the pinch of the cold on fingers and toes, the ache of the hands and the scream of the calves, the rasp of the rope against the nose as it pushes through the tightly drawn hood of the sleeping bag like a snorkel, and Roger yelling for a tight rope when I can barely hold on. Those years were nearly lost to oblivion.

Exactly forty years after the climb, I wrote down what I could remember of how it felt to climb the most famous route in the world, and posted a description of each day with a photo on my Facebook page. Rather than leave it buried there, I will share below the complete diary of a climb I barely believe I did.

 

Day 1.

 

There are things I’ve forgotten and things I’ll never forget. I’ve forgotten which station we got off the train (was it Alpiglen or Kleine Scheidegg?) yet I remember the loaded expression on Roger’s face when he asked, ‘Ready?’ I’ve forgotten the strain of the straps cutting into our shoulders with ten days’ food and fuel, yet I remember the weight of what lay above us and the knot of fear in my throat, and the disbelief that this was finally happening.

At the foot of the 1600m high face we tied on to the ends of the two nine-millimetre ropes – one blue, the other orange. For the next week we’d never be more than forty-five metres apart. Above us, a runnel of ice traced the right side of a feature called the First Pillar. I studied it for a moment then realised that Roger had already tied himself to two ice screws. He said, ‘You can have the honour of the first pitch,’ or something like that, and with an ice hammer in my right hand and a longer-shafted ice-axe in the other, I struck the first blows and kicked the first steps of our drawn-out Eiger campaign.


The snow soon steepened and hardened to ice. It was perfect neve – white and firm and my tools pierced it with a squeak and pulled from it with a squeal. Only the two front points of my crampons could penetrate it, yet I felt secure. I don’t remember placing any protection – no need to waste time. The knot of fear unravelled with each squeak and squeal. By the time I pulled in the ropes to belay Roger, he was already halfway up the pitch.

We climbed two more similar pitches, taking turns to lead, then easier angled snow led to an overhung ledge near the top of the First Pillar. With only an hour or so of daylight we couldn’t ignore such a palace in which to sleep, as it was large enough to remove our harnesses, but we still tied the rope around our waists in case we should slip. Roger set the stove between some rocks and melted a pot of snow to make tea. Then we had soup and forced down something freeze-dried and disgusting. After more drinks we had our daily treat – a sliver of left-over Christmas cake and a gulp of brandy.


Roger took a photo of me with a mug in my hand and I asked him why because it wasn’t exciting and we only had a few rolls of film. Now I’m grateful for that photo. I can’t remember what I was thinking when Roger took it. He was utterly at home - a man in his element - but the expression he captured on me is not one of joy. Perhaps it was the contrast of his confidence against my anxiety; after all, the climb had barely begun.

  

Day 2.

 

The pre-dawn chirp of a Casio watch rouses us from half-sleep. One of us (I can’t remember who) thrashes around to light the stove while the other gratefully dozes. The pot is half full of solid ice that takes half-an-hour to boil. Then tea and breakfast – we have muesli because this is Switzerland.

Hours later, after climbing tedious snow slopes that weave between a jumble of ridges and bluffs, we reach the first of the Eiger’s named pitches. The Difficult Crack marks the start of the real climbing. It’s vertical and choked with ice and it’s my lead. Roger says, ‘You’ll have to pull your pack’, but I’m impatient and don’t want to waste time hoisting my pack up afterwards, so I start climbing Scottish Grade VI with 20kgs on my back.

I scrape and scratch my way up the rock, hooking whatever will jam in the crack: the picks of my tools, a hammerhead, the adze of my axe, a mittened fist, a cramponed boot, a sore and swelling knee. The straps of my pack make me feel as heavy as lead. I reach a tiny ledge and stop to regain my breath enough to vent some frustration. Roger shouts, ‘Leave your pack there’, and this time I don’t argue. I wriggle a nut into the crack and Roger holds me on it while I take off my pack and clip it to the nut with a sling, and the rest of the pitch is almost enjoyable.

Anchored to an airy perch, I belay Roger while he climbs the crack and I notice how little we’ve climbed and how far we have to go. A vast wall of rock leans over us and the only way up is a sliver of ice leading rightwards into thin air.

Roger reaches my abandoned pack. He unties from one of the ropes and attaches it to my pack and tells me to pull, but I can’t belay him and pull at the same time – my hands are fingerless and I don’t have enough of them. When Roger reaches my stance the pack is still hanging 20 metres below. Together we start to pull, but it jams beneath an overhang and won’t budge.

‘You’ll have to go and get it’, says Roger.

I unravel myself from the belay and Roger lowers me back down the iced-up rock to where I can pull the pack around the overhang. Then he belays me while I re-climb the crack. Somehow Roger keeps the rope tight on me and pulls up the pack at the same time, as though two pairs of hands are working.

I hadn’t wanted to waste time, but my impatience has blown any chance of reaching the Swallow’s Nest that night. But just above the Difficult Crack, at the base of the overhanging Red Wall, the snow forms a decent ledge where we can both lie horizontally in a bivvy tent. It’s an unexpected luxury. Darkness comes, now the wind, and now the snow – lots of it. I don’t sleep well. I fear we might have to go down. And there’s a different kind of fear – a fear that the snow might stop and that we’ll have to go up.

 

 

Day 3.

 

We wait for the snow to ease before setting off. Overhung by an acre of featureless rock, there’s nowhere to go but leftwards, and a couple of rope lengths deliver us to the Eiger’s most infamous pitch – The Hinterstoisser Traverse – beyond which it’s problematic to retreat unless you leave a fixed rope in place. Gladly, someone already has, for across the blank snow-speckled slab drapes an old rope. I holster my axes, clip a sling to the rope and ape along it with my crampons grating on ripples and tiny footholds. The presence of the rope makes it quick and easy, and Roger soon follows.


Halfway across the traverse Roger climbs up to unclip a sling that I placed to protect us in case the old rope broke. He’s in a spectacular position, perched precariously on a wall of wintry rock with the Red Wall leaning over him as though it’s watching. I pull off a glove, pull out my camera and take a photo because I know it will make us look brave, for the fixed rope is hard to see against the clutter of snow and limestone. It looks impressive, but who would know that it was easy?

Another pitch and we reach the Swallow’s Nest which we’d intended to reach the previous day because it’s usually a good place to bivvy, but it’s full of snow so perhaps we were never meant to reach it. Above us, the First Icefield looks easy. I set off up it and find that it isn’t. The angle is low – about fifty degrees - but the snow is wafer-thin. The picks of my hammer and axe smash through it and bounce off hard black ice, and the front points of my crampons feel like toothless gums. It’s desperately precarious. I’m aware of Roger taking a photo and I wonder why, for it looks easy and not especially impressive. Who would know that it was hard?


The short winter day is already dusking when we reach the top of the First Icefield. Tucked up against the rock, the snow is thick enough to hack out a ledge wide enough to accommodate a buttock. Inside our bivvy tent we face each other, knees touching, the outer shells of our plastic boots floating in the bottom of the tent. I grip the stove between my thighs and hold a pot of snow over it and wait for it to melt, then warm, and when the bubbles eventually rise I tip in a sachet of tomato soup. We force down our third evening meal and reward ourselves with a morsel of cake and brandy.



The night is long and measured in increments of pain. We alternate between sitting on a buttock and hanging in the leg loops of our harnesses, switching from one to the other when each becomes unbearable. Cocooned inside our five-season sleeping bags we twitch like a couple of maggots, our noses protruding from the tightly drawn hoods in search of air. Yet I’m happy to be here. We’re above the Hinterstoisser on the North Face of the Eiger in winter and the weather has cleared and no rocks are falling down. Dare I imagine that we might succeed?

 

 Day 4.

 

The Ice Hose is one of the pitches you worry about. It dribbles from the nose of the Second Icefield and its presence is never certain, for it’s thin and ethereal and easily knocked away. When the ice is good, it’s easy. When the ice is bad, or has fallen off, it can be the hardest pitch on the climb. So, when I move up in the early morning light, still cold and stiff after the long night, and find the ice to be sound, my worries fade and I whoop with delight as I romp up the hose, only halting briefly while Roger takes a photo. It looks hard, but who would know that it’s easy?

The Second Icefield is like the First – it looks easy but it’s so precarious that we take the time to place protection not usually needed when it’s only 50 degrees steep. It takes three or four blows of our axes to gain any purchase, and the front-points of our crampons frequently slip. Our nerves are worn ragged. I strip the thread from an ice-screw and ruin the teeth of another. Roger breaks the pick of his axe and I’m amazed when he pulls a spare one from his pack.

‘Didn’t you hear about those guys last year?’, he says, as though it’s something I should have known. ‘They all broke their axes and had to be helicoptered off.’


 We say little else as we swing leads for ten pitches up the vast icefield, bloodying our knuckles and blackening our toes against the dark iron that hides just beneath its skin of white. It seems endless.

It does eventually end. We touch the rocks on the upper edge of the icefield and scrape around for somewhere to fix our bivvy tent. Then we hack out a tiny ledge and set the tent, which is no more than an envelope of nylon, and remove our crampons and climb inside.

Later, with the burn of brandy lingering on my lips, I try to forget where we are. But it’s impossible not to worry. We’re halfway up the most notorious climb in the Alps, a vertical kilometre of space below us, hanging in our quilted cocoons from a piton and a couple of nuts. At least the weather is holding up, but for how long? And we know that the hardest climbing is still above us. Meanwhile, we test our pain thresholds as we alternate between a numbing buttock on the ledge and cramping legs in their harness loops, sliding from one to other. Until the nut from which I’m hanging pops and I land like a netted fish in the bottom of the bivvy tent, held only by the stitching of the fabric.

Trapped inside my tightly drawn sleeping bag, my arms pinned by the weight of my body, I can’t move. I think of the nylon holding me, and of the void below. If it rips, I don’t know how far I’ll fall before the rope catches me. Far enough, perhaps, for the shock-loading to pull out the other anchors. I yell out to Roger and he shuffles and huffs like a parent awakened by their crying child. He says little. But soon he’s outside with his boots on and I feel the rope tug on my harness and suddenly I’m amazed that I’m going up. In tiny increments, I’m pulled from the bottom of the tent until the ledge slides underneath me. I tell Roger I’m there and he climbs back into the tent, removes his boots and before disappearing into his sleeping bag he shines his head torch into my incredulous face and says, ‘Okay?’ in the tone of 'Don’t do that again.' His torch goes off and we’re plunged back into darkness and the torture of our fourth night on the face.

 

 

Day 5.

 

I watch Roger creep horizontally away from me along the top of the Second Icefield. The tap-tap of his picks and the kick-crackle of his crampons are tiny noises in an amphitheatre of frozen silence, and I’m overwhelmed by the scale of the place, and our insignificance in the face of our undertaking. Does anyone know we’re here? Does anyone care? We’re nothing but two microscopic glimmers of life crawling slowly up the Wall of Death.



We can’t find the exit pitch from the Icefield. The Flat Iron – a prow of rock that we have to climb – looms on our left, and there’s no obvious route up it. Roger consults his handwritten route description but it doesn’t make sense. As it’s my lead, I make the call to tackle it head-on, and without knowing that it would be one of the hardest leads of my life, I ignore Roger’s suggestion to leave my pack and launch up the line of least resistance.


*

Looking back on it now, it seems something magical happened up there, as though belief had removed all barriers and both body and mountain were allies in my levitation. A crack appeared where there were no cracks; it swallowed a nut that held my fall and encouraged me to keep going. The climbing was a blur of brilliance – not of ability, but of the unexplained, for it was harder than I could climb yet I was clearly going up, picks pulling on little more than faith - on smears of ice and dimples of rock, the front-points of my crampons finding purchase where there appeared to be none. It was a meditation of long reaches and subtle adjustments and the certainty that I would succeed. The cruellest mountain was being kind.

*


I belay Roger from the crest of the Flat Iron, taking selfish pleasure in his struggle when he calls for a tight rope. But it’s fine to struggle on the blunt end for there’s no danger when a rope tugs at you from above. We romp up the snow-crest to a small prow of rock which we approach with due respect for this is a graveyard and we’re cautious as we dig into it. Death Bivouac is a good place to stop. But we’ve only done three pitches and I want to keep going. ‘There’s nowhere else,’ says Roger, ‘Unless you want a crap night in the open’.

I don’t want a crap night in the open; they’re crap enough as it is. So we dig a hole in the graveyard and climb into it while an airplane, toy-like from this height, traverses the face beneath us. We’re so high, yet we still have a long way to go. I pass the night leaning against Roger’s legs, occasionally asleep but mostly awake, thinking of the two young Germans who perished here in 1936, and knowing they are still here, buried in the snow like us.

 

Day 6.

 

I’m struggling today. Struggling to think of what to say about it, for nothing stands out. The Third Icefield was just like the First and Second – iron black beneath a white frosted coating – and its relatively low angle belied its difficulty. We climbed most of the Ramp, but although it’s the most sustained climbing on the route, its succession of hard pitches are all blurred together; the ravage of forty years has eroded the stances between them. There’s no separation. And nor is there a separation between who led which pitch; it seems we climbed as a single organism rather than two friends conjoined by blue and orange ropes.


A handful of photos are windows into the day; of me on the Icefield, of Roger entering the Ramp, and of me again, looking into the camera with an expression of, ‘does this look hard?’ It was to my benefit that Roger was the better photographer; perhaps his hands weren’t shaking as much as mine.

One photo in particular reminds me of how tough it was. I’m hanging from a hastily placed nut halfway up a vertical corner that’s choked with wind-blown snow that I have to clear away as I climb. There’s clearly no elegance about it, no transports of the mind nor magical levitations. It was nothing but the hard grunt of trench warfare. But I can’t take myself back there and describe what it felt like. The mind of the twenty-year-old youth looking out from the photo is no longer accessible to me.

However, I do remember the crap night in the open. We were one pitch from the top of the Ramp when the night closed in and forced us to stop on a tiny ledge that was banked up with snow. We couldn’t use our bivvy tent. Roger simply sat in a slot in the snow and I leant against his legs and melted snow on the stove that I gripped between mine. It was cold but the stars were out and the hardest climbing was below us, so it wasn’t that crap, really. I remember feeling quite at home.

  

Day 7.

 

We escape the confines of the Ramp, chipping and slipping on the iron ice that spreads from the top of it like a fan, and veer rightwards where there’s less mountain and more sky. I belay at the foot of a short steep rock wall that bars the way and Roger leads through, leaving his pack with me because he knows the Brittle Crack will be hard. He skips rightwards above the void, clips a lonely peg and leans back off it to suss out the next moves. I think of taking a photo of him while he’s relatively safe, close to protection and unlikely to fall, for his situation is one to behold, but the early morning cold is eating in to me and I don’t want to feed it my fingers. I hold the rope snug around my waist and pay it out it to him as he starts to climb, and within a minute he’s up and gone.


The sensation of relief when we reach the start of the Traverse of the Gods takes me by surprise. Until now, I hadn’t noticed how the mountain had affected me. Walled in by cathedrals of glowering rock, beyond reach of the winter sun, we’d existed in a twilight zone, each day climbing a little closer to the light. Here on the lip of its cauldron, the mountain lies back and shows us more of the sky. We both feel it, and with a new lightness we dance with the gods across the brow of the Eiger, and the camera finds its way out of my jacket.

For three pitches we gain no height as we edge rightwards towards the icefield that sits on the upper section of the face. Its legs extend in all directions like a spider, and I watch Roger inch his way up one of them, delicately poised on his points. He’s engrossed in his task when I remember what day it is.

‘Hey, Roger!’. He stops but doesn’t look back. ‘Happy birthday!’ He makes a grunt of annoyance, raises one of his axes and smashes it into the ice, and with the swagger of the deserving he climbs onto the back of the White Spider.

We will have to sleep with the spider tonight. Darkness comes before we reach the top of it, so we slip into our usual routine – the hacked ledge, the stove between our legs, the alternating agonies of buttocks on ledge then legs in loops. But it’s different now. The mountain above us is smaller, and with only the Exit Cracks between us and the summit, we believe that we will succeed. The Christmas cake and brandy taste especially good.

It was very nearly our last supper.

 

 Day 8.

 

Our last day on the Eigerwand starts well. The good weather is holding and the Spider is kinder to us than the icefields below. We quickly reach the start of the Exit Cracks. Roger surges up a streak of water ice smeared into a corner, and I dispatch the Quartz Crack with surprising ease. It’s mid-winter and we’re rock-climbing near the top of the Eiger with our gloves off, fingers pumped fat with blood, our axes holstered in our harnesses or hanging from the tethers around our wrists. It’s a wondrous thing to feel at home in such a daunting place, but after a week on the face I think we’ve earned it.

After several pitches we’re forced to the left where a square-cut groove slices through a nightmare of overhangs. I lead up it, bare fingers on flat holds, crampons grating on layers of limestone. There’s no protection until I reach an ancient piton, and I sense Roger’s relief as well as mine when I clip both ropes to it with a long sling. The piton is well positioned as the next moves are hard. I quickly pull though them into the upper part of the groove and

keep going, eyes scouring the layered rock in search of protection that never appears. The rock has dissolved to hard clay and gravel that offers no purchase apart from what it will accept of my picks and the points of my crampons. It has to be climbed like ice but it’s not like ice. It’s terrifyingly insecure. I run out all the rope but there’s no belay. I tell Roger to start climbing, for there’s nothing else we can do, and I keep climbing while the ropes tugs at my groin. The snap of a karabiner rises from the chasm below and I know Roger’s reached the piton and unclipped it. We’re climbing simultaneously, forty-five metres apart, with nothing holding us to the mountain. Then Roger shouts, ‘Tight rope!’


*


For years I thought I was the hero of this episode, as I was leading and Roger was following, and this was how I described it in my book. When Roger read it, he said,

‘Did you ever imagine what it was like for me? I knew you were still climbing and that there was no protection. After I unclipped the piton, I knew that the slightest tug would pull you off and that we’d both die, and there was this move, a sloping foothold that I had to fall across on to. At best, it was fifty-fifty that my foot would stick. So I called for a tight rope to give you a chance of holding me in case it didn’t. That move was the most terrifying moment of my life. It was totally out of control.’

And I realised who the real hero was.


*


Roger reaches me at the top of the groove where I’ve found a belay, and throws me a look of exasperation that’s not without humour. The climb is done, for easy slopes now lead to the summit ridge which we climb while the weather turns, and it’s snowing heavily by the time we reach the top. We don’t care, for we’re not here for the view. We smile into each other’s cameras, then turn and head down. Roger leads into the murk and I’m happy to follow for he knows the way and I only want it to be over. But the mountain wants one more night from us. Halfway down its western flank we spend our eighth night beneath an overhang and eat all that’s left of our food and drink all that’s left of our brandy. It’s good to be alive.

 


Day 9.

 

We don’t want to move for we’ve had enough of this mountain. Snow swirls all around us, hurled by gusts of wind that we can hear in advance of their arrival, and we brace ourselves for each battering while we lie in our bags on our foam mats and summon the will to leave. Why is coming down so much harder than going up?

A rope-length apart, I follow Roger down and down, endlessly down into the white-out. Our boots slide in the fresh snow and we frequently fall back against the slope, but we’re making steady progress and I wonder how Roger knows the way. He seems so certain of the route. I don’t question his judgement for I don’t have the energy to doubt him, so I follow without thinking, mindlessly plodding and sliding into the white gloom as the rope jerks ahead of me. It’s taking forever yet I know it must end soon. Ahead of me, Roger stops and I can see him taking in the rope as I descend towards him. He’s standing on a railway line.

 


Roger Mear (left) and Steve Bell on the summit of the Eiger after climbing the 1938 Route on the North Face, 17 February 1980.




It’s hard to believe that forty years have passed since then: years that have made us old; years that we’re grateful to have lived; and years we both filled with other mountains, many of them higher than the Eiger. The world is now a very different place - a place where people queue to stand on the summit of Everest, and ascents of the North Face of the Eiger are counted in minutes rather than days.

Roger is now seventy years old and I am still ten years younger. I still look up to him and covet his wisdom. When I asked him what he thought of Ueli Steck’s 2015 sprint of 2 hours and 22 minutes, his answer reassured me that we’d still done something worthwhile: ‘Who do you think had the greater experience?’.

My coming-of-age memoir, Virgin on Insanity, was published the year after Ueli Steck’s record-breaking ascent. The book launch was well supported by family, friends, and a cross-section of the climbing public of whom some were impressively accomplished. At the question-and-answer session afterwards, Roger raised his hand, but his question wasn’t for me:

‘Hands up, all those who have climbed the North Face of the Eiger’.

He raised his hand, and so did three others: Dick Turnbull, his son James who’d climbed it a generation later, and another talented young climber called Rob Greenwood. I also raised my hand. Roger looked around to take note, then he locked his eyes on me like a master might while delivering a key lesson to his apprentice.

‘Keep your hand up,’ he said, ‘if it’s the best climb you’ve ever done.’

Every hand stayed up.


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