The Eiger Solo Challenge

The infamous Eiger North Face (Jo in Riederalp 2007)

The Eiger (13,025 ft./3,970 m.) in the Bernese Alps is legendary in alpine mountaineering because of the impressive size of its largest wall, the North Face or Nordwand, which rises approximately 5,000 ft./1,524 m. from its base. It’s also legendary because of the area’s weather conditions, the stories of the struggles of climbing it and the list of climbers that have climbed and even attempted it is like a who’s who list of mountaineering. Interestingly, it is the solo accomplishments that are front and center lately.

Substantively, the Nordwand has been in the news again recently for Swiss alpnist Dani Arnold’s new speed record up the wall in two-and-a-half hours on April 20, 2011, which beat the previous time record by Ueli Steck, also from Switzerland, from February 13, 2008, by 19 minutes. People are also watching the videos — which are excellent quality — of Steck climbing the Eiger at his extraordinary clip and unroped: Check this one out by clicking here, then come back and continue reading.

It’s also worth noting that several sources are explaining that while Arnold bested Steck’s time, their accomplishments both stand on their own unique merits. This is because while Arnold clearly holds the best time, Steck climbed in the true winter and free climbed the Hinterstoisser Tower — a pillar on the lower third of the mountain that has fixed ropes and is deemed virtually unclimbable, and certainly only free climbable in winter. Some purists would argue that Arnold’s climb was of a lesser quality, or at most that the style was not worth the speed he attained.

Climbing this mountain is hard enough with a team than when going it alone. The Eiger was first summited in 1858 by Charles Barrington, Christian Almer and Peter Bohren by the West Flank — not the Nordwand. The northwest face wasn’t climbed until 1938 by Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vorg, Fritz Amatter and Heinrich Harrer (you’ll remember him as Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet). Several attempts, including the 1935 climb that named the notorious “Death Bivouac,” demonstrated the near futility of getting up the Nordwand. The first direct route up the Eiger wasn’t established until 1966 by Dougal Haston, Sigi Hupfauer, Jorg Lehne and Roland Votteler.

The first successful solo attempt came in August 1963, up the 1938 route, by Swiss climber Michel Darbellay. Half those that tried to go alone died trying. Even the great English alpinist Walter Bonatti had turned around the day before Darbellay went up! This shows Darbellay for his strength and courage, as well as how climbing the Eiger can be so fickle. Darbellay climbed the peak within two days time — including only 18 hours of climbing (which seems a reasonable pace compared to the speed climbing going on, in my opinion.)

The mountain’s size and the hundreds of stories about its climbs have permeated all kinds of literature and media — even Readers Digest. But the trend of and interest in speed and style trump anyone’s own personal accomplishments lately. So the question is, will Arnold’s record to beat? Will Steck’s time and style record be improved upon? I’ll let you know when I find out…

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