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North Wall Karma

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North Wall Karma

  1. 1. NORTH WALL KARMA The call to Geneva’ Airports Weather bureau left me wondering if I should bring any storm gear up on the North Wall with me, “stable weather for at least two days”, but the black aura of Switzerland’s Berner Oberland thrives on such foolish thinking. Now twenty rope lengths up the North face of the Eiger, Steve Stone and I simul climb toward the Swallows Nest wondering to ourselves how the weather bureau could be so wrong. The reliable sunny days promised were too good to be true. Although the freezing rain and snow of last night were replaced by a blue sky through most of today, I now watch as the wind brings black cloud and thunder up the North Wall. The beautiful green valleys of Grindlewald that served as our backdrop since dawn were now replaced by cold dark cloud and black shattered limestone.
  2. 2. It was still raining the night before, when we rolled into Kleine Sheidegg on the last train from Interlaken. Besides a barmaid who was returning from a shopping spree in Grindlewald, we had the train to ourselves. Steve’s ice axes protruding menacingly from his rucksack will be of no threat to the Japanese tourists that usually clog the rail cars. The engineer brought the train to an abrupt halt in front of the centuries old structure of the Bahnhoff Hotel and restaurant at the Kleine Sheidegg. The place was as empty as the train. The tourists had by now all retreated to the valleys of Grindlewald, Interlaken and Lauterbrunen shopping in the pleasant drizzle of a summer evening's rain. As we shouldered our packs and half stumbled off onto the cogged tracks in front of the restaurant; I had the familiar feeling it would be a long night. The rain was coming down in sheets, and it seemed cold enough to snow. We could stay in the dorm above the restaurant, but I knew Steve would have nothing to do with that idea. After all we are talking about a man who has been on the road for the better part of twelve years and is no stranger to sleeping wherever and whenever, whatever the weather. The one thing I could count on though was that Steve would be hungry as always, and what better shelter from the freezing rain, than our favorite restaurant. We walked through the glass doors into the foyer, and deposited our sacks into a corner before entering the restaurant. The place was empty accept for a few waitresses and some Italian construction workers who were obviously half lit and well on their way to state of total inebriation. One man had a broken arm, and the others laughing at the top of their lungs, were accusing him of masturbating too much. Even in their slurred Italian it was obvious by their gestures what they were implying. A pot of coffee and a large order of pom frites for Steve, and the same for myself, plus a large Wisse bier of course. We knew what we were in for as we had both been there on several occasions. Steve is a local transplant from Britain that wound up in Switzerland about seven years ago, loosely taking roots in Interlaken. I began spending my summers in the Alps about five years ago, using Interlaken as a base for the entire range. It’s cheaper and much more hospitable than Chamonix and one of the friendliest places on the planet. Steve and I are both guides, for a local service based in Interlaken, and Steve is a fist class all around climber. The waitress approaches us with a friendly smile “You are climbing da Nordwand “ She asks? She had noticed there are two technical axes on each of our packs, which means one of two things.
  3. 3. We are either over geared dorks doing classic routes in vogue sporting tech tools, or off to climb the notorious Nordwand. As it turns out we were the former attempting the latter. We had both climbed the Eiger before together and I on another occasion with my friend Dan Stih, but never by the classic 1938 route. There was always an excuse. Poor weather, bad conditions on the face, blown knees, But in reality the actual problem was that I had read far too many books on the perpetual gloom that hangs over the wall. It is the mental equivalent of a bad acid trip in black and white. 6000 vertical ft of poorly protected and severely shattered limestone. People have expired on just about every rope length of the entire wall, and most met their untimely deaths in horrific episodes of frozen madness or cartwheeling falls of up to a vertical mile. Does this stop people from climbing the dreadful Mordwand? Hell no! And why is that I’m held in a state of pornographic intrigue when I even look at a photo of the wall? I don’t quite know? Better yet, I don’t care. I know only that I want more than almost anything to ascend this certain wall by one particular route. One that I have read about and studied with biblical persistence since I have been in High school. A path that has killed at last count dozens of would be heroes. This should; one would think, foster enough fear to keep nimrods like ourselves off the face. But then again obsessed climbers aren’t an entirely sensible lot. Walls with a record like the Eiger's are even more appealing to most alpinists. I quietly wonder if I harbor more fear for the wall than any other poor fool who ate their last meal in the restaurant at Kleine Sheidegg. Possibly right at the table where I sit. Steve doesn’t seem too spooked, judging by the way he’s shoveling fries into his smiling grill without a care in the world. I look at Steve and momentarily ponder what makes him tick? With a goofy loving grin he raises his coffee mug and in a heavy British accent gives me a sincere “Cheers Ronnie”! Three hours and four beers later, it's still raining, and I am now beginning to relate to the drunk Italians, the only problem is the bar is closing, which means its time to brave the icy rain. The waitress asks us where we are sleeping, and Steve Points out toward the mountains. “But you can stay in the dorms No?” For free! Steve asks? Twenty franks only she says. We lie and tell her we have a tent, the truth is we only have bivy sacs, but in addition, we have a plan. There is a short corrugated steel tunnel in between Kleine Sheidegg and the North wall. The ranchers use it to bring cattle under the “Jungfrau railway” the train that ultimately leads up into the Northwall itself and on to Jungfrau, Monch saddle or “Jungfraujoch “. The tunnel is about
  4. 4. a fifteen minute walk from the Bahnhoff. We square up with the house, and stagger out into the rain donning all our shell gear before heading for the security of the tunnel. The rain and fog are vaguely surreal and give the whole situation a fitting yet despondent Eiger gloom. We manage to reach our bivy quickly, but are soaking wet on our arrival. The tunnel had a small stream running through the center of it, and there were cow pies covering most of the floor. Except a light mist that blew through the refuge, it was fairly dry. We lay down to a semi comfortable night among the tunnel muffins yet sleep seemed to elude me. I kept thinking of the books and articles I had read about the Eiger. Some time in my late teens I was milling through the mountaineering section of the school library, when I came across a book called the White Spider by Heinrich Harrer; one of the party members on the first successful ascent of the North face of the Eiger. I opened the book to the center, and began reading a random passage. It held me spell bound, as it described in detail one epic after the next. It seemed that men were virtually lining up for their slow execution on the wall. Eight of Europe’s finest alpinists were killed on the wall before it was finally climbed. Dozens more died after the fist ascent; most of them freezing to death in horrific storms that to this day commonly pound the face……. I dreamed in the tunnel of peanut butter cheesecake and frozen body’s hurling past me. Steve gearing up at the base of the wall. The morning was dawning without cloud and fearing a stampede of cattle; we quickly packed, speeding off toward the Nordwand. An hour later we were climbing the initial rock pitches on the lower section of the wall. We were aiming for the Swallows nest, about a third of the way up the face. The
  5. 5. climbing was not difficult, but I kept feeling the desolation and emptiness that surrounded the mountain. I seemed to sense the anguish of all of the families who had lost loved ones to this black morbid giant, hoping I wasn’t bestowing the same fate on mine. Higher we climbed, and the gloom of the face ate at me well into the afternoon. We soon reached a chimney that I noticed had a plaque wedged into it. I pulled it out and read it aloud "Adi Mayre 28-8 1961." Id heard the name before. Steve on Lead
  6. 6. Steve demonstrating alternate uses for snow pickets. Adolph or “Adi” Mayre was a young Austrian climber who had come to the Oberland to attempt the first solo climb of the North Wall in 1961. On August 27, Adi started up the face moving fast and climbing smooth. He was watched by the hoards of tourists through the telescopes at Sheidegg as he skillfully put one feature of the wall at a time behind him. He had reached the "death bivouac" by 2:30 p.m., but the white spider above him was being constantly strafed by stone fall and avalanche in the afternoon sun. Although there were still hours of daylight left, he decided it would be better to bivy as planned at the “death bivouac”, and wait until morning when the stones and ice are frozen in place to ascend the giant icefield of the “White spider.” So he did; waiting out a long cold night in the very place that Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer froze to death on the first attempt of the wall. In the morning, the spectators at the Sheidegg noticed that Adi's climbing wasn’t as quick and fluid as it was the day before. Had the cold bivouac taken its toll on him? He moved slowly up the “White spider” and over the rocks to the third Icefield. He negotiated the icefield and moved to the base of the “ramp." Eventually climbing the "ramp" and making a traverse to the base of the waterfall pitch also called the “silver trench,” named for a light it
  7. 7. gives off in the afternoon, when the sun manages to touch the waterfall. At 8: 12, the spectators then watched in horror as Adi made an inaccurate foot placement and went hurling backward off the face, touching the wall few times on his 4000-foot plummet. Bringing Steve up a crazy loose pitch
  8. 8. It seemed to me a shame that the plaque was haphazardly wedged into a crack. After Steve led the chimney I replaced the plaque as respectfully as possible into the crack and carried on up the wall. It looked as though the weather was holding for now and the climbing was moderate yet unforgiving should you fall. The face was wet but there was little ice on the rock, had there been verglass the going would have been much worse. The plaque had been bothering me for a few rope lengths and it wasn’t long before we came to a belay stance that had another plaque just lying on the small rock shelf. I picked it up and read it. It was old and heavy, and had the name s of two Italian Alpinists on it. Mario Menti and Bortolo Sandri. It was dated June 23,1938. I recognized the date of their death as that of before the face had been successfully climbed, but only by a month. As the morning of June 21st 1938 dawned Mario and Bartolo, two young alpinists from Valdagno, Italy started up the then unclimbed face. It was early in the season and many felt that the wall was not yet in condition for an attempt, yet the pair had been up on the wall before on a reconnaissance of the lower pitches, and obviously felt differently. They had decided to take a direct line straight up the face instead of making use of the now well known “Hinterstoisser traverse.” The two felt it would be easier, yet we now know that it isn’t. Despite the difficulties the two men were climbing fast. By the end of the day they had reached a higher elevation than Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer had on the first attempt of the face. Sedlmayer and Mehringer had pioneered the direct line three years prior but were pinned down high on the wall by repeated storms, subsequently freezing to death at the now famous “Death bivouac.” Judging by the weather that was building, it seemed as though the wall might have two more climbers in its death grip. The night of the 21st, Mario and Bortolo were last seen through telescopes at Kleine Sheidegg near the “difficult crack." That night a storm moved in on the face, and the drama that followed was carried out behind a curtain of cloud. The two men were never again seen alive. Both of their twisted body’s were later found at the bottom of the wall. Menti's was lodged deep in a crevasse.
  9. 9. Menti Sandri Plaque I held the plaque in my hand and quietly felt sorry as I set it as securely as possible back onto the ledge. We climbed on toward the swallow's nest and I couldn’t shake the thought of the two plaques. I kept looking over my shoulder to watch the storm that was now building in the valley below. I couldn’t help but wonder if a similar fate awaited us. We were stretching out easy rope lengths, but the broken limestone offered no useable cracks to protect ourselves with. There were little in the way of reliable fixed anchors on the face, and I began to wonder what we would use to rappel from in the event of a retreat. I had brought with me a 1/4 inch drill and a few pound in Rawl studs with bolt hangers attached in case of an emergency. Then mid way through the next pitch it dawned on me; we should have used the drill and the split studs that I was carrying to bolt the plaques respectively back to the wall. It was too late but what
  10. 10. magnificent North Wall karma it would have been! On this dismal face, saturated with superstition, it's a rare instance, when one has an opportunity to stack fate in ones favor. I realized through the next few rope lengths that I wasn’t concentrating on the climbing but instead stewing on my trademark absentmindedness. Before we had reached the “Difficult crack," the entire wall was engulfed in dark cloud. Steve put another pitch behind us with little trouble. I followed feeling like the wall was a vampire, and was wrapping his cape around us, as we climbed blindly toward his heart. Well below the “Hinterstoisser Traverse”, we stopped at a small overhang that ran with water, and ate something while we watched the thunder and lightning illuminate the clouds, swirling upward toward the summit. Still heading up
  11. 11. Retreat! It began to slush, and we put on our shell gear, still damp from the night before. As we shouldered our packs, there was a great arc of light, and a sound like a freight train was tumbling down the wall next to us. We both knew that in an electrical storm on the North wall of the Eiger, was not a place we wanted to be. We chose to retreat as fast as possible. We down climbed to a set of anchors at the top of a cliff band and set up the first of the rappels. It looked as though we were going to get our chance to fix the plaques after all. We down climbed and rappelled, and soon I realized that our descent had not taken us back by the Menti, Sandri plaque, yet instead far to the right. We still could salvage the Mayre plaque though and before long we were at the stance where the plaque lay. We pulled out the drill, and my hammer, setting to the repair as fast as possible. Meanwhile the light show continued and there was a smell, faintly electrical in the air. The freezing rain continued and with much difficulty we managed to remove one of the studs I had been carrying from its hanger. With an air of urgency, we drilled the holes, and nailed the other three
  12. 12. studs, hanger and all, through the plaque, into the crumbling limestone. It was easy to see how the plaque had come off the wall, as the rock was soft, and My anchors would have proved useless had we needed to use them to rappel from. With our good deed done, we shook hands, gave the plaque a respectful nod and completed our descent to the security of the earth. We vowed to bring the drill back up with us to re attach the Menti, Sandri Plaque, and any others we might happen upon during the climb. Many more rappels, and some down climbing brought us back to the ground. We walked at a slow pace toward Alpiglen in the down pour of freezing rain, I realized I had dispelled some of the darkness that countless pieces of literature had built up in my mind. I felt like a boy scout that had just helped an old lady home with her groceries, I hoped on my next visit to the wall, the Eiger would feel the same. Later on that season in Grindlewald. Steve Stone, Capt. Ron and Dano