The fearsome north wall of the Eiger which rears above the Swiss resort of Grindelwald has one of the most daunting reputations in the climbing world and many a drama has been played out on its face.
The first to get really high on the face were German mountaineers Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer who in 1935 were halted by bad weather. Their bodies were spotted weeks later. The following year saw one of the most traumatic episodes in the Eiger’s history.
Four young Austrian and German climbers – Andreas Hinterstoisser, Edi Ranier, Willy Angerer and Toni Kurz – made a renewed attempt on the north wall in 1936. Hinterstoisser opened up a route to the summit with a brilliant traverse but it could not be reversed without a rope in place.
After being caught up in a huge storm they were unable to retreat the way they had come and all four were killed. Toni Kurz perished hanging from his abseil rope only feet from a rescue team. The would-be rescuers tried to reach the stricken climber from a window which emerges onto the face from the railway tunnel running right through the mountain. But a knot prevented him sliding any further towards the outstretched arms and his own fingers were so badly frozen he could not free himself. The rescuers had to withdraw for the night despite the stricken climber’s pleas not to be left alone.
When they returned the next morning he was much weaker and with the words “Ich kann nicht mehr” (I cannot go on) he died almost within reach of safety.
After more failed and fatal attempts to climb the mountain by its most difficult face, a group composed of Austrians and Germans finally managed to put up a route.
Two Germans, Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig (Wiggerl) Vorg, and the Austrians Fritz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer, joined forces in 1938 to make the first ascent. The dramatic tale was recounted in Harrer’s book The White Spider which is named after the distinctive ice field near the summit and has become a mountaineering classic.
The climbers were paraded by Adolf Hitler in a propaganda exercise. Harrer later spoke of his discomfort about the chapter and Vorg was killed on the Russian front only a few years later.