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Monday, 3 September, 2001, 07:14 GMT 08:14 UK
Eiger's grim reputation
A tranquil view of the Eiger
A tranquil view of the Eiger
By BBC News Online's Dave Gilbert

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 13,000ft-high Eiger, German for Ogre, is steep, exposed to bad weather, almost constantly in shadow even in summer, presents alternating bands of difficult rock and ice, and is notoriously loose.

Anyone brave enough to attempt the 6,000ft wall - the Nordwand - has to risk a fusillade of falling rocks. To avoid this particularly lethal danger some choose to climb the face in the coldest conditions when the rocks are more likely to be fozen in place.

Eiger facts
Height: 13,000ft, 3,970 metres
First climbed in 1858
North wall 6,000ft high
North face first climbed 1938
First direct route 1966
North face deaths: More than 50

Many of the big walls of the European Alps were scaled in the years following climbing's golden era of the 19th Century but the north face of the Eiger remained unclimbed until 1938 when a team of four managed to succeed where many had died trying.

Traumatic tale

The first to get really high on the face were 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.

Click here to see the classic route up the Eiger

Four young climbers - Andreas Hinterstoisser, Edi Ranier, Willy Angerer and Toni Kurz - made a renewed attempt on the north wall.

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.

'I cannot go on'

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 of four 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.

Fixed ropes

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.

Chris Bonington first climed the north face in 1962
More dramas followed. In 1957 Italian climber Claudio Corti was the only survivor from a four-man team after he was winched to safety from the summit. And in 1962, British climbers Chris Bonington and Don Whillans, who were themselves attempting an ascent, went to the aid of Brian Nally. His partner Barry Brewster was killed in a rock fall but Nally was saved by the pair.

Chris Bonington was again involved with another Eiger epic in 1966 when a new, more direct route was being tried - in winter.

Using big expedition tactics of installing fixed ropes as they climbed, thereby allowing the mountaineers to descend and then quickly regain their previous high point, more than a dozen climbers forced the route with this so-called siege technique.

Climbing classics
The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer
In High Places by Dougal Haston
Savage Arena by Joe Tasker
Clouds from both Sides by Julie Tullis
All 14 eight-thousanders by Reinhold Messner
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
Chris Bonington was photographing the climb for the Daily Telegraph newspaper but ended up joining the expedition himself.

But tragedy struck yet again as the team neared its goal. American climber and driving force behind the direct route, John Harlin, fell 5,000ft after one of the fixed ropes snapped.

The climb which was named after him was not repeated until nearly four years later when it took almost three months of endeavour to make the second ascent by the Harlin Direct route.

Despite its grim history the world's greatest climbers have continued to test themselves on the north wall of the Eiger.

Reinhold Messner - probably regarded as the most successful mountaineer ever, having scaled all 14 of the world's 8,000-metre peaks - climbed the classic route at breathtaking speed and made the first ascent of the Eiger's north pillar.

The face which earned it the nickname Death Wall continues to live up to its reputation and those who want to enjoy the mountain without the enornmous risks involved in stepping on to the Eiger's northern aspect are best advised to view it from the valley bottom or from the mountain railway.

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