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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 10:43 GMT
The ultimate alpine challenge
By Andrew Walker
BBC News

Heinrich Harrer, who died this week, was in the 1938 team that conquered the north face of the Eiger. He later famously told the world all about Tibet - but the lure of this mountain remains.

"Stepping onto the Eigerwand [the north face of the Eiger] is like taking the crease at Lord's," says Stephen Venables, one of the world's most experienced climbers who conquered it in 1986. "Steeped in history, it's also physically spectacular."

Generally regarded as a major test of technical climbing ability, the Nordwand, as it is also known, is the place where having a head for heights is just not enough. It is The Big One, the one all mountaineers want to tame.

The Eiger, which looms 13,025 feet (3,970m) above the picture-book village of Grindelwald in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland, was first climbed, via its west flank, in 1858, at the height of the burgeoning British-led obsession with the Alps.

But it was the seemingly impermeable north face which climbers in the first half of the 20th Century yearned to overcome. Not everyone was impressed: the prestigious Alpine Journal dismissed the quest as "an obsession for the mentally deranged".

Dalai Lama and Heinrich Harrer
Harrer once tutored the Dalai Lama
Since 1935, more than 50 people have died while attempting the climb: frozen to death on its exposed face, hit by rocks loosened by the heat of the sun or dashed to death at the base of the mountain after plummeting to oblivion.

As Harrer so succinctly put it: "The Nordwand is the epitome of everything tragically sensational in mountain climbing. It is a 6,000-foot bastion of rock and ice, a test of technical ability and character."

The north face of the Eiger is, says Venables, "the biggest wall in the Alps. It's a concave shell and climbing it is like being on a stage or an amphitheatre. To beat it, you need competence, experience, caution and a lot of luck."

It also has no hiding place, not even a nook in which to shelter from the elements to which it is continuously exposed.

Death bivouac

The weather, even in summer, can change in minutes from warm and sunny to white-out blizzard. The sun's rays melt the ice which covers much of the face, causing regular rock falls.

As the late British climbing icon, Don Whillans, put it: "One thing to remember on the Eiger, never look up, or you may need a plastic surgeon."

The north face of the Eiger
Switzerland epitomised
All these factors ensure that the Nordwand's reputation as a killer is well-deserved.

After the Eiger's hazardous east ridge was scaled in 1921, only the north face remained unconquered. The first nine climbers who attempted it in the 1930s all died.

In August 1935 two Germans, Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer, made their assault on the wall. The men were abruptly halted 3,000 feet up by a terrible storm, accompanied by freezing temperatures and frequent avalanches.

They survived on the face for five agonising days, bivouacking there for four nights before freezing to death. Four more climbers died the next year while trying to retreat.

Boys, boys! This thing you have done!
Adolf Hitler to Harrer's team
Then, in July 1938, an Austro-German team of four, Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg, Fritz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer, made it to the top. It took the men, who had only decided to team up at the base of the wall, more than three days to reach the summit.

The feat was only accomplished after surviving an avalanche on the deadly White Spider, an ice-field below the peak, which became the title of Harrer's classic chronicle of the Nordwand.

Realising the enormity of the achievement, Harrer said: "I was conscious of the privilege of having been allowed to live."

Seven years in Tibet

But this was more than a mere feat of derring-do. Coming only three months after the Anschluss - unification - of Nazi Germany and Austria, it was a political act.

Sir Chris Bonington, right, on Everest in 1975
Sir Chris Bonington scaled it in 1962
The climbers met Hitler, who told them: "Boys, boys! This thing you have done!" And the Nazis' propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, praised the men, saying, "Germany and Austria have been united in glorious struggle."

Harrer went on to enjoy an eventful life. He escaped from a British POW camp in India in 1944 and reached Tibet where he tutored the young Dalai Lama - an escapade detailed in his book (later a film starring Brad Pitt) Seven Years in Tibet, a work which sparked interest in Tibet among westerners.

But he could never escape his past. Despite his fierce denials that he was ever a Nazi, documents show that Harrer joined the SA - the stormtroopers - in 1933 and the SS in 1938.

Even so, Simon Wiesenthal, the renowned Nazi hunter who died last year, said Harrer was not involved in politics and was innocent of wrongdoing.

Stephen Venables climbed the Nordwand in 1986
Because it rises out of an alpine meadow, you see a perfect picture of Swiss kitsch
Stephen Venables
In the first 40 years after Harrer's success, more than 40 climbers died on the north wall. Indeed, only a dozen climbers reached the summit in the first 15 years.

1962 saw Chris Bonington and the late Ian Clough become the first Britons to complete the climb. Four years later, the late Dougal Haston ascended via the most direct route.

Stephen Venables, who took the historic 1938 route to the top, says that climbing the wall is "surreal and bizarre, because it rises out of an alpine meadow, and you look out and see a perfect picture of Swiss kitsch: tourists, little trains and cows."

Come next summer, even though global warming is gradually reducing the amount of ice on its face, new challengers will be back to pit their lives against the Nordwand.

As Heinrich Harrer said: "Climbing on so incomparable, so immense, so desperately lonely a face as this is, in truth, an advanced school and supreme testing place of a man's worth as a human being."

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