A Grand Day Out 15th July 2003
I recently fulfilled a long held ambition and climbed the Eiger. I went with two old friends, Steve Lodge & Rob Jones. I say old because they are my age. Both are the perfect height for rock climbing. That’s my height. Any taller and they don’t struggle as much as I do.
The Eiger has a bad reputation and I wouldn’t have tackled it without years of experience on the world’s great peaks. I’ve climbed Ingleborough, Penyghent & Whernside, as well as less important mountains in places like the Himalayas, Andes & Alps (outside Yorkshire).
The route every mountaineer wants to say they’ve done is the Eiger’s notorious North Face.
Saying it is one thing, doing it is something else.
We tiptoed past it and climbed the sun-kissed Mittelegi Ridge instead.
The climb starts in a civilised fashion, on board the Jungfrau Mtn Railway. It was built in the late 19th Century by a farsighted entrepreneur, to ferry Japanese tourists up to a restaurant. After weaving up through alpine meadows the railway slides into a tunnel bored straight through the Eiger. Part way through it stops at Eismeer station, a gleaming cave with picture windows over a glacier.
Laden with climbing gear, we pushed through the tourists. However, any pretence of competence was undermined by our inability to find our way out of the station.
We had to go back and ask the conductress. She went pale. With a tremble in her voice she begged us to be careful and said she’d pray for us. Did she know something?
Following her directions we unearthed an old steel gate covered in warning signs, through it an icy tunnel spiralled down to the glacier. Welcoming?-Not very.
The glacier crossing was pleasant, apart from the rocks and seracs (flying icebergs) tumbling from the cliffs above us. A long rising traverse on crumbling ledges led up to the Mittelegi Hut, where we spent the night, awake. The ridge is so narrow that the hut overhangs at both sides.
At dawn, the ridge soared above us into the clouds. It looked intimidating. I reached for the note from my mum that said I was excused climbing, but I’d lost it. There was no way out. We set off.
The Mittelegi Ridge has been described as ‘a tight rope walk in the sky’. But it is narrower and more exposed than that! It feels a bit like a crumbling staircase with a drop of half a mile or more on either side.
We raced over pinnacles and towers to the summit in a mere 11 hours, conscious that the descent takes longer.
Despite the sunny forecast, cloud had closed in during the day. As we climbed down the steep South Ridge the rumble of thunder suggested trouble. Our ice axes began to buzz as static built up in the air, a sure sign of imminent death.
We tried to rapidly unload the large quantity of metal objects considered essential for mountaineering, but too late.
We were hammered by hail stones. Then there was a blinding flash. Lightning had hit the ridge next to Rob. He got a sharp jolt as the charge arced across the wet rock. Close. It was time to leave.
As the hail turned to rain and the thunder cracked around the ridge we abseiled down the climb.
In fading light, we finally reached the safety of the icefields above the col. What a relief!
Half way down the icefields, the surface gave way and we shot down steep ice. Collective ice axe breaking saved the day, although I claimed credit for piling into rocks, which broke my fall, and nearly broke my ankle.
I shuffled down to the col and we decided to park for the night.
After a refreshingly cool night in the snow, at 11,000ft, my ankle had changed shape & colour in an interesting way. Steve phoned a helicopter.
I was winched up, but they obviously didn’t like the wild look in my eye as they left me swinging below the helicopter, thousands of feet above the glacier, as we flew to the Jungfrau Hut. Nice view. If you’re bored with bungee jumping, try it.
After Steve & Rob had been flown to the hut, I was finally allowed inside the helicopter, for the flight to Interlaken Hospital, and a souvenir pair of Swiss crutches.
Lying in the sun outside the hospital, waiting for Steve & Rob to pick me up, I did wonder what the Eiger is like if the conductress doesn’t pray for you….
By, Pete Watson