Sunday, 26 August 2012
FRYING SOLO ON WEST FLANK EIGER.
I arrived at the grandly named "Eigernordwand Campsite" just outside Grund at about 4pm. It was seriously hot and I was a melting blob, having carried both my sack and kitbag a kilometre uphill from Grund railway station. Peggy and I had been to Kandersteg two weeks previously and I had planned to bag two routes on Eiger in that time, doing a solo variant of Lauper from the Austrian route and a freeclimb, with buddy Boris Krielen, of West Flank. The west route incorporating a photoshoot for both of us, one photographing the other in solo mode, as it's impossible to get good pics of yourself actually "doing things" with a camera at arms length.The weather screwed us however, so here I was, back alone for some more masochism on the old beast.
Eiger august 2012 (no icefields you notice?)
I soon got my tiny binliner tent set up and had to go to Grindelwald to buy Jetboil gas on the morrow. The Nordwand and summit icefields had almost completely vanished due to the heat. At 4pm it resembled the grey dry skin of an elephant with great black tear streaks down its face. I located some gas at "Intersport" in Grindelwald next day and bought some Leckerli and small Emmental sausages as wet-rations to complement my Mountain House dehydrated rat-packs.
The Binliner.-My tiny one man tent.(One body and a sack only)
The "Intersport" salesman was also a local guide, and we bemoaned the horrible mountain conditions of this regular 3yr dry cycle in the Berner Oberland. Back at the campsite I met up with a lone Dutch climber/mountain biker by the name of Michaelle, who was great company and great conversation during my stay. He was also a solo climber so we had a lot in common. As the saying goes, "It's a small world" and especially for ex-SASR soldiers, for a few days after returning from my climb I met "Arthur" formerly of B-Troop Brit-SASR who was on a sponsored climb (also of West Flank) to raise money for the "clock fund", (the regiment's memorial in Hereford). I do hope he had better fortune than I did. I could not see West Flank from the site but had a bloody good idea it would be dangerously dry, judging by the north wall's condition.
Thirsty mitteleggiers scurrying to station Eigergletscher.
This was not good for me as I had to climb to my high bivvy at 3250metres lugging gear, food and water enough for two days' stay. The plan was to dump all the heavy stuff at the bivvy, then go light to the summit early next morning, getting as many Nordwand photos and summit pics as I could. I was then to descend with the option of another night if needed to complete the shoot. Rather than lug loads of water I was taking extra Jetboil gas to melt ice I knew to usually be around this bivvy, having stayed there before in august some years previously.
Lower rock bands above station.
The West Flank route is very long and I simply would not be capable of carrying sufficient water alone, to do what I needed to do.Twenty years ago I would not have cared but at 65yrs old I am no longer so keen on survival situations. I am content just to have a good time and get back down alive where possible. I took the train to Eigergletscher Station on Sunday 19th August at 0900hrs, and was amazed at how few were aboard. Due to the recession everybody is feeling the pinch, I guess. I had a laugh with Peter the ticket collector, who knew me from numerous previous visits and was convinced I was out of my mind climbing this thing yet again. As I left the platform and the flank came into view I knew I had big problems. The upper and lower glaciers had receded and there was no sign of usable ice below the 125mtrs remaining of the summit icefield. I thought, "Oh screw it!" and began the long climb up the lower rock band, my head thumping in the heat, following a lone lightly clad Parachutist Base Jumper heading for the Mushroom.
I toiled up the high moraine, passing Rotstock-2662mtrs on my left, and bee-lined for the Barrington Couloir to ascend by the normal route - then saw the massive bergschrund which made access to the route impossible. I doubled back to the left, attempting to follow the parachutist up a much steeper and more direct route, hoping to intersect the Barrington further up. This route just got steeper and steeper till I was climbing at around HVS with moves of 4c, fine for the dude in the climb-shoes but not for a loner lugging a whopping great sack. A shower of stones from above hit my hands and helmet and I almost fell. I realised I was being very stupid following this guy, so I cut to the right along a thin slabby step gradually edging over to the normal route. There was nothing now but the odd hand smear to keep me on this near vertical section, and twice more I was almost dragged off by the weight of my sack. I was climbing with a Blade-Piton in my teeth, desperate to find the tiniest crack to pound it into for a little protection, but I could find not one single placement.
How i look is about how i felt at this stage on route!
After three hours of this lunatic nonsense the camber eased and I found safe ground at my planned biv 3300mtrs. I dumped my sack and hunted in all directions for a patch of ice. Seeing nothing, I scrambled up past the Mushroom, then to the right of the notch till I could see almost all the route to the summit icefield, but it was as barren and dry as a witch's tit! At this point, being low on water and no resupply, I knew it was stupid to continue. It was late in the day and I was just too slow and tired to make the summit in one push, so I sat down to just enjoy the view over a well-earned coffee before descending. Three lots of Bergfuhrers and their clients arrived in quick succession. They were so dehydrated they drank two Jetboils of coffee - almost my entire water supply.
Rehydrated guests continuing descent.
One who I knew from a previous year confirmed there was no water-ice at all on the west flank. I let them go ahead to avoid stonefall. Also, I was in no hurry and thought I might overnight above Rotstock where I knew there was some water. I had made the right move, because the guys below me were stumbling and slipping like drunks with exhaustion, and there were some eye-watering falls on the lower glacier which had turned to soft sorbet in the evening sun.I pitched my camp further below and watched them descend to the station from my perch. Brewing up more coffee from a meltwater spring, I could hear more climbers descending above me. A monstrous guy stumbled up to my proffered scalding mug of coffee, thanked me in what I thought was Russian, and downed it it one huge gulp! He was very tall, built like a tank, and covered in grey limestone dust and abrasions.He wore a leather bush hat, ankle -high street boots with a fashionable elastic strap, shorts, t-shirt, and a thirty-litre sack with poles. "I have climbed the Mittelleggi ridge alone and with no rope!" he boomed. From the direction he had come and the state he was in, I had no reason other than to believe him. Besides which, he looked big and tough enough to have strangled a few bears on the way! "My two friends follow behind!" he said, and with a polite "Thank you" lumbered off downhill to his camp above the station.
My overnight bivvy.
I made some more drinks for his friends who were far better equipped but almost too tired to speak, and they too made their way down a short time later. I collected more water and settled down for the night. Though I had not summitted this trip, the Eiger now belonged to me until morning. I love these summer night bivvys and would come here just to do them alone or perhaps share the wonder with others. A squadron of Alpendohle (Choughs) joined me for dinner. They had some porridge oats whilst I tucked into a Mountain House spag-bol dehydrated meal (very nice it was too!). I was philosophical about not summitting as there was little I could do about it. If I screw up and miss my berg through incompetence I rage inwardly for months, so this was something of a relief. Examining the positives, I reflected that the Ibuprofen I had used on ascent had a very beneficial effect on my infernal tendency to AMS, and I had zero symptoms at all this trip.
All my kit had worked fine, I had carried no surplus gear and had made mostly sound decisions, and so had no rod to beat myself with. I had known it would be hot, but nobody had realised to what extent it would affect the icefields. I have successfully summitted on this mountain six times since 2002, by six different routes, and had never encountered summer conditions as extreme as these. At eight pm the sun set over the far mountains, and the local mosquitoes (being Swiss!) very courteously ceased to trouble me and instantly vanished for the night. Alpendohle Squadron-633 flew away into the encroaching dark, back to their bases. And I lay back to admire a Sistine-chapel roof of glorious shooting stars and revolving constellations, listening in awe to the rumbling breath of the mountain until I slept.
Descending next morning, I passed the happy giant in his tent near the station. He was awake and seemed recovered so I congratulated him and learned that he and his friends were from the Czech Republic. They breed them tough and pleasantly crazy in Czech land!
Before the train I stopped for a huge breakfast at Bahnhof Restaurant Eigergletscher. It was the best breakfast I had ever tasted, not because I had just been climbing mountains, but simply because they make the best breakfast you will ever taste! I think I might return and do the Mittellegigrat again soon, just for the hell of it, and for another very fine breakfast.