The White Spider - Heinrich Harrer
Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006)

Although "The White Spider" is one of my favorite books on mountaineering, I have found it hard to get started on this subject. Obviously, I have no personal experience of the Eiger North Wall, while its history - and the book - is extremely familiar to all climbers. But finally, the other day, I happened to watch a film on TV that really got me "fired up": "The Beckoning Silence", a dramatized documentary of the second attempt to climb the North Wall in 1936.

By 1900, all the major peaks of the Alps had been climbed. Mountaineers sought new challenges: new routes, winter ascents, climbing solo. In particular, direct routes up the mountain faces, rather than the ridges, became popular among the experts. By 1930, many new routes had been opened, but "Three Great Problems" still remained: the north faces of the Matterhorn, the Grandes Jorasses, and the Eiger. The north face of the Matterhorn was climbed in 1931, and that of the Grandes Jorasses in 1935. Only the Eiger in the Bernese Alps in central Switzerland remained.

Source: http://www.swissrockguides.com/

The Eiger has some unique qualities. Although it does not reach 4000 m, its steep, somber north wall is 1800 m high and is completely open to weather coming from the north. The routes on the north wall are exposed to rock and ice falls. A railway coming up from Grindelwald going to the Jungfraujoch runs through the mountain. There is a corridor from a railway station inside the mountain that opens on the north face itself! And there is a hotel at the Kleine Scheidegg just below the north face, usually crammed with tourists. The climb takes place in full view of the tourists, many of whom are equipped with binoculars or telescopes.

The first serious attempt in 1935 ended in tragedy. The German climbers Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmayer died from exposure after spending four nights in their bivouac on the mountain, trapped in a storm.

The next attempt, in July 1936, has probably had a wider impact on the public perception of mountain climbing than any other since the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. It is the story of four friends: Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz, Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer, told in "The White Spider" by Heinrich Harrer, which was published around 1960 and made a deep impression on me and - more significantly - on a young climber named Joe Simpson, who in time developed into a world class mountaineer. It is also the subject of "The Beckoning Silence".

The Hinterstoisser team initially made good progress. On their first day on the north face they found a key passage - the "Hinterstoisser Quergang" or "Hinterstoisser's Traverse" - that enabled them to bypass an unscaleable rock overhang. It was a steep and slippery spot with few and precarious holds. Hinterstoisser managed to fasten a peg in the rock above the slab and used a rope under tension to swing past the obstacle. When he had arrived on the other side, he pulled a rope taut after him, and his comrades could follow. Then they retrieved the rope and continued the climb.

Hinterstoisser's traverse. Not my cup of tea!
Photo: Lukas Binder, Source: http://www.jdav-bw.de/

Later, Angerer was hit in the head by a falling rock. He suffered a severe concussion. During the next two or three days, the team struggled to continue their ascent, but Angerer was dazed and disoriented, and their speed was reduced to a crawl. When the weather turned bad, they realised that it was impossible to make any further progress, and that they had to retreat. On the way back, when they reached Hinterstoisser's Traverse, they found that it was covered with a layer of ice. It was impossible to use the same trick they had used before of placing a peg above the slab. For several hours Hinterstoisser tried desperately to cross the slab, but each time he slid down and had to use the rope to get back. Finally the team decided that their only hope was to try to climb straight down from their present position. In the process of doing this, they were hit by an avalanche. Hinterstoisser, who was not secured, was swept to his death. Of the other three men, who were roped up, the lowest man, Angerer was killed when he was smashed against the rock. The top man, Rainer, was asphyxiated by the pressure of the rope against his chest. Only Kurz stayed alive, suspended in mid-air. In the meantime, his cries for help were heard from below by a tunnel guard from the opening connecting to the underground railway station. Some Swiss guides who ventured out on the face told him that they could do nothing, but that help would arrive in the morning.

When the rescue team arrived early next morning, Kurz was still alive, but he could use only one hand. Realizing his predicament, the rescuers advised him to cut the rope to get rid of Hinterstoisser's body. Then he had to climb up to Rainer and free himself from his body. He spent several hours splitting his rope, and tying the strands together, thus creating a new rope that was three times as long. It would not carry his weight, but it would serve to pull up a new rope from his rescuers below. He succeeded in this, but to make a sufficiently long rope, the rescuers had to tie two ropes together. (They had also brought a longer 60-m rope which they inadvertently dropped - it fell down to the foot of the wall.) Finally, he secured the rope and started his descent to relative safety.

Salvage worker and Kurz's body.
© AS Verlag, Zürich

But when he was just a few meters from the rescuers, he reached the knot, where the ropes had been joined. The knot would not go through the karabiner that attached him to the rope! A guide climbed onto the shoulders of another guide and was able to touch Kurz's crampons with his ice axe. Kurz struggled desperately with the knot with his one good hand and his teeth for a while, then he said quite distinctly: "I can do no more" and slumped over, dead.

When Joe Simpson read "The White Spider" at age 14, he had just started rock climbing in England. He found it just as fascinating as I did. He says that it gave him nightmares, and that it should have put him off mountaineering forever. Instead he decided to find out what it was about climbing that enticed supposedly intelligent men to risk their lives in such a useless endeavor. In time he became an accomplished climber - one of the best.

His empathy for Toni Kurz reached a new level in 1985, when he and his friend Yates set out to climb a remote mountain in Peru. They reached the summit, but on the way back Joe smashed his knee. They had to abseil over an overhang, but the rope proved to be too short. Joe found himself dangling from the rope, unable to reach the ground, while Yates was slowly being dragged through the snow after him. After about an hour, Yates realized that he had no alternative but to cut the rope. Joe took a 30-m fall into a crevasse, hitting an ice bridge and breaking a leg. The next day, Yates climbed down to the crevasse and convinced himself that Joe must be dead. In fact, Joe had been knocked unconscious. When he came to, he finally found a sideways opening out of his ice prison. For the next three days he crawled the five miles back to their camp, where Yates was just about to leave.

Joe Simpson.

This experience renewed Joe's bond with Toni Kurz. He made six attempts on the Eiger North Wall, all unsuccessful due to weather. Then in 2007 he became involved in the film "The Beckoning Silence" about the Hinterstoisser/Kurz expedition in 1936. With the use of helicopter transport and with young guides portraying the original team, the tragedy of Toni Kurz and his friends was re-enacted and filmed on the Eiger. Joe Simpson narrated the film, and demonstrated the key passages himself.

"The White Spider" goes on to describe the first successful climb of the North Wall July 21-24, 1938. The Austrians Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek started and got about halfway up the mountain when they were caught up by two Germans, Andreas Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg. The two rope-teams decided to join forces and - despite their share of trials and tribulations - successfully reached the summit in a snow storm. (Heckmair nearly fell down the south side.)

The success had political overtones. Austria's Anschluss to Germany had occurred just a few months earlier, and the joining of forces of an Austrian and a German rope-team seemed particularly appropriate. Hitler was only too pleased to give them a triumphant reception. The conquest of the "impossible" was in line with Party ideology. Elsewhere, the life-and-death struggles on the mountain were deplored. The Alpine Journal called the Eiger "an obsession for the mentally deranged", and the Swiss authorities closed the Eiger for a time in 1937. The Eiger Nordwand (North Wall) became known as Eiger "Mordwand" (murder wall). The German and Austrian climbers had developed the sport to a new level of excellence, but it is undoubtedly true that they were also willing to accept high objective risks from weather and the associated risks of rock and ice falls.

The second ice field.
Photo: Bernhard Sauer bhsauer@aol.com

Today, the risks - while still substantial - are much reduced. Helicopter rescue is difficult but not impossible. Cell phones are everywhere. Reliable weather forecasting over several days is a reality. Equipment is lightyears ahead of what was available in the 1930s.

Remarkably, the speed record for climbing the Eiger Wall is now down to 2 hours 47 minutes!! Even if a spiral staircase were set up next to the climber, I would have difficulty keeping up with him. Incredible! Still, to me it seems completely irresponsible, both in terms of the climber's own safety, and the impact it is likely to have on other climbers' perception of risk. He used no belays at all!

Heinrich Harrer went on to India to plan an ascent of Nanga Parbat. There he was interned by the British when WW2 broke out. After years of preparation, he managed to escape to Tibet, where after many adventures he reached Lhasa and became a trusted teacher of the young Dalai Lama. He has described his experiences in "Seven years in Tibet", which has subsequently formed the basis for an adventure movie, starring Brad Pitt.

Both Harrer and Heckmair reached an advanced age. Harrer died in 2006 at the age of 93 and Heckmair in 2005 at 99. Kasparek was killed in a mountain accident in Peru in 1954. It turned out that Ludwig Vörg had the least at stake on the Eiger in 1938, having just three years left. He died on the first day of the war on the East front on June 22, 1941.

Further reading

1. General information on the Eiger North Wall.
2. Wikipedia article on Joe Simpson's accident in Peru.
3. Recent research on the 1936 climb, photos.
4. Illustrated account of Paul Harrington's 1997 climb.

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    Last edited or checked June 6, 2013.

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