BBC explores a history of one of the world’s most challenging mountains, the Eiger, and its infamous North Face. The film gets to the heart of one of Europe’s most notorious peaks, exploring its character and its impact on the people who climb it and live in its awesome shadow.
—Sam Wollaston Review—
Mountains don’t get much better than the Eiger with its legendary north face, a near vertical mile of rock and ice, haunted by savage winds and the ghosts of dead climbers. “Every ledge of the Eiger is covered in the sediment of history,” says the mountaineer Stephen Venables, who is unusually forthcoming for a climber and has a lovely way with words. He was good on the the BBC’s live rock climb in the Outer Hebrides last weekend (five hours of nail-biting drama).
More than 60 people have died attempting the Eiger’s north face. Most agonising was the death of the German Toni Kurz in 1936. Kurz had already seen his three companions perish around him: he’d had to cut them free to try to get himself down alive. When he was within a few feet of a rescue party, all he had to do was detach himself from the rope and he would have fallen to them and been saved. But after a night dangling alone on the rock, he was too exhausted and frostbitten to summon up the energy. “I can’t go on,” he gasped, and died.
His would-be rescuers had emerged on to the wall from a door called the Stollenloch, which connects to the railway inside the mountain. That door is an extraordinary thing: it turns the north face of the Eiger into an advent calendar – albeit a one-hit one. To the climbers who have used the Stollenloch as an escape route, it must have felt like Christmas Day. There can be few doors – the one on the wardrobe on the way to Narnia perhaps, and possibly the Pearly Gates – that are so different on either side. On one side is one of the most extreme and terrifying places on earth, once described by the aristocratic British editor of the Alpine Journal as “an obsession for the mentally deranged” and “the most imbecile variant since mountaineering first began”; and on the other side are trainloads of tourists, on their way to see the view.
Today, mountain guides Kenton Cool and Neil Brodie are going the other way, from inside to out, just to have a look. “Bugger me, this is awesome,” says one of them. See what I mean about not all climbers having Stephen Venables’s way with words? The only pity about this absorbing chronicle of one of the world’s great climbing challenges is that the conditions aren’t right for Cool and Brodie. It would have been nice to go up with them, battling through the spindrift and the sediment of history, past the Stollenloch, the Hinterstoisser Traverse, the Flatiron, Death Bivouac, the Traverse of the Gods, the White Spider, and on to the summit. But then perhaps, in these days, when a Swiss wunderkind called Ueli Steck can scale the north face on his own in two hours and 47 minutes, it’s quite reassuring that the mountain can still sometimes win.