A history of one of the world's most challenging mountains and its infamous north face. The film explores its character and its impact on those who climb it and live in its shadow.
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The north face of the Eiger.
It's the most notorious mountain face in the world.
The Eiger will always be a dangerous mountain and I'm afraid therefore
there will be people killed on it in the future.
I was definitely seriously frightened before I set out on the Eiger.
A vertical mile of brittle blasted limestone, hanging ice and howling winds.
The Eiger kind of, you know, opens its little doors for you and you get higher and higher and higher...
then it'll shut them and there's no easy way out.
More than sixty people have died on the north face but it continues to fascinate like no other mountain.
It's climbing's grand stage...
a uniquely public arena where mountaineering becomes theatre.
I think it's a bit like being an actor and suddenly being told you can do Hamlet now.
Its history has reflected the national tensions of Europe in the 20th century.
I think Harrer has the swastika flag in his backpack.
It's a testing ground, a rite of passage, a place of innovation where new standards are set.
This whole sense changed my mind for other mountains.
I can go maybe to Himalaya with a completely different, different mind.
This will change climbing.
We set out to explore the reputation of the Eiger's north face,
and to understand what has made it such an iconic mountain.
It's March 2009 and mountain guides Kenton Cool and Neil Brodie are in Grindelwald, Switzerland,
planning an attempt on the north face of the Eiger.
Kenton is one of the world's leading mountain guides.
He's guided clients to the top of Everest eight times, and Sir Ranulph Fiennes to the top of the Eiger.
I've never seen so much snow here, this is outrageous.
It'll probably be good for jumping over the train on skis, won't it, it would probably be quite easy!
Neil is a professional mountain guide based in the Chamonix valley.
They have both climbed the Eiger's north face before,
but its unique combination of history and danger still draws them back.
For any budding Alpinist climber these days,
I think if you ask anyone
"what would you like to climb?" you might get Everest or possibly
the Grand Durras, but almost certainly,
"I want to climb the north face of the Eiger."
I mean certainly I did, I mean, I grew up reading all the books.
It just catches the imagination.
They want to be able to turn round and say to friends, "I climbed the north face of the Eiger."
Climbers are not, you know, all
level-headed or reasonable.
You know, it's kind of, quite often, you know, it's quite the contrary...
So, you know, they are attracted to the Eiger because of its reputation.
The traditional launch-off point for the Eiger epics.
Last here in the summertime, just lovely green meadows, and now it's just all covered in snow.
Quite foreboding actually.
For most climbers the Eiger remains an elusive prize.
It's a challenging Alpine route that demands a high level of skill and commitment.
And the face must be in good condition before the climbers will even set foot on it.
Conditions this winter are far from perfect.
It's been snowing heavily for days and the Eiger is shrouded in heavy cloud.
I mean, if it stopped snowing right now, tomorrow we could look across and we could see these
like avalanches of snow and ice and sometimes rock cascading down the face.
We call it shedding, that the Eiger will be shedding
its winter cloak in a way.
And it would just be complete death to go anywhere near it.
And it'll probably take 48 hours of, you know, weather...
doesn't need to be sort of blue sky or anything,
it just needs to stop snowing and the wind needs to drop
and it'll shed its winter coat.
And then we will need good weather for the period that we will be climbing.
Yeah, I mean, I'm kind of going to be optimistic and
say we've got a 50/50 chance of giving it an attempt, you know.
We're here for ten days and things can change very, very quickly so, um, yeah.
I'm hopeful, yeah.
Good skiing though.
We've been trying to film an ascent of the north face for two seasons but the weather has been against us,
and the Eiger's history has shown that this is a place that demands the utmost respect.
When the cloud lifts the next morning, you can see why.
The Eiger towers above the hamlet of Kleine Scheidegg.
No other great mountain occupies such a public position.
I mean, we'll be up to our armpits in snow basically.
I don't know about you, Neil, but I don't think I've ever seen it quite...
especially the upper reaches, it looks like it's been kind of blasted.
It almost looks like a big line of ice on it, sort of like Patagonia-style at the top.
Just such an immense face.
Oooph, it's giving me chills just looking at it!
The Eiger is unusual.
Its summit can be reached relatively easily along the ridge lines up its flanks.
But its sheer face is an altogether more serious mountaineering challenge.
It faces north, so it's perpetually in deep shadow.
It's concave, so it traps bad weather close to the face.
One writer described it as being hollowed out like a sick man's chest.
The key danger of the Eiger is probably stone fall.
But it'll also, because it's right on the edge of the Alps, it can
almost have its own private weather system.
And any front that's coming in from the north-west is going to hit the Eiger first.
Within minutes of a storm breaking over the summit, the face is just
being strewn with rubble and water and snow cascading down it.
And it becomes, it will become a horror show.
To be caught on that face, in bad weather, in an exposed spot...
it's the thing that nightmares are made out of.
The bands of rock you have to progress through to make your way up the mountain
have very little protection, very little places to place pegs or any other kind of protection.
And very sharp kind of rock as well, very, very loose.
So you may have no protection and the holes you're holding on to
might snap off as well.
But it's not just the physical challenges that intimidate.
The Eiger north face has its own powerful mythology.
The route by which the Eiger was first climbed is one of the most iconic in mountaineering.
The names of each pitch evoke stories of extraordinary heroism and terrible tragedy.
The Stollenloch, the Hinterstoisser Traverse,
the Flatiron, Death Bivouac,
the Traverse of the Gods,
the White Spider.
I think the fact that every ledge
on the Eiger is covered in the sediment of history makes it very special.
And it adds to that sense of awe.
You know when you get to the Hinterstoisser Traverse,
you know what terrible scenes unfolded there.
And that's bound to instill an anxiety, a nervousness.
You go past those spots, those spots of history, climbing history.
You know, you clip a peg...
who put that peg in?
Maybe it was Heckmair himself.
You know, maybe it was Tony Kurz, you know, on that epic descent.
Maybe it was Chris Bonington.
All these people and they, they've all had their moments on the face...
Dougal Haston, John Harlin falling to his death, it's shrouded in history.
The Eiger's story began back in 1858 when Irishman Charles Barrington
and two local mountain guides reached the summit via the west flank.
Apparently he really wanted to climb the Matterhorn but didn't have the money to get there.
During the latter part of the 19th century the British had dominated the Alps.
They had forged a golden age in mountaineering, pioneered great routes
all over the Alps, and defined what the sport was to become.
The Victorian way was to claim peak after peak.
It was a romantic tradition where dying was simply bad form.
The driving force was very much British middle class dons, lawyers,
clergymen who almost invented this pastime of mountaineering.
And most of the first descents of the big Alpine peaks were made by British
climbers relying heavily on the skills of their local Swiss, French, Italian and German guides.
Particularly Swiss guides.
By the early 1930s the British felt that everything in the Alps had been done.
All that was left was the great north faces of mountains they had already climbed.
The last great problems of the Alps.
But they were turning their attentions to the Himalayas and the great prize of Everest.
Young European climbers sensed an opportunity to reclaim the mountains they had grown up in,
and their style of climbing could not have been more different to the aristocratic British.
The Germans and Austrians and Italians were doing
climbs of a technical standard way beyond anything we were doing.
Particularly in the eastern Alps, in the Dolomites and Bavaria.
They had a technical brilliance and a boldness and a whole new attitude to what was possible and what
was desirable which, which a lot of the traditional British climbers actually rather disapproved of.
And this, this was all sort of epitomised in the north face of the Eiger.
These new Alpine climbers were poor, working class young men.
Many were unemployed during the Depression.
These German climbers, they had nothing to lose.
They just had, they just were good climbers and they thought,
"Yeah, if we do the Eiger north face we will be famous."
In August 1935 two of these bold young men made the first serious attempt on the north face.
Bavarians Max Sedlmeyer and Karl Mehringer had studied
the face intently and believed they had found a direct line to the summit.
No-one ever really tried to climb the north face.
So when the two Munich mountaineers,
Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer started up the wall
in August of 1935, there weren't really any experiences
about how dangerous it is, how difficult it is.
The only thing one knew at the time was that it was a huge face.
They set out at 2am on August the 21st.
They made good progress and at the end of the second
day they had reached the top of the first ice field.
And still the weather held.
Then, on the third night, the weather broke and a great thunderstorm engulfed the Eiger.
The temperature in Kleine Scheidegg fell to minus eight.
On the fifth day the clouds lifted briefly and the queues of people
at the telescopes could see them high on the face,
still battling upwards, nearly at the Flatiron.
The curtain of cloud closed once more and Mehringer and Sedlmeyer were never seen alive again.
Their bodies were later found on a small ledge at 3,300 metres that became known as Death Bivouac.
That first accident in 1935, that really cemented the reputation of the Eiger as...
well it became known as the Mort Wand, the Death Wall.
And the press just flocked to Grindelwald.
And of course, because it's so public, in full view of the cameras and the telescopes,
these grisly dramas were played out to the cameras, to the world's press.
The tragedy captured the public imagination like nothing before.
For the first time, this was mountaineering as theatre.
People could sit on a terrace and watch life and death drama unfold before them.
The stage was set for the Eiger's second act.
By the summer of 1936, the Eiger's terrible reputation was attracting the best and the
boldest young climbers in Europe, eager to be the first up this dreadful wall or to die trying.
That summer, there were twelve young men camped in the valley waiting for the face to come into condition.
They were the most brilliant climbers of their generation.
Among them were Germans Andreas Hinterstoisser and Tony Kurz,
and Austrians Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer.
They, too, had studied the face and had spotted an intricate,
complex line that would demand huge commitment.
The classic route up the Eiger Wand, which so many of us have now followed, was really discovered
in 1936 by Rainer, Angerer, Kurz and Hinterstoisser.
And it was Andel Hinterstoisser who led this critical passage, where you're...
basically you're sneaking in from the right hand side of the face
underneath a great red vertical cliff.
And you're sort of sneaking your way into the centre of the face.
And there's a critical passage where this very steep slab...
it's at about 70 degrees... and it looks really smooth.
And he did what was then a very modern technique, he did a
sort of tension traverse using tension from the rope to edge his way across this smooth slab.
For a long way, for about eighty feet or so.
When you go on Hinterstoisser Traverse it, it's got a rope fixed in place now.
But it still feels quite committing because you're on a traverse line
and as soon as you start traversing the mountain it makes retreat a lot more difficult because
retreating downwards is quite straightforward but as soon as you have to start retreating sideways,
then it all gets a lot more complicated.
Hinterstoisser's brilliant and bold traverse had unlocked the north face of the Eiger.
The route upwards lay open to them.
They got right up onto the Flatiron, almost to the point where
Sedlmeyer and Mehringer had reached the year before, and it was then that they started to retreat.
The reasons for their retreat are unclear, but it's likely that
Angeler had been seriously injured by a falling rock.
Their line of retreat put them in the path of the constant avalanches.
All the time they were being bombarded by these lethal salvos of loose rocks falling from above
and probably hailstorms coming down and, and even waterfalls when it gets warmer.
It can be absolutely murderous.
And intermittently during gaps in the clouds the people in the valley were able to see
these tiny, tiny figures retreating, watching them through the telescopes.
As they arrived back at the Traverse they realised that they had made a terrible mistake.
Instead of leaving a rope in place, Hinterstoisser had taken it with him.
He would have to reverse the move without the rope in place.
And now, the weather had broken.
To make matters worse, those smooth slabs of limestone were now covered
in this glaze, this veneer of ice, and so the thing had become virtually impossible.
He tried and tried, but eventually he had to give up in exhaustion.
The only way off the mountain was straight down.
The problem with that is, below the Hinterstoisser Traverse, you've got great overhangs, it's undercut.
And so as they set off abseiling down, they were abseiling into unknown territory,
with huge overhangs which were going to leave them dangling in space.
And it was during that whole business with frozen ropes, four people, setting up anchors,
desperation to get this injured man down, and at
some point during all that confusion, we don't know exactly what happened, but basically someone fell...
..pulled the others off, an anchor failed
and there were bodies hurtling through the air,
there were ropes whipping through the air,
and it ended up with three men dead
and one man, Tony Kurz, still alive.
But hanging, literally hanging on the rope, in space,
beneath the lip of one of those great overhangs.
The Eiger Railway runs right through the mountain,
and there are viewing windows high in the face for the railway guards and the public to look out of.
That night, a guard heard a shout through the Stollenloch window.
Realising that there were climbers in trouble, he alerted the mountain
guides and a rescue party set out through the window into the storm.
They come up in a special train, they climb out onto the face, and they shout up to Kurz,
"We can't do anything tonight, just try and get through the night, we'll be back in the morning."
The hotels of Kleine Scheidegg were packed with visitors eager to watch the drama high on the mountain.
Early the next morning, the guides climbed out through
the Stollenloch window and managed to get to 40 metres below Kurz.
But they couldn't reach him because of the overhang above them.
Kurz managed to haul up the two lengths of rope he would need to descend the last 40 metres.
Somehow, he managed to tie the ropes together, but as he abseiled down,
the knot joining the ropes jammed in his karabiner.
Mountain guide Arnold Glatthard was one of the rescue party.
I said, "Look, I give you a knife up,
"and you have to cut the rope above you,
"because I'm so good here, we are all good, we are 100%,
"and you don't fall more than five metres to us, and we will hold you.
"Cut the rope and then you will be safe."
They were just down there, the people who could save his life, and he just couldn't get...
His fingers were completely frost-bitten, they were just dead.
He just couldn't get it through, and they were saying, "Go on, you can do it, you can do it."
And he's desperately fumbling and fumbling, and then,
this had been going on for over 24 hours now, and eventually he just
said, "It's finished," and died.
Eiger historian Rainer Rettner believes that Kurz could have been saved.
There was one thing that happened that was really bad luck.
One of the guides had a long rope
just put between the back and the rucksack, but not into his rucksack.
And when he made a sudden movement, the rope dropped and fell to the base of
the north fall.
And that was a thing where it was really tragic,
because maybe this would have saved Tony Kurz' life.
Kurz' body was later cut down.
This recently-discovered footage shows mountain guides retrieving his body.
The press and the public were enthralled by the exquisite horror of Tony Kurz' death.
Tony Kurz, that was perfect. I mean, it's a little bit ironic, but it was
life that was two days, three days, and people were there and radio was there and newspapers were there.
The ghouls, the ghouls were all there, yeah.
They flocked to the telescopes.
It was really good for business, for tourism.
It's like the reverse of the Roman circus, instead of looking
down into the amphitheatre, they're looking up at it.
I always said, if there would have been television,
I think they would have filmed live
how Tony Kurz is dying, because that was so dramatic.
I mean, there were four climbers trapped in
the north face and then two rescue teams fighting against all that.
The weather was bad and stuff like that.
You couldn't invent it better.
The Eiger was front-page news all over Europe once again.
The Swiss authorities banned climbing on the north face of
the Eiger, and Colonel Strutt of the British Alpine Club was outraged.
He wrote words to the effect that this was simply a pastime for the mentally deranged,
and that whoever finally succeeded in climbing the north face of the Eiger could satisfy themselves
by knowing that they'd pulled off the most imbecilic variance in the history of mountaineering.
Imbecilic or not, for mountaineers the Eiger's north face had become an even bigger prize.
I think it's the only mountain face where you can actually get a train and then just walk on
to the north face, isn't it?
Sort of halfway up.
Kenton and Neil have special permission to visit one of the Eiger's most extraordinary features,
When the Eiger Railway was built, the workmen used this window high on the face to throw rubble out.
It's the same window that the mountain guides used to try and rescue Tony Kurz.
The Stollenloch would allow Kenton and Neil to check conditions on the face.
Awesome. This is amazing. Can we start digging?
-Can we, can we?!
-You can almost see light out of it.
-You can almost see light.
And this is the Stollenloch, this is well exciting.
I've not popped out of this window before.
I've actually climbed past this, within about 50, 60 metres, so it's going to be really exciting.
This is just great, because you read all the books about it and you hear all the epics about people
getting back in or some people unfortunately not getting back in, in storms.
And then literally having to walk down a railway track to safety.
I can't believe I'm so excited about going out of a door.
It's like Escape To Victory.
Yeah, it's like The Great Escape. You're kind of digging...
Yeah, come on up, Kenton.
Ah, awesome, check this out.
Bugger me, this is awesome!
-Look at the walls above.
Hey, look at the mushroom.
That is amazing.
That's where the base jumpers leap from.
One slip, certain death.
This is just amazing, absolutely amazing. We've just popped out
and it's just... Like, we're on the north face.
A spindrift's coming down
and it's pretty cold.
It's quite foreboding, actually.
I mean, this is the scene of so many epics, so many almost horror-like stories
about people battling for their lives to get up here and then in.
And probably there's none quite as bad as the '36 epic of Tony Kurz
and his really good climbing companions and friends.
As a boy growing up, reading things like The White Spider,
the book that tells you about the history of the Eiger, to be here, to be part of it
and actually have time to think about it, that's what's so emotional today.
We normally come up here as fast as we can, climbing really fast
to try and get up as high on the face before we bivouac.
But today I've got time to look around
and just soak it all in.
It's quite an emotional place to be and just to climb through the window...
Who's pushed that door open and collapsed inside going, "Thank God, we're alive"?
You know, "We've escaped!"
Or conversely, who's shut the door knowing that somebody's left out here?
It's a powerful place to be.
The Kurz tragedy had made the Eiger irresistible to climbers.
The Swiss ban lasted just four months, and in 1937 two young Italians died on the face.
In 1938, the last summer of peace before World War II,
four exceptional climbers arrived in Kleine Scheidegg.
Germans Andreas Heckmair and Ludvig Vorg, and Austrians Fritz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer.
Their route has become one of the great classics of Alpine climbing.
It's a big, complicated route.
It's not going up, straight up and down. It works its way up a series of lines of weakness, and if you're
in thick cloud, it's quite easy, particularly in the upper part, to actually lose your way.
And it's technically not super-hard.
But because of the complexity, the size and the length,
it's a hugely-complex mountaineering challenge and problem.
And I think it still is, it is one of the really great routes of the Alps.
It's a classic route and it's a serious route.
In '38 it was just an outstanding performance they did.
You have two fast...
A couple of sections there is not good protection, so it's still a serious climb.
Vorg had a camera with him, and all the time he made pictures.
And people could see how...
Not only read it, but also see how they did it.
And these pictures, I find these pictures, if you look at it,
it's still, "Wow, that was bad conditions."
Harrer and Kasparek set off first at 2am on the morning on July 21st.
They climbed slowly.
Harrer had left his crampons behind, and they were soon passed by Vorg and Kasparek.
It was much worse than we ever thought and had anticipated.
We underestimated the whole thing, the height, the difficulties, the snows, the storms,
the difficulty to find the bivouac place, for instance.
You know, we had given us a promise, Kasparek and myself, never to climb during the afternoon.
And you English have a wonderful saying, "Have a plan and stick to it". And we did stick to that plan.
We were at the beginning of the second ice field at two in the afternoon,
but we started bivouacking because in the afternoon it's hell on the second ice field,
and you hardly can avoid to get hit by a stone.
At midday on the 22nd, they rested together at Death Bivouac,
but continued to climb as separate teams.
By now, they were higher on the north face than anyone had been before.
They crossed the third ice field and onto the Ramp.
As they reached the Traverse of the Gods,
they decided to join forces and climb on together.
As they reached the great hanging ice field of the White Spider,
the inevitable Eiger storm hit.
Heckmair and Vorg shout to us, "We move into the Spider, there we find a safe place, you follow us."
Heckmair, he went up an absolutely vertical crack.
They disappeared above us, and it took hours and hours, and they didn't call for us to continue.
And suddenly blood and snow came down, and they shouted above us, and Heckmair, he crashed down onto Vorg.
And Vorg was vertically underneath him.
Vorg put up his hands and he jumped with the crampons right into the hands of Vorg.
So blood came out, some of the sinews were actually cut.
Later on, I heard the story of course, and Vorg had a bottle
given to him by a doctor, and this bottle said, "Take only ten drops,"
but Vorg was absolutely pale in his face, so Heckmair poured half the bottle into his mouth,
and then he said so nicely to me, "The other half, I drank myself, because I was so thirsty,"
he said to me.
The bottle is thought to have contained strong amphetamines.
Kasparek was about
30 feet above me,
and then he shouted at me, "An avalanche is coming."
And so I just pressed my body towards the ice slope,
and I just had time to push my rucksack above my head, and that saved, really, my life.
And now one avalanche after the other came...
..across me, and I thought,
"Well, I'm the only one who's survived now," because I couldn't imagine that anybody above me
could have withstood that force of that avalanche.
Four climbers, they made it to the top.
And as Heckmair said to me, 60, 70 years later, when he was an old man, "I was actually pleased
"there was that storm, because it wasn't a walkover, we had to fight, we had to struggle."
And that struggle through the exit cracks was astounding.
It was a brilliant, brilliant achievement by any standards.
A brilliant achievement,
and as they came down the west flank late in the afternoon,
they got down to Kleine Scheidegg
and the whole press of Europe was there to meet them,
so instant fame for the four of them.
There's that wonderful photo of the four of them,
and you can just see that radiant glow of fulfilment
and happiness on their faces.
It's a wonderful picture.
But not everyone was delighted.
You couldn't read a lot about it in the English press.
There was still sort of resentment, of course.
Because of the political development in Germany.
The German climbers were not really very popular, of course,
because everyone thought that they had been
directed to the wall through the Nazi party, which wasn't the case.
I think Harrer had the swastika flag in his backpack,
but he didn't take it out on the summit.
I think they just were glad to be on the summit.
No swastika, no picture, no nothing.
Just, "Jesus, let's go down."
It was instantly politicised, because no sooner had they got down to Grindelwald than they whisked off
back to Germany, they were taken to the Olympic stadium in Breslau,
and now they were paraded in front of the adoring crowds.
The Fuhrer, no less, came to meet them, and they were national heroes.
Here was this perfect example of the prime of Germanic manhood
achieving glory on the ultimate Alpine climb.
It was a spin doctor's dream, handed to him on a plate.
The story of the '38 ascent has assumed the power of myth.
Four young heroes taking on an evil ogre, overcoming huge odds
taking a magic potion that gives them the power to defeat the monster.
Heinrich Harrer went on to lead an extraordinary life as a climber, explorer, writer and film-maker.
Allegations of Nazism followed him throughout his life, but his account of the climb, The White Spider,
remains one of the most important pieces of mountain literature ever written.
The very public success of Vorg, Kasparek, Harrer and Heckmair
did little to diminish the power of the Eiger.
It unlocked the door to a host of young, ambitious and highly-skilled guides, eager to prove their worth
and claim the ultimate Alpine prize for their nation.
The next two decades would see a further 30 successful ascents.
But for every successful season, it seemed that the Eiger must exact a price.
Death, disaster and controversy continued to dog the north face.
By the end of the '50s, it was no longer enough to climb the Heckmair classic.
The first solo attempt was made, and a remarkable winter ascent in 1961 in the most severe conditions.
But there had still been no British ascent of the Eiger.
Now, a new wave of highly-skilled British rock and ice climbers
were turning their attentions back to the Alps.
By the time a 20-year-old Chris Bonington arrived in Grindelwald in 1957,
the north face had been climbed successfully 12 times, and claimed 14 lives.
It was the start of a long association with the Eiger's north face.
In July 1962, Bonington attempted the Eiger with legendary British climber Don Whillans.
I wanted to climb the north wall of the Eiger, I was fascinated by it, as was Don.
Probably, I would say in 1961, '62, Don was at the absolute height of his powers.
I mean, he was one of the best climbers in the world at that time.
But much more than that, he had the best kind of mountain judgment,
feel for a mountain, of anyone that I've ever met.
I mean, he was streets ahead of me.
I mean, he was more experienced than I was anyway,
but he was very thoughtful about his climbing,
very focused about it.
And he thought through absolutely everything.
And on a mountain, you just couldn't have a better partner.
I mean, you knew he would never, ever let anyone down.
At the same time, there was another strong British team on the face, Brian Nally and Barry Brewster.
It was a race amongst British climbers to be the first to get there.
We'd gone up, the conditions were obviously wrong,
it was much too warm and there's water pouring down, there's a huge amount of stone fall.
And we went up to the...
beginning of the second ice field just to have a look.
We were only going to have a look, and we'd already planned to turn back.
And just as we were about to turn back, these Swiss guides came up
behind us and shouted up to us, saying,
"Two of your comrades are in trouble at the end of the second ice fall, will you help us to rescue them?"
And, you know, you don't think twice about it, we just turned around and started across the second ice field.
It was very dangerous, I mean, there was stones just hurtling down around us.
And then when we were about halfway across, we could see them.
And then we saw this one little figure arching down the face, and it was Barry Brewster.
And the previous day, he'd been hit on the head by a stone, and Brian Nally managed
to secure him on this little ledge at the end of the second ice field.
Brewster and Nally spent a night exposed on the north face.
In this BBC documentary, a traumatised Brian Nally takes up the story.
At first light
I tried to really make this decision.
And he seemed to stir a little, moved an arm,
and he seemed to regain consciousness a bit, so I went back again up the slope
and got a stove, thinking that I'd make a drink or some soup or something, if he could take it.
And I'd started to make this, and he seemed to come to a bit.
And he opened his eyes
and he seemed to know where he was and who I was...
..and he said, "I'm sorry, Brian."
And he died.
everything went dark and...
..that really was the end of everything.
First reaction was to
go over the summit at any cost, because...
that's what we'd come to do,
and I couldn't bear the thought of going down.
But time passed, and I rationalised a bit more and...
came round to the proper decisions to make,
and I took a rope and
started the long haul back.
There was a huge amount of media there, there were flashlights
and then when you got back to Kleine Scheidegg, there were even more.
It was big news, because it was a kind of an epic tragedy.
And I think Don and I, we were both...
we were kind of revolted by it.
And that's why we were just very glad to escape.
Whillans returned home, but Bonington stayed on in the Alps,
and later that summer joined forces with British mountaineer Ian Clough.
We were at the absolute peak of our form.
Ian and I got on very well together.
It was just a really good climbing partnership.
It's like I woke him up about 5.00am once saying,
"Look, I've had a brainwave, let's go for the Eiger!"
And dear old Ian said, "Yeah, OK."
And so three days later, we were going up the Eiger, and that time it was perfect.
Bonington and Clough had claimed the first British ascent of the Eiger's north face.
Success on the Eiger changed Bonington's life forever.
Because of the Eiger, I was asked to write my first book.
We had a lecture tour, and had more money.
It is an extraordinary face and an extraordinary climb,
and you've got to think of what it was like in 1962, when, yeah, it was very mysterious, very challenging.
Kenton and Neil are out on the face, near the Stollenloch window, climbing part of the 1938 route.
I feel quite small all of a sudden.
It still has a real aura about it, and you set off on the Eiger
quite nervously and quite anxious, and wondering, "Am I going to be up to it?
"Am I going to live up to the challenge?"
Look at all the spindrift coming down.
Yeah, that spindrift is not looking good, is it?
It's looking horrendous.
-Agh, here comes the wind.
-Straight down my neck.
If you're up there and it's always dark,
you can see out, the amazing Alpine meadows below you,
with the sun shining on them.
In the winter you see everybody skiing and sitting in tables eating and drinking and having a great time.
But yet you're kind of in this kind of shadow land on the edge of the Eiger, really.
So it isn't like a normal mountain at all, really.
It's kind of, there's something there, there's something living there.
Yeah, this is not... This is not north face conditions at all.
God, if my mother saw me now, she'd not be very happy.
Being able to judge the conditions, judge your team, to decide
whether to go on or retreat, it is really important on that climb.
Because the judgment at the bottom when you decide, "Yeah, we're going for this," it's huge on the Eiger.
Whereas with another climb, it might be that you try it
and you think, "Ah, actually, it's not on today, I don't feel right." Or, "We can come back down."
But actually, even if you just climb half the Eiger, you're then very committed.
With the bad weather coming in tomorrow,
it's just not realistically going to happen.
No, I don't think so.
Well, I think we've both reached a point today where I've seen enough,
the conditions aren't perfect, we've got a bad weather forecast coming in.
I think it's time to retreat back down to the window down there
and then we can come back and fight the face another day.
But as far as I'm concerned, from the perspective of a guide
and a climber, this is wrong, this isn't going to happen.
Yeah, get your head down, mate.
Yeah, these aren't great conditions on the face.
The Eiger stands there,
beckoning young men to enter the list and try their courage.
Graveyard though it is, the elite of the climbing world still look
and wonder whether there isn't another route, a direct route perhaps,
with no diversions for the Hinterstoisser Traverse,
or for the Ramp, or for the Traverse of the Gods.
A new line, straight for the summit,
over every overhang, up every ice field.
By the early '60s, climbers all over Europe
were looking for the next great prize on the Eiger's north face -
the direttissimo, or direct route, straight up the face from the bottom to the top.
It became quite obsessive.
It originated with a famous Italian climber who said,
"Where a drop of water will fall, there I will make my route."
And regardless of whether it's actually the natural way to go up.
In the summer of 1965,
Chris Bonington was one of many climbers
planning an attempt on the direct route.
Once again, the press and public struggled to understand
why these young men would risk their lives on such a dangerous mountain,
especially one that had already been climbed.
Chris, you've done the ordinary route up the north face,
why on earth are you going on it again, risking your neck?
Well, for a start, Mac, I don't like that term "risking your neck".
We've taken a lot of trouble and time thinking out
going on this route, and we've planned the route for a long time.
We'd also be prepared always to turn back.
We're certainly not taking unjustified risks.
Going on from that, for why we're going on the route anyway,
the direttissimo line is a completely separate line up the north face of the Eiger,
and a very worthwhile one, and it's also new.
This is the reason why I want to go on it, because it is a new route.
25 people have already been killed on the face who didn't think they were taking any risk.
I think the risk is unjustifiable and wouldn't set foot on it, particularly the direct route.
Also planning an attempt was John Harling,
a charismatic American based in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he ran a mountaineering school.
Initially, Bonington agreed to join forces with him, but as the winter drew on he changed his mind.
I just got increasingly worried about the whole thing.
John Harling was an incredibly powerful personality.
And I was just worried by it.
Instead, Bonington agreed to photograph the climb for the Daily Telegraph,
working out on the face as the teams climbed.
The Harling Direct was this big media hyped-up circus thing.
Climbers are always split when media gets involved in mountaineering,
because they like it to be something a little bit private.
Which is why it's not very well understood, generally, because climbers don't open up about it.
And some people really were very anti that, it being filmed,
having newspaper reporters and all this sort of razzamatazz.
By February 1966, the pressure was on.
A strong German team was also planning an attempt on the direct route.
Harling had invited brilliant young British climber Dougal Haston to replace Bonington.
The world's press gathered in Kleine Scheidegg to watch the show.
The Germans set off first, an eight-man team using siege tactics pioneered in the Himalayas.
Fixed ropes, ladders, high camps stocked with supplies.
Dedicated climbing teams supplied from below would mean that they could push on through bad weather.
They would continue till they reached the top.
The Eiger Direct would be climbed.
John Harling, Dougal Haston and an American rock specialist Layton Kor set off alongside.
It turned into a race, and it wasn't a race of the climbers' devising, but it developed into a race,
with the German team, very fine German climbers, climbing parallel to a British-American team.
They had chosen the worst winter for decades.
They inched up the face in appalling conditions.
After 18 days, they had reached Death Bivouac, the place where
Sedlmeyer and Mehringer had frozen to death 31 years before.
Back in the '60s, the idea of climbing this great wall in winter was almost outrageous.
It just seemed so forbidding.
And to do that kind of technical climbing
with very, very cold fingers, with everything deep in powdered snow, seemed almost impossible.
The weather was horrific.
Storm after storm thundered in as the teams battled up the face.
This footage of Dougal Haston approaching the White Spider was shot by John Harling.
It was the last footage he would ever shoot.
On March 22nd, one month after his team first set foot on the wall,
a fixed rope snapped and John Harling fell to his death.
There was just an accident waiting to happen.
We were using fixed ropes that were miles too thin,
and I think it was inevitable
that one was going to break sooner or later,
and it could have happened to any of us.
Tragically, it happened to John.
And so he fell to his death, the others were in the White Spider,
and there, I think absolutely rightly, decided, you know,
they abandoned the trip then and there.
It would be throwing John's life away.
Dougal Haston, the Scottish member of the team, was above the snapped rope,
and he joined forces with the Germans to complete the climb in John Harling's memory.
It was a stunning line with some very, very hard climbing,
taking an almost straight line directly up the centre of this immense triangle.
So it was a huge achievement.
The press had a field day.
The story had all the elements of the perfect Eiger tragedy.
That was like exactly, I guess, what the Eiger's about.
Journalism, film, razzamatazz, people looking through telescopes,
somebody died, all this sort of stuff.
Climbers falling out, drama.
It is wonderful, wonderful theatre.
And it was very, very exciting.
I mean, the whole thing actually was exciting.
Because the climbers were doing what they really wanted to do.
And I think one of the aspects in which I think my generation
of climbers has been fortunate
is that the kind of climbs that we wanted to do for their own sake,
be it the north wall of the Eiger by the ordinary route,
or the Eiger Direct,
they were real, genuine, mainstream climbing challenges
which the media could get their heads around and could follow.
Whereas today, I don't think the media can any longer
get their heads around hard climbing.
In the 1930s, the Eiger was considered unclimbable,
the preserve of imbeciles and the mentally deranged.
In 2009, Swiss phenomenon Ueli Steck
completed an ascent of the north face
in just two hours and 47 minutes.
For me, it was completely different.
You go there and it's like you go running.
You take the first train, you have a coffee,
then 9.00 in the morning you start climbing,
and you know exactly for lunchtime you will be latest on summit.
It changes completely in your head,
just three hours exposed in the face.
It's not the same mountaineering like serious mountaineering anymore.
And I spend, like, one year training specially for this speed ascent.
It's like training like a marathon.
The Eiger's role as grand stage for the most brilliant climbers of a generation remains undiminished.
But while headline-grabbing speed ascents provide useful column inches,
for professional climbers and their sponsors, this is not a publicity stunt.
This whole ascent's changed my mind for all mountains.
I think there is a lot possible in a different way on climbing.
I can go maybe to Himalaya with a completely different mind, and this will change climbing.
I'm not a better climber than Heckmair was in his time.
It's just another time, so this is what's changing.
But the mountain's still the same.
The Eiger is the great-grandfather of Alpine north faces.
Once considered an invincible, evil ogre, it has now been climbed up every conceivable route.
It's a playground for the world's extreme elite.
I'm standing on the Eiger, 3,186 metres off the ground.
People have run up it, jumped off it and skied down its great face.
But despite all this, the Eiger's north face
still commands the respect of the world's best Alpinists.
I've often wondered whether with the Eiger it's a purely human construct.
Whether it really is just this story we've created around it,
and the very public position, all the kitsch down at Kleine Scheidegg,
the people with the telescopes, the terrible stories of the accidents and the grim tragedies.
I wonder whether that's all it is, or whether...
the wall itself is intrinsically interesting.
And actually, when you go there, it is the biggest wall in the Alps, it is colossal, it's unique.
A lot of people, they will never climb the Eiger,
not because they couldn't do the moves on it,
if they had the safety of a rope all the way above them,
but really because it's so committing, the risks and the test of your self-belief.
You would quite like it if it probably fell down,
you didn't have to do it, but you aren't really complete,
you have to have climbed it or at least had some big epic on it!
Advances in weather forecasting and rescue techniques
have made the Eiger a much safer place than it was 50 years ago.
And while other great mountains have been diminished through commercialism,
the Eiger still retains something special.
It has been the stage on which some of the most iconic stories
in mountain history have been played out to an eager audience.
And for that reason alone, it remains unique.
We personally think the rewards are worth the risk,
yet to the non-climber it would just seem insane.
We do it for those moments which are totally priceless.
So, you know, why we pit ourselves against the north face...
I don't know... weird really.
And especially this one. You know, this is the biggest, baddest, nastiest one of them all.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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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.