Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Eiger - Triumph and Tragedy, an evening at the RGS.

The Nordwand
It is some 45 years since John Harlin fell to his death from the Eiger Nordwand in 1966, however the pain and power of the event still looms large in the psyche of Sir Chris Bonington. On Thursday 1st December I had the pleasure of hearing him speak on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society as part of an event entitled “The Eiger – Triumph and Tragedy”. The evening was staged by The Mountain Heritage Trust, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of our mountaineering history, as their chair said, “We care about your old nuts.” Also on the bill was the quite incredible Ueli Steck, holder of the speed record for a free climb of the Eiger Nordwand, a quite unbelievable 2 hours 47 minutes.

It was only my second visit to the RGS and I still marvel at the history and atmosphere contained within its walls. The bar is situated in the map room and it is difficult not to be overawed by the knowledge that surrounds you. 150 years ago great men stood in this room and laid their plans for the great expeditions of the British Empire. In one corner Livingstone hangs shoulder to shoulder with Captain Scott. In another corner hangs a portrait of Sir John Hunt, leader of the 1953 Everest expedition, brooding over a large model of Everest itself, and all around are drawers filled with the maps these men pored over and themselves created.

Sir Chris spoke first, explaining how the Nordwand had been a constant presence in his formative years as a climber, rearing its face every so often to tempt him. He spoke with great humour and, to be honest, some dodgy accents, on his early attempts with the great Hamish MacInnes and the brusque but utterly dependable Don Whillans. He spoke of his terror at finding himself bivvying below the Difficult Crack with MacInnes while still a schoolboy and he spoke with great eloquence of his and Whillans’ involvement in the rescue of Brian Nally following the death of Barry Brewster on the second ice field, the interview with Brian Nally following the rescue is heartrending.

Finally in 1962 Sir Chris made the first British ascent with Ian Clough, but even this victory was tinged with sadness after two climbers following Clough and Bonington were swept to their deaths by falling rocks. The final chapter of Sir Chris’s talk was given over to telling the story of John Harlin and his team’s attempt to climb the Nordwand by a direct route. Harlin’s initial plan was to climb the route Alpine style, however this changed to siege tactics when it was discovered that they were competing with a German team. As has been documented many times John Harlin fell to his death when a fixed rope parted. Sir Chris was one of the first to Harlin’s body. It is his emotion when reliving this, the pain obviously still so real and raw, his voice faltering and tears falling that will stay with me. His presentation was modestly delivered, illustrated with a few photographs and no fuss; his tale of triumph and tragedy needed little else.

After a brief interval where the great Doug Scott auctioned various pieces of Eiger memorabilia with expert comic timing, it was the turn of Ueli Steck to speak. Ueli isn’t a huge guy and dressed in a black t-shirt he seemed to blend into the stage but his quiet manner and soft spoken, dry, sharp wit hide an athlete of immense power and skill. He joked to start with that the only reason he makes the incredible speed ascents, for which he is rightly famous, is that his wife likes him home for lunch. He makes light of the training and commitment involved and then explains that he’d like to show us some “nice” pictures and so we sit enthralled by videos of his various ascents to a pounding rock soundtrack (I wonder if it’s the first time a guitar solo has been heard in those hallowed halls?). We travel with him to the Nordwand where he seemingly effortlessly runs up 70 and 80 degree faces punching his axes into the ice like a boxer before sprinting along the ridge to the summit, then on to an onsight climb of the Colton-Macintyre route on the Grandes Jorasses and up the north face of the Matterhorn, all three faces in around seven hours of climbing, before he whisks us off to the Himalaya and his stupendous 10.5 hour ascent of Shishapangma. He brings us back to earth with the revelation that less than a month after Shishapangma he reached the third step at 8600m on Everest only to turn back as “no mountain is worth losing fingers or toes for…” Good sense indeed. Steck is an incredible climber truly deserving of the epithet “The Swiss Machine”.

The evening ended with a Q&A session and finally an array of Nordwand summiteers lined up on the stage, but what still, and will always stick with me is the emotion attached by Sir Chris Bonington to the awesome and terrible North face of the Eiger.

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