March 24, 1997.
Those who knew it best called it the Ogre. Its solitary neighbours they named the Monk and the Virgin. For almost a hundred years after climbing became a sport it killed anyone who dared its gnarly north face. In the process its shelves and slots and crevices and steep monolithic pitches had earned a litany of fanciful names. On the outskirts of the rock there was the Red Chimney and Swallows Nest. Higher up Death Bivouac marked the site where two German climbers, having got farther than anyone before them, froze to death in 1935. There was the Traverse of the Gods—a vertiginous piece of rock that had to be crossed before coming to the White Spider—the last and most treacherous ice field, so named for the numerous crevices spinning out from its centre—and finally the Exit Cracks, thin almost vertical channels of stone leading to the summit.
The first successful ascent of the Eiger’s north face occurred in 1938. Two teams, one German and one Austrian, had started a day apart from each other but consolidated in order to come up through the Exit Cracks tied to a single rope. The next climb came nine years later with better equipment and the traces of the first climb still in place. Like the first team these left their ropes and anchors in their wake and walked out across the western shoulder. Later teams did the same, simplifying the more difficult pitches with strategically placed anchors and the occasional rope.
After that Eiger’s dark face became a proving ground. National teams attempted the summit, then solo climbers. The first single day ascent occurred in 1950. A woman summitted the north face in 1964. A year before that, a team of Swiss guides accomplished a harrowing descent by cable from the summit in an attempt to rescue two Italian climbers. They saved one and lost three of their own in the effort. There was a most direct route, called the John Harlin route after the climber who died trying to make it, a successful ski descent on Eiger’s western flank, a youngest climber, and then even a seemingly impossible eight-and-a-half-hour climb in 1981—shattering all records.
But even after it had been domesticated with ropes and anchors, detailed narratives of its various challenges and helicopter rescues, the Ogre could still sometimes awaken from its slumber and come roaring out of the alpine south with howls like that of a wounded beast. Its winds were capable of ripping climbers from their tenuous hold on life and rock. The ice was notoriously unstable, the stone pitted and fragile. Fog made a habit of following the sweet clear foehn like night follows day. It swept across the face so thick and close one climbed by touch alone. Then there were avalanches of rocks and ice and snow, the unrelenting cold of shadows never warmed by the sun’s rays and the bone-tired weariness that comes of crawling across vertical walls. Nine had died before the first successful climb. More than forty had perished in the decades since.
By the time Kate Wheeler made her first attempt in 1992 all the records, it seemed, had been set. The Eiger was a rock in the Bernese Alps with a storied history; dangerous, yes, but well travelled and almost comfortable as mountains went. Kate was seventeen—not even the youngest to climb the Eiger. She had been involved in the sport seriously for three years. She had already summitted a great many of the glories of Europe, including the legendary Matterhorn. On the first day, Kate and her father climbed for ten hours and were making jokes about the first father-daughter team—the list of firsts having grown so long as to be the stuff of humour. They planned to summit late the following evening because things had gone so well, but a snowstorm that night came in fast and white and cold and pushed them back. They made camp and tried to wait it out, but when their supplies ran low they finally retreated.
Kate tried it again the next summer, partnering this time with a young German climber she had met that spring. After forcing their way across the lower ice fields over the course of two days, they made love at Death Bivouac. They intended to climb out on the third day, and awoke to perfect weather. They started the day confidently by ascending the ramp and completing the Traverse of the Gods. Then an ice screw broke free at the Spider and sent Kate’s partner tumbling across almost a hundred metres of ice and rock. He was lucky that the worst of it was a pair of broken legs.
On her third attempt Kate partnered with Lord Robert Kenyon and a Swiss guide who had been up the mountain more than a dozen times. It had been Robert’s idea to make it a honeymoon climb. ‘We’ll take it,’ he had told Kate with the quiet confidence of a man who never failed, ‘or it will kill us both. One way or the other.’
An individual without Kate’s passion might have hesitated at such an awful promise, but Kate loved it. Robert Kenyon’s life was not about compromise and patience. He seized the moment with audacity and savoured his victories as though they were his God-given right.
© Craig Smith 2010