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Monday, September 24, 2007

The Eiger Indirect

During the last day of our media tour in Grindelwald, we saw the Eiger from all angles: from the bottom, from the side, from the inside. Our trip had been organized around the past lives of John Harlin III, star of the new IMAX film The Alps and author of The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain that Killed my Father. John’s father was John Harlin II, who made the first American ascent of the Eiger’s nordwand in 1962 and then died during a famed attempt on the Eiger Direct, now known as the Harlin Direct, four years later. In September 2005, the younger Harlin returned to Grindelwald to climb the Eiger north face—an event captured in the film.

Our Eiger adventure began by riding the yellow cog railway to Alpiglen, nearly 2,000 feet above Grindelwald. This is where Harlin II, Chris Bonington, and other Eiger aspirants too impecunious for hotel living would camp between attempts. From here, we switchbacked up the Eiger Trail past farmers’ gray wooden huts and huge, black, bearded goats with white bellies. This would be terrific hike below any mountain, with sterling views of Grindelwald and the surrounding peaks, but the Eiger Trail is unique because of its close approach to such a famous landmark in climbing history. Walking here, it’s easy to imagine the Eiger pioneers hearing cowbells and the klaxon from the Grindelwald post bus from high on the wall. One envisions them freezing on the black face and longing for the green pastures below.

Along the path, Harlin stopped repeatedly to point out landmarks: the White Spider, Death Bivouac, the Hinterstoisser Traverse, the windowed viewing gallery from the Jungfraujoch train that we planned to ride that afternoon. Beneath the face, Harlin traced the direct route that his father had planned and led until he fell—young John stressed the “perfection of the line,” showing us how his father's route, which appears to wander a bit in the classic view from Kleine Scheidegg, actually creates a true direttissima.

My perspective was still off: As it did from town and from across the valley, the Eiger still appeared smaller than I’d expected; from this vantage, grossly foreshortened, it was hard to make out the famous features of the 1938 line until John painstakingly located them for us. It wasn’t until the end of the day, at Kleine Scheidegg, that the wall’s majesty and verticality were finally revealed to me.

Near the end of the walk, we crossed a broad scree slope, practically within rock-fall range of the face. A few people had left the main trail and hopped over talus several hundred yards to the actual foot; a few had even scrambled up the low-angle rock at the base, no doubt so they could say, “I climbed (sotto voce: 'on') the Eiger.”

Just before reaching the end of the trail at the Eigergletscher stop on the Jungfraujoch rail line, we passed a steep band of limestone roughly 100 feet high, with a few icicles hanging from it. “Welcome to the Little Eiger,” John said. This was the stage set for re-enactments of certain of the most dramatic climbing scenes in the IMAX film. Although everything depicted in the film really happened, some of its was restaged here for the huge IMAX camera, during the spring after John’s climb.

Beside the train station was a smooth rock etched with the words “Den Eiger K├╝mmerts Nicht.” All along the path, we’d seen similar rocks with inscriptions in Swiss German; our guide explained that these told the epic tale of Swiss guiding history, filled with bureaucracy and infighting. The whole saga ends with this simple yet profound line: “The Eiger Doesn't Care.” Truer words were never carved in stone.

Next up: The top of Europe. Sort of. To go to the first of these stories from Switzerland, click here.

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