The Eiger is a 3,967 metre (13,015 ft) mountain in the Swiss Alps, and the White Spider is a firn field in the upper portion of its infamous north face. Heinrich Harrer was a member of the first team to successfully climb it in 1938, and this is his account of this feat, and also a history of all attempts, successful or not, from 1935 to 1964. Back then, the Eiger north face was considered such a challenging and deadly climb that in German it was given the nickname Mordwand instead of Nordwand, or murder(ous) face instead of north face. Climbers have to contend with hazards like avalanches, stone-falls, severe thunderstorms and blizzards, extreme cold snaps, and sudden weather changes in general. Much of its notoriety can probably also be attributed to the fact that curious onlookers can watch climbers and their victories or tragedies on the north face through telescopes from their hotel if the weather permits it.
In 1935, the first serious attempt to conquer it was made by two climbers who froze to death after a few days on the wall due to a sudden deterioriation in the weather. In 1936, the next attempt was undertaken by four mountaineers of which three were killed by an avalanche while the only survivor of this event, after dangling from the wall for two days, died from exhaustion only a few metres from safety because a knot would not fit through a snap link. In 1937, another climber died of exhaustion and other attempts failed, and in 1938, two climbers fell to their death, until finally, a month later, a party of four that included Harrer was successful. All these events are covered in the first few chapters of the book, and those are certainly the highlight. The tragedies of the first years are morbidly captivating, and then, when Harrer gives his firsthand account of the mountain and the first ascent, it becomes a true page-turner because their climb, too, was not without problems and dangerous situations. The Eiger in all its inhospitality and volatility is also a great protagonist, and Harrer creates a haunting picture of the conditions climbers have to endure on it.
Unfortunately, after this great success it is a little anticlimactic when Harrer just continues to describe the next ascents and attempts in more or less detail until the 1960s. There were other firsts, other deaths, mysteries and tragedies, successes and retreats, but almost none of them were as compelling as these first few years. Harrer wanted to write a complete account of all the attempts on the north face, and while it is understandable that he tried to honour all these men and few women that took on the challenge, it doesn’t always make for good reading. Also, some parts may be a little too technical for non-climbers.
That Harrer was a mountaineer and actually did the climb, makes the book so immersive, but on the other hand, he has no critical distance to the subject matter. He has some justified and harsh words for the sensationalism of the press and the hype it created, but he also rejects more valid criticism of this kind of extreme mountaineering as a reckless quest for glory. Instead he eulogises the team spirit and the character of the climbers, which is fine, even though the emotionalism, heroism, and old-fashioned pariotism he infuses his tales with can be grating at times. Even for him, however, it should not have been a hardship to acknowledge that fame plays a role in ventures of this kind, and that it was certainly true for the north face in these first few years when the risk was so high.
Still, this is a very good book about an imposing mountain and the people that succeeded or failed on it, and it was written by someone who knows what he is talking about. Despite some reservations about the reasons or the meaning of such a feat, the book not only manages to incite wonder at what was accomplished, and at the daring and determination of these climbers, but it also ensures that the price that had to be paid by some is not forgotten.
CBR12 Bingo: Pandemic