Traveller's tales

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The White Spider

The north face of the Eiger was conquered in 1938, by a team of Austrian climbers, the most famous of which was Heinrich Harrer, who later gained fame by escaping the clutches of the British in India and journeying to Tibet. Harrer's book about this first ascent is the book, 'The White Spider', which is a set of snowed up cracks high on the mountain. It's a good name - the spider draws climbers into its web. To enter the aptly named Exit Cracks to the top is to escape from the spider's web.

Looking up at the mountain from the pleasant meadows of Kleine Scheidegge, it is easy to understand the difficulties of the climb, though much harder to feel them.

Many people have perished before and since. Some climbers are still frozen into the ice of the macabre 'Death Bivouac', a gruesome discovery for future teams attempting what is still, despite modern equipment and methods, a climb of tremendous objective dangers; snow and rock falls, sudden and unpredictable storms that sweep the face and freeze everything on it.

The little train sets off from the Kleine Scheidegge, and buries its way into the mountain, stopping at the Eigerwand station on its way to the Jungfraujoch, the col between the Jungfrau and Monch mountains, neighbours to the more fearsome Eiger.

Even at the Eigerwand station, I remember, the air was sufficiently rarified to prevent us schoolchildren from running along the cold corridor to look out over the frozen north face.

But even from this relatively low point in the face, the scale was frightening; sheer faces fell away from the window, and I wondered how anyone could survive out there.

I never forgot that place or that feeling, and anybody brave enough to attempt the climb is, to my mind, truly courageous.

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