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1936 attempt on the North Face of the Eiger
Not an old postcard this is a photo taken during a hitching and hiking trip around the Alps in July 1986, exactly 50 years after the events described here.
I had read about the Swiss mountain’s near vertical 6,000 foot north face and the men who pioneered climbing routes up it in Heinrich Harrer’s book ‘The White Spider’ and wanted to visit the place.
This is probably the most famous story of all, the tragedy that befell Toni Kurz and his companions in 1936.
Summer 1936. In Germany, Hitler had been in power for 3 years and the government was preparing for the Berlin Olympics. In the Alps, most of the summits and routes had been climbed leaving just the Eiger Nordwand as the ‘last problem’ of Alpinism.
A German team solving this last problem would be a chance for the Nazis to capitalise and claim the glory. Hitler had mentioned a Gold medal for the first team to make it to the summit.
It isn’t easy when your heroes hail from history’s darkest corners. I don’t know whether the mountaineers were Party members or not but the Germans in this story were from Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, a region sometimes called the ‘cradle of National Socialism’. Hitler had his country retreat there and the region was very much at the heart of his ‘VÃ¶lkisch’ ethnic ideology which led ultimately to the Holocaust.
Below; Then and Now. Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1936
For more on these Olympic Games, please click here.
The North wall of the Eiger was generally considered unclimbable. Constantly swept by storms, avalanches and falling rocks, Swiss mountain guides said they would not rescue anyone who ventured onto it and those that did were considered ‘mentally deranged.’ The previous year had seen two German climbers perish in the cold sat on a ledge known since as ‘Death Bivouac’.
The Nordwand did get visitors though; an electric railway high in the mountains had been tunnelled 30 years earlier, enabling tourists to peer down from station gallery windows cut into the face and from which spoil was dumped as the Jungfraubahn tunnel was built.
Beyond the politcal spin and the media interest and the tourists wanting to see drama played out through telescopes trained on the North Face, two German climbers, Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, and two Austrians, Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer, left their tents in the meadow below the face on July 18th 1936 and started to climb.
Toni Kurz, a professional mountain guide, photographed July 1936 just before the climb
Andreas HinterstoiÃŸer, the German climber who led the way
Austrian Alpinists Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer
The two seperate ropes naturally joined forces and climbed together. They soon reached an obstacle, a slab of smooth and slippery rock. Hinterstoisser climbed above to fix a belay, then was able to traverse the obstacle to the other side. He fixed a rope for his pals to clip onto and created what has since been known as the Hinterstoisser Traverse. Once the others had crossed, Hinterstoisser retrieved the rope, thus sealing their fate; there was no way the traverse could be reversed without the rope in place.
They continued to climb well but before their first bivouac on the mountain, Willy Angerer was injured, probably by a falling stone (this was in the days before climbing helmets, they just wore felt hats). They pressed on but by the 3rd morning and just below the Death Bivouac it was obvious Angerer could go no further. With their comrade unable to continue the mission was no longer to climb but for all 4 to get back down. As they slowly descended, the weather began to deteteriorate. With soaked clothing and low spirits, it must have been a miserable fourth night on the mountain.
The original photo of the North Face from Wikipedia Commons.
On the morning of the 22nd July, those following their retreat from below could only catch glimpses between breaks in the cloud.
Hinterstoisser was leading the way when he came to the end of the traverse and from which he had retrieved the rope. Without it they could not cross. Hinterstoisser tried to find a way back but kept slipping off the smooth and now ice covered rocks. He had no choice, the only way was to abseil down an overhang and into the unknown cloud shrouded void beneath them. Somewhere below was a system of ledges which would lead to a Jungfraubahn gallery window.
Their situation was desperate, but then they heard a voice calling to them; it was a railwayman at the gallery window just a few rope lengths away! He heard them yodelling back. All was well, they said, and they would be down soon. The railwayman returned to his room and got some tea brewing with which to welcome the lads.
They never made it there; an avalanche apparently crashed into the party shortly after. Andreas Hinterstoisser, who seems to have been off the rope at the time, was swept off the face. He fell 2,000 feet to his death. The other three were also pulled from the mountain, but their belay piton held. The already injured Willy Angerer was smacked hard against the rock, an injury which probably killed him outright. Above him and with the full weight on the other two on his torso, Edi Rainer was pinned against the wall and was asphyxiated within minutes. Only Toni Kurz was left, hanging between the two bodies of his pals.
The railwayman went back to see where they had got to after a couple of hours and heard Kurz calling for help. He phoned a party of guides who travelled up by train and climbed out of the window and made their way to him, ignoring their self imposed ban. Alas they could do nothing for Kurz in the storm, he was too far above them and out of sight beyond the overhanging rock. They said they’d be back in the morning and with Kurz begging them to stay, they returned to the railway station.
The view down the near vertical Face to the meadows and woods 2000 feet below. Photographed from the station window in 1986, it is close to where Toni Kurz was hanging on a rope over the drop and is as close to the North Face as I am likely to get
The next day, the weather had cleared and the rescue party was amazed to discover Toni Kurz had somehow survived the night. He had lost a mitten at some point and his left hand was a frozen lump.
They instructed Kurz, who had insufficient rope to descend, to climb down to Angerer’s body to cut him free, then climb up to do the same with Edi Rainer, to acquire some bits of rope. Using his one good hand and his teeth, he managed to unpick the threads of the hemp rope he gathered and tie them together. Hours later, after an unimaginable effort, he lowered this thin line down. The rescue party attached another rope to this and called to Kurz to pull it back up. The rope they had was not long enough, so another was tied on to the end.
Kurz then clipped onto the new rope using a snap link. As he inched down and into view of the Swiss guides, he saw the knot tying the ropes together, knew it was too big to pass through the snap link and that he could descend no further. He was almost within reach of his rescuers and they could just touch his boots with an outstretched ice-pick. The rescue party urged him on, imploring him to force the knot through, but he could do no more. Finally Toni Kurz announced “I’m finished” and slumped forward and died. His body was cut down after a few days and later recovered from the foot of the face.
The body of Toni Kurz hanging from a rope within inches of his rescuers.
The North Face of the Eiger was successfully climbed two years later by two Austrians and two Germans who again joined forces; Heinrich Harrer (who was played by Brad Pitt in the movie Seven Years in Tibet ), Fritz Kasparek, Andreas Heckmair and Ludwig VÃ¶rg.
Chris Frick’s outstanding set on Flickr documenting an ascent of the North Face via the 1938 route in 2005.
For a quick view of the Eiger North Face, this two and half minute video is from a camera attached to the helmet of a ski-glider who starts from the summit, down the West face (on the right in the photo above) and out onto the North face about 1/3 of the way down.
Nazi propaganda colour film for visitors to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics.
The 2008 German movie Nordwand about the 1936 attempt on the face is entertaining and has some great climbing scenes, but the events are so misrepresented it really is a work of fiction. The Beckoning Silence presented by mountaineer Joe Simpson is much better. It has footage of climbing on the North Face with a reconstruction of this tragedy.