After our first four days (see previous blog here) Dave and I were due to have a few days off before heading over to the Eiger. But looking at the forecast, the day we were due to head to the Eiger coincided with a cold front crossing the alps, which would put a significant amount of snow on the mountain which would end our attempt.
So despite a rest day (or three) being very appealing, we got up on the Saturday morning and drove over to Grindelwald, with a bakery stop or two along the way.
It was both Dave’s and I’s first trip up the Eiger, I had been to Grindelwald twice before to try both the Mittellegi ridge and the north face but bad weather had turned us around before even setting foot on the mountain. So it was nice to be approaching the hut in sunshine and on dry rock.
The approach to the hut is quite exciting in itself, with a glacial shelf to traverse with some convoluted crevasses to cross and some significant serac danger, which thankfully was short lived. Leaving the glacier to get onto the rock involves a couple of pitches of climbing, protected by bolts which feels a little “stiff” right off the glacier. Some easy but loose scrambling then leads to the hut, about two hours from the Eismeer station, an intermediate stop of the Jungfrau railway line (that goes up through the Eiger), a James Bond style set of tunnels leads from the station down onto the glacier, a unique way of accessing the mountains!
The hut is is also a welcome change. It sleeps just thirty people with one guardian, and is perched right at the foot of the Mittellegi ridge. When most huts sleep close to one hundred people, staffed by a large team it’s a welcome change to stay somewhere small and traditional again.
There were fifteen people staying at the hut that night, with a mixture of guided teams and non-guided. After a late afternoon snooze, dinner was nice and early although by now the afternoon thunderstorm had arrived and it was sleeting and raining outside…. The forecast was for dry weather, so it was slightly annoying to have rain and we hoped the rock would be dry in the morning.
The alarm went off at quarter past four and we woke to find most of the hut still sleeping and fresh snow lying outside. It seemed the Swiss guides had decided the weather warranted a later start and were enjoying a lie in. Dave and I had some breakfast and discussed options, along with fellow British Mountain Guide Phil, who was also at the hut.
After a slow breakfast, the sun was up and we could see the route properly. There was certainly some fresh snow, and the clouds were coming in and out. There was some wind, but it was pretty light. Dave and I agreed that we would “go for a look”, and after an hour and a half we could look at our progress and if we were behind guidebook time we could turn around and head back to the hut.
What followed was very reminiscent of some Scottish winter climbing. We started without crampons and scrambled along the ridge, employing quite a variety of alpine rope techniques, short roping, moving together and the occasional pitch. The amount of snow steadily increased with altitude but we were making good time. After an hour or so it was time to put crampons on as the snow was now obscuring the footholds and was deep enough that we couldn’t always scrape it away.
This made some sections much more delicate than normal, as various short slabby sections were insecure in crampons and we therefore did some short pitching. A strong pair of Swiss friends had passed us earlier and so we had a nice set of foot prints to follow, along with Phil and his client who were just in front.
We plugged away along and up the ridge, passing sections of fixed rope and moving together over sections where we could wrap the rope around blocks along the ridge or clip the odd bolt or friend along the way. The weather was clearing a little, and then we were on the narrow ridge heading towards the summit, now being careful with our crampons on snow rather than rock.
Dave and I had the summit to ourselves, and we spent five minutes at the top enjoying the view, eating some food and preparing ourselves for the descent. We were definitely only half-way.
Although the technicalities had eased off considerably, the south ridge still required lots of care, and we short-roped our way down the mountain, between abseiling the steeper steps on the ridge. The skies had darkened again by the time we started to climb up from the dip in the ridge at 3605m.
This next section of climbing was fun, exposed blocky climbing on very good holds with short sections of snow in-between. Just as we were a couple of hundred meters from the final col (Eigerjoch) the thunderstorm broke nearby. We were in the cloud and getting “buzzed” by static which is both scary and a little painful. Now on easy ground, Dave and I put the hammer down and got ourselves off the ridge crest and on the easy slopes leading to the Monchjoch hut. Just as suddenly the skies above us cleared, and the storm cloud had rolled over the Eiger.
Being up in the cloud with the static was a particular unpleasant experience, and a reminder of how quickly these storms can roll in. We were now outside the Monchjoch Hut, nine hours (including stops) after leaving the Mittellegi hut. We took the ropes off and walked back to the train station in sunshine, in stark contrast to the ridge and storms just twenty minutes before. Dave had realised a long held ambition, and couldn’t quite believed we’d pulled it off. It was time for some refreshment and a sit down.
Looking back at the trip, and this longer than normal blog post I thought it would be worth pointing out a few things. Acceptable conditions varies from person to person, and quite a few guides didn’t set off from the hut that day. Dave and I were on our eleventh day of climbing together this year alone. Knowing each other and having that amount of climbing mileage is a big advantage and had I been there with someone less well known, or with less climbing experience then we probably wouldn’t have set off at all.
The team of three who set off behind us, got caught out by the weather that came in later that evening and spent the night out on the mountain. You’ve got to be strict with turn around times, as well as carrying the emergency kit. Weather forecasts find predicting thunderstorms difficult, and it does appear that the frontal system came through earlier. This week has turned out good, despite the dire forecast last week!
And thanks also to Phil, always good to team up on routes and that extra person watching your back is of great comfort when conditions are tricky.