“A storm is coming,” says the junior guide, though it’s not actually raining yet. Do we really have to give up so soon? I pull out my mobile phone but, with the dispatch of a patented Bergführer, Martin Burgener is already looking at his. The radar picture shows that the storm is an isolated cell and moving northwards. With luck, it’ll miss. We carry on, keeping a weather eye out.
Maki’s party was climbing a gully towards the ridge when the three-metre pole slipped from Brawand’s shoulders. The young guide launched himself after it, losing his footing just as he managed to grab the falling pole. Steuri, in turn, managed to arrest his tumbling colleague on the rope. Bravand was recovered intact, except for a scraped arm. Maki scolded him for risking his life, but they were all aware that without their secret weapon, the clawed pole, they had no hope of success.
Just getting to the ridge was a struggle – in one or two places, the leader had to stand on a colleague’s shoulders to get past an overhang. It wasn’t till shortly before five in the evening that they found a bivouac site, a cranny on the south side of the ridge, not far from the present hut. Ice-axes were used to rake gravel into a ledge. After supper, Maki lay down at the back of the recess while the three guides took it in turns to sit outside – only one of them could lie down at a time. The night was cold.
At six in the morning, they roped up again, leaving the blankets and bivouac gear in the rock niche. There was no point starting earlier; you had to see what you were doing. Now their way led out over a rocky knife-edge, views plunging into the abyss on both sides.
Again, ‘combined tactics’ were used – standing on each other’s shoulders – to get over rock steps. Scaling a 30 metre-high gendarme, they clambered into a notch at 3,500 metres. In front of them, the ridge reared up into the near-vertical “Aufschwung” that had so far rebuffed all attempts on the Mittellegi.
Full light now, the sunlight already playing on the summit snows – two small figures are striding down the ridge on the far side. They must have bivvied up there, says Martin. The sky is blue now – no trace of that pre-dawn storm – but strange waves and bars of vapour are forming. The foehn wind is strengthening.
Maki’s party took a break in the notch, bracing themselves for the struggle ahead. Three alpine jackdaws sailed past on an updraft, their unlovely screeches bringing home the rock barrier's rebarbative loom. As gusts of wind whirled spindrift in his face, Maki noted how the limestone strata tilted inimically downwards.
Stone splinters rained down on the waiting trio below him, peppering their hands and faces with scratches. When the leader had found a stance, he brought the others up, and then the whole process started again. As the last man, Maki had to climb with one hand – with the other, he had to drag the pole after him. Often he dangled on the rope, looking past shreds of mist down to the green valley far below. By then, he’d lost all sense of time; fear too had long since faded away.
Like Maki’s party before us, we come to the foot of the 30-metre tower. The wind finds us now, blowing the rope’s slack into a billowing arc. Over my shoulder, while we wait for another party to clear the pitch, I glimpse a silvery UFO hovering over the Schreckhorn. Instead of snow, the gusts fling flakes of grit into our faces; our teeth grate on them...
The guides had just started on an almost vertical, 50 metre-high wall when – catastrophe! – a dark shadow flitted through the air, tumbling past Maki into the abyss. He grabbed the rope in alarm, only to hear Amatter’s calm tones: “Not to worry, Herr – I just dropped my sack, that’s all.” And then the guide got back to work, as if nothing had happened.
The wind is buffeting, trying to shoulder us bodily off the mountain. Overhead, the sky is bright blue, except for a long bar of cloud that lies athwart the ridge. Despite the gale, it stays magically fixed in place, cresting an invisible wave of air flowing over the mountain.
At last, the rock’s angle started to ease. They’d taken eight hours – from nine in the morning to five in the evening – to wrestle themselves upwards by just two hundred metres. And yet, to Maki and his guides, no more than an hour seemed to have passed, so intense had been their concentration.
Scrambling onto the top of the steep section, they realised they’d won. Yet nobody had the strength left to cheer. Without a word, Steuri scratched the date onto a rock – 10.9.1921. Then he snapped the wooden pole in two and tied his headcloth onto the shorter section. Amatter took the makeshift flag and thrust it into a cairn that he’d piled up in the meantime.
We realise we’ve lost when we cross a narrow gap between two towers. Stepping onto the tightrope fillet between them I feel the wind catch my pack and tilt me towards Grindelwald’s airspace. I grab a projection on the far side before I topple. Strictly speaking, you can’t take the so-called tour of the north face from here, because we’re not yet above that yawning declivity. But the difference will be academic if we get blown off the mountain. “The wind will be much stronger on the summit ridge,” says Martin, pointing out the obvious.
Moving like robots now, Maki’s party continued up the snows of the summit ridge, reaching the top shortly after seven in the evening. The cold drove them onwards after a five-minute pause. Roping up in a new order, Brawand bringing up the rear, the party started carefully down the western ridge – the day’s snowmelt had already frozen, glazing the rocks with ice as hard as enamel.
Amatter led downwards, lantern in hand. The light reached back only to Maki, leaving Steuri and Brawand to grope their way in the dark. After a while, they realised they’d gone astray – on one side was a sheer cliff down to the Eiger Glacier, on the other an equally sharp drop towards Grindelwald. Arduously, for an hour and more, they had to retrace their steps upwards and downwards, without making any real progress.
They were hungry: most of the food had tumbled off the mountain in Steuri’s rucksack. The water too was gone; only a little brandy was left. Steuri suggested licking butter to slake their thirst. To Maki’s surprise, and slight revulsion, the ploy worked.
In pitch-darkness, they stumbled onto the moraines of the Eiger Glacier, almost at the limits of their strength, reaching the Eigergletscher station at three in the morning. To their surprise, people poured out of the nearby restaurant to welcome them – they’d been expected.
Some hours after turning back, we’re sitting under a parasol on a café terrace at Kleine Scheidegg, sipping coffee with whipped cream, and looking up at the sombre recess of the Eiger’s north face. Shreds of cloud are scouring the summit ridge. If we’d gone on up there, we’d have been crawling across on hands and knees. “So how about it then – same time next year?” Martin asks. I nod.
On returning to Grindelwald, Maki was hoisted onto the shoulders of two Englishman, a tribute that the modest Japanese alpinist would probably have preferred to decline. For there was much to do. First, he had to write up testimonials for his guides: “When we were climbing on the Mittellegigrat from the side of Kallifirn,” Maki recorded in Sam Brawand’s Führerbuch, “he lost the wooden pole which was most important instrument for this climb. At this moment, he threw himself after the pole and got it back. Not thinking of a bit after his own safety! I couldn't keep from the tears came down.”
A new hut, with twice the capacity, replaced the old refuge in 2001. It is still owned and operated by the Grindelwald guides. Maki’s old hut was helicoptered off the ridge and is now a tourist attraction at the mountain’s foot. As for the Mittellegi, climbers no longer need to take along a three-metre pole; fixed hawser-laid ropes take the sting out of the steep sections. The Eiger is still the Eiger. A week after our failed attempt, lightning struck a party of Czech climbers near the hut, killing one and injuring another.
Maki also set about purchasing top-quality alpine gear – ice-axes, crampons, rucksacks – for his university mountaineering club in Japan. The investment paid off. Inspired by Maki’s example, Japan’s alpinists raised their sights to big ridges that required technical climbing skills. Less than a year after the Mittellegi ascent, parties from Waseda and Gakushūin universities raced each other up Yari’s Kitakama ridge, opening a new decade of climbing exploration in the Japan Alps.
Alpinistic enthusiasm percolated up to the pinnacle of Japanese society. Maki returned to Switzerland in 1926, to organise a mountaineering summer for Prince Chichibu, the emperor’s younger son. Sam Brawand helped guide some of the warming-up climbs, although military duties prevented him joining the Prince’s traverse of the Matterhorn. Maki went on to make the first ascent of Mt Alberta in 1925, again with Swiss guides. After the war, he crowned his alpine career by leading the successful expedition to Manaslu, Japan’s 8000-metre peak, in 1956.
A year later, he was at Haneda Airport to welcome his old friend from Grindelwald. Brawand had meanwhile become a local politician and sat on the old Swissair’s board as the cantonal representative. In this capacity, he seized the chance to fly on the airline’s inaugural flight to Japan in 1957. The DC-6B took off from Geneva on 1 April and arrived in Tokyo on the fifth.
And there to greet him was a delegation of alpinists headed by Matsukata Saburō and Maki Yūkō. More old friends came to meet him at a reception hosted by the Japanese Alpine Club. Even Princess Chichibu was there, widow of the climbing prince. Brawand was so moved that the words in his old Führerbuch floated into his mind: “I couldn't keep from the tears came down”.
Memories of the Mittellegi linger in Maki’s homeland. On a recent count, there were at least 14 businesses with the name “Eiger” in Japan, including a maker of stained glass. And, for quite a few years after Maki himself passed on – this was in 1989 – Japan’s mountaineering traditionalists still favoured a distinctive kind of broad-beamed pack. These were known as “Kissling”, after the eponymous workshop in Zermatt that supplied the rucksacks for Maki’s student climbers. It's been years since I last saw one, though.
Prime source is Maki Yūkō’s account in his memoir, Sankō (“Mountain journeys”), which is still in print from Chuō Kōronsha.
A summarised version of Maki’s account was translated by Miyashita Keizō into German for Daniel Anker’s mountain monograph, Eiger: die vertikale Arena (AS Verlag, Zurich, 1998, revised 2000).
Additional reminiscences of the climb and subsequent events come from Samuel Brawand's memoir, Erinnerungen an Yuko Maki. Incidentally, Maki (and Miyashita) give the length of the wooden pole as six metres; Brawand, more credibly, says three metres.