Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Eiger reloaded

The repercussions of a famous ascent sound an uncomfortably contemporary note

Eighty years ago, yesterday, four alpinists topped out on the Eiger, after making the first ascent of the mountain’s notorious north face. The anniversary has raised no more than a murmur in Switzerland’s media – which may not be too surprising, as this milestone in mountaineering history was notched up by two Bavarians and two Austrians. One of the latter, Heinrich Harrer, later immortalised the climb in The White Spider.

The Hinterstoisser Traverse: chipping away the ice

Yet one Swiss newspaper, Zurich’s Tages Anzeiger, did choose to mark the occasion. In an article entitled Bergsteigerhelden im Dienste Hitlers (Climbing heroes in the service of Hitler), journalist and historian Petra Stöhr recalls how the Reich’s propaganda machine hijacked the mountaineering achievement for its own ends.

Easy ground low on the north face

Or was it hijacked? According to Stöhr, it was Heinrich Harrer himself who unfurled a swastika flag to mark the team’s arrival on the summit. Whether or not he did so, all four climbers were received by Hitler, feted in the press, and even written up in an official commemorative book.

During their climb, the Bavarians and the Austrians – originally two rival rope teams – had joined forces to battle through a storm. This narrative particularly pleased the propagandists, reflecting as it did a measure of alpinistic glory on the March 1938 “Anschluss” between Germany and Austria.

Stöhr’s article appeared in a column called “History reloaded”. And, indeed, more or less everything reloaded here is a matter of record, whether it is Heinrich Harrer’s political affiliations, the post-climb propaganda tour, or the ultimate fates of the four mountaineers – tellingly, they never again climbed together.

Andreas Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg on the way to an official reception

So should we just move on? Well maybe, but not without first reading the comments underneath the article’s online version. Some are illuminating. One reader says that the mountaineers were “primarily sportsmen” and not political figures. Another takes issue with Stöhr’s characterization of Harrer as the party’s weakest member: surely he would have been as fast as Andreas Heckmair, the de facto leader, if he’d worn the most modern type of crampons.

Werner Munter, a retired guide and avalanche safety expert, weighs in too. For more background on how alpine clubs were drawn into pre-war politics, he recommends reading Rainer Amstädter’s Der Alpinismus, especially Chapters 7 to 10 on Die Faschisierung des Alpinismus, Der Weg der alpinen Vereine zum Nationalsozialismus and Der Grossdeutsche Wahn des Alpinismus. Thanks, Werner, I will certainly follow up on that valuable hint.

For my money, though, it’s one Thomas Wittenmeier who hits the nail on the head. Commenting on a photo of the four climbers posing with Hitler, he writes “Only the jerseys with the words ‘My Führer’ are missing. See the Özil-Erdogan team.” That last remark refers to a German footballer with Turkish roots who recently caused a kerfluffle by posing for a selfie with the Turkish president.

Surprisingly, there seems to be no recent full-length biography of Heinrich Harrer in English – indeed, if a quick scan of Amazon is to be trusted, nobody has even translated his autobiography, a surprising gap given the global popularity of The White Spider and Seven Years in Tibet.

This is a pity. Now that world events are moving in a distinctly 1930-ish gyre, we could use books like these to refresh our memories on how swiftly politics and nationalism can corrupt mountains and mountaineering.


Images are from Um die Eiger-Nordwand (right), published by the Zentralverlag der NSDAP, Munich, fifth edition, 1943.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Alpine readings (5)

Gaston Rébuffat on climbing as a natural instinct - and how not to lose it

I had, first of all, to learn how to climb.

I knew how to climb as a child. Instinctively, without having learned, all children climb walls, windows and trees. They do so for the pleasure of climbing and for the joy of discovery, of seeing further. Is this not exactly the same reward that climbers seek in high mountains?

It happens very often, however, that between our fifth and our twentieth birthdays, education, society and easy living weaken and little by little kill the instinctive desires and spontaneous impulses of our childhood. Farewell climbing, escape and discovery!

And if by chance one day, kindled by some wondrous and unexpected spark, these desires and impulses of childhood reappear, the instinct is dead and we must learn to climb all over again. This happened to me, as it does to many boys.

Thus it is that the climbing instincts of our childhood develop. The windows, trees and walls which we cheerfully climbed at the age of five or ten have now become the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc or the Himalayas. Our puny, childish muscles have grown stronger, and so has our will. In like measure has the need in us for fresh air, discovery and conquest crystallized. Austerity has become our way of life, and to make room for it, we have put aside sensitiveness and softness, resolved to remain strong on the threshold of life.

In quenching this thirst for discovery, in guiding this fervour which inspires the early part of a man's life, the mountains have provided for me what others have found in the sea, the air, the desert or the polar regions. These "wide open spaces," which allow a man to find the truth in himself and to develop it in all its fullness, are as close to each other in spirit as they are different to outside view. The externals matter little; are not mountaineers, sailors, airmen and explorers closely akin, for all the variety of their clothes? Are not they all carried forward by the same impulse?


Gaston Rébuffat, Starlight and Storm, translated by Wilfrid Noyce and Sir John Hunt, Modern Library edition, 1999.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Alpine readings (4)

Lionel Terray on why the useless might be worth conquering

But on the icy flanks of the Caiman I had had to employ all my resources for hours on end, and had only just avoided disaster on at least two occasions. Never before had I given so much of myself or run such risks. Safely back in the valley I remained profoundly affected by the experience, which seemed of a different nature from all I had known up to then.

I began to question the unconscious motives which had impelled me to prefer certain books and certain courses of action. I began to realise that the mountain is no more than an indifferent wasteland of rock and ice with no other value than what we choose to give it, but that on this infinitely virgin material each man could mould, by the creative force of the spirit, the form of his own ideal.

"There is not just one but a hundred different kinds of mountaineering," said Guido Lammer. For some, as Henry de Segogne has suggested, ''the flanks of the sterile peaks become the ideal of an aesthetic, even an embodiment of divinity". For others they are "simply the background of their favourite sport", for others still "a gigantic opportunity to flatter their own vanity", and for yet others, like Maurice Herzog, "a bit of all that and something more besides": one of the few doors the modern world has left open on adventure, one of the last ways out of the armour-plating of humdrumness in which civilisation imprisons us, and for which we are not all very well adapted.

From that time on, my passion for the hills took a more precise direction, and bit by bit I worked out for myself an ethic and a philosophy of mountaineering. But, in practice, the risk and suffering involved in picking the roses that grow on the borders of the impossible call for exceptional moral strength. Doubtless, for some, it is always present; but for others it can only be summoned at rare intervals and in exceptional and perhaps fortuitous circumstances, and it is to this latter breed that I belong. In fact it was to be many years before I again committed myself to a fight as total as that which won the narrow ice-gully of the Col du Caiman.


Lionel Terray, Conquistadors of the Useless, translated by Geoffrey Sutton, Baton Wicks.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Alpine readings (3)

George Mallory on the orchestral flow of a great alpine climb

A day well spent in the Alps is like some great symphony. Andante, andantissimo sometimes, is the first movement - the grim, sickening plod up the moraine. But how forgotten when the blue light of dawn flickers over the hard, clean snow. 

Weisshorn at sunrise
(Photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

The new motif is ushered in, as it were, very gently on the lesser wind instruments, hautboys and flutes, remote but melodious and infinitely hopeful, caught by the violins in the growing light, and torn out by all the bows with quivering chords as the summits, one by one, are enmeshed in the gold web of day, till at last the whole band, in triumphant accord, has seized the air and romps in magnificent frolic, because there you are at last marching, all a-tingle with warm blood, under the sun. 

And so throughout the day successive moods induce the symphonic whole - allegro while you break the back of an expedition and the issue is still in doubt; scherzo, perhaps, as you leap up the final rocks of the arete or cut steps in a last short slope, with the ice-chips dancing and swimming and bubbling and bounding with magic gaiety over the crisp surface in their mad glissade; and then, for the descent, sometimes again andante, because, while the summit was still to win, you forgot that the business of descending may be serious and long; but in the end scherzo once more - with the brakes on for sunset. 

Expeditions in the Alps are all different, no less than symphonies are different, and each is a fresh experience. . . . But every mountain adventure is emotionally complete. The spirit goes on a journey just as does the body, and this journey has a beginning and an end, and is concerned with all that happens between these extremities .... 

The glory of sunrise in the Alps is not independent of what has passed and what's to come; without the day that is dying and the night that is to come the reverie of sunset would be less suggestive, and the deep valley-lights would lose their promise of repose. Still more, the ecstasy of the summit is conditioned by the events of getting up and the prospects of getting down ....

It seemed perfectly natural to compare a day in the Alps with a symphony. For mountaineers of my sort mountaineering is rightfully so comparable; but no sportsman could or would make the same claim for cricket· or hunting, or whatever his particular sport might be. He recognises the existence of the sublime in great Art, and knows, even if he cannot feel, that its manner of stirring the heart is altogether different and vaster. But mountaineers do not admit this difference in the emotional plane of mountaineering and Art. They claim that something sublime is the essence of mountaineering. They can compare the call of the hills to the melody of wonderful music, and the comparison is not ridiculous.


This essay appeared in March 1914, in a remarkable number of the Climbers' Club Journal edited by Trevenen Huxley. Text here is as quoted in David Robertson's biography, George Mallory, Faber & Faber, 1969 (paperback edition 1999 with foreword by Joe Simpson)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Alpine readings (2)

Heinrich Harrer on the concept of a character-forming climb

The "White Spider" on the Eiger is the extreme test not only of a climber's technical ability, but of his character as well. Later on in life, when fate seemed to spin some spider's web or other across my path, my thoughts often went back to the "White Spider". Life itself demanded the same methods, the same qualities, when there no longer seemed to be any possible escape from its difficulties, as had won us a way out of the difficulties of the Eiger's North Face - common-sense, patience and open-eyed courage. Haste born of fear and all the wild stunts arising from it can only end in disaster.

I remember a saying of Schopenhauer's: "Just as the wayfarer only surveys and recognises the road he has come when he reaches some high place and can look back over it in its entirety, so we ourselves are only able to recognise and value a stage in our life when it is over." The North Face of the Eiger and the crossing of the "White Spider" were for me an expedition and a stage in my life at one and the same time; though I only realised it a good deal later.

Today I have no doubt whatever about the invaluable contribution a difficult and, in the eyes of many, an incredibly dangerous climb on a mountain can make to a man's later life. I do not believe in a blind Fate which dominates us; nor can I unreservedly agree with Schopenhauer's statement-" Fate shuffles the cards, we play them." I am quite certain that we have a hand in the shuffling. There is nothing new to be said about the behaviour of man in exceptional circumstances of danger or crisis. It has all been thought and said already.

But if I had to write an entry in the autograph-album of the worshippers of blind Chance and inevitable Fate I could not find better words than those used by the Athenian, Menander, more than two thousand years ago. "A man's nature and way of life are his fate, and that which he calls his fate is but his disposition." This truth was brought home to me clearly for the first time on the slope of the "White Spider". Perhaps all four of us were the fortunate owners of a disposition which was the basic factor in our successful climb; training, scientific preparations and equipment being only very necessary adjuncts.


Heinrich Harrer, The White Spider, translated by Hugh Merrick,  Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Alpine readings (1)

Mo Anthoine, alpinist, expeditioner and gear maker, on "feeding the rat"

'The truth is, I like an unforgiving climate where if you make mistakes you suffer for it. That's what turns me on. It's like the difference between windsurfing on Lake Como in the summer and off the coast of Maine in winter. One is a challenge, the other is a soft option, something you do at weekends when you want to have a good time. 

Alpinist D. on La Ruinette, Valais Alps
(Photo by Alpine Light & Structure)
But every year you need to flush out your system and do a bit of suffering. It does you a power of good. I think it's because there is always a question mark about how you would perform. You have an idea of yourself and it can be quite a shock when you don't come up to your own expectations. If you just tootle along you can think you're a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you're nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. But if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations, then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going. 

That's why I like feeding the rat. It's a sort of annual check-up on myself. The rat is you, really. It's the other you, and it's being fed by the you that you think you are. And they are often very different people. But when they come close to each other, that's smashing, that is. Then the rat's had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific. It's a fairly rare thing, but you have to keep feeding the brute, just for your own peace of mind. And even if you did blow it, at least there wouldn't be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can't think of anything sadder than that.'


Al Alvarez, Feeding the rat: Profile of a climber, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003 edition.

Monday, July 2, 2018

A stormy traverse of La Meije (2)

Continued: Swiss guide Sam Brawand's account of a climb in the mid-1920s with Japanese alpinists Matsukata Saburō and Uramatsu Samitarō 

La Meije starts immediately. By that I mean, there is no long boring approach march; the climbing starts right behind the hut. And as the route was easy to find in broad daylight, we gained height quickly. We slanted into the Couloir Duhamel and after a short climb came up to where the pyramid must have stood. High above us the dreaded Grande Muraille rose into the sky. That must be the entry point.

The Doigt de Dieux, La Meije
(photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

As always, we climbed in two ropes and made rapid progress up the vertical wall. Emil Steuri took the lead with Mr Uramatsu on his rope, and his nose for route-finding did us proud on the Muraille. Hold by hold, move by move, he climbed higher, without looking around and seemingly without pausing for thought, as if he’d been there any number of times. Not a foothold was out of place, I’m quite sure of that.

Judging from the view into the airy depths, we must already have been at the Pas du Chat. Good heavens, that was climbing. Fritz Amatter once told me: "Look, there are holds, just as if God put them there for you to grab." Yes, there surely were holds. And when the holds are firm, on a wall that’s tremendously steep, and the climber is hanging off it or clinging to it over an abyss a hundred fathoms deep, then you get a wonderful sense of confidence in the mountain.

South face of La Meije
(photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

At 9.30 am we were at the Glacier Carré. We could scarcely believe how quickly we’d got up the Grande Muraille. After a quick bite to eat, we crossed the glacier and reached the loose rocks of the Grand Pic.

Only now did we notice that the weather had worsened again. Heavy clouds were rolling in from the west. Things started to get deucedly serious when a nearby roll of thunder punctuated the mountain stillness. What now? We had to get off the ridge. In the flank of the Grand Pic, under an overhang, we waited for something to happen. But we weren’t detained for long. We told ourselves that it was just a joke, and in the next few minutes we gambolled over the Cheval Rouge to the summit. By the time our watches showed 11.10, we were standing on top of this magnificent mountain. And this despite the half-hour we’d lost waiting down there in the rocks because of the dubious weather.

I don't remember how long we rested ourselves on the summit, but I do remember that suddenly over there, beyond the Brèche de la Meije, a searing lightning bolt struck down onto the Rateau, accompanied by a stupendous thunderclap. We hastily packed up. No one spoke a word. We were ready to go down. I had taken the reserve rope off my backpack, glanced over at my comrade Emil and spent the next minute or two pulling the rope through the abseil sling.

We both knew that, right then, it would have been wiser to turn back and give up on the traverse. But we were young and full of ambition, we had two excellent mountaineers with us, and we stood at the start of one of the most beautiful ridge-climbs of the whole Alps. Over there, however, the Pic Central raised his godly and admonishing finger.

Men must indeed atone for their sins. Our fall from grace would become a fact when we pulled down our abseil rope. From then on, there would be no turning back for the four of us.

I was already dangling over the Brèche Zsigmondy on the abseil rope. After my comrades followed me down, we pulled it down and fed it into the second abseil sling. Just as I was again hanging on the rope, snow began to fall, dry snow just as in winter. Then it struck me that we’d really blown it. In the Brèche Zsigmondy, a sharp southwest wind started driving the snow before it. Then the proper storm broke out as addressed ourselves to the Tour Zsigmondy.

How that wind whistled round our ears! The storm howled, flung the snow wildly in our faces and all but robbed us of our breath.

What followed, I can hardly tell ….

 (To be continued)