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The Eiger Lessons

The Eiger Lessons

The Eiger Lessons By Robert Brown


Arriving in Grindelwald mid-afternoon on the 10th of September 2022, keen to catch our first glimpse of the mighty Eiger, “Where is it?” Matt asked. With the clouds sitting only a few 100 metres above the valley floor, our first glimpse would have to wait.

After kicking around town, sorting out lift tickets and food  for the two days planned on the Eiger, we found ourselves drinking pints of lager and discussing the route. The cloud had started to rise, but only just, just enough to give us an idea of the scale of the mountain. My self-doubt began here. Are you worried mate? Nah… just a wee bit…


The Eiger isn’t biggest mountain in the Alps, it’s not even one of the lusted after 4000ers, but it does behold a reputation. The Eiger north face has many tales of struggle, the last problem of the Alps. For us personally, it was biggest thing we’d taken on in our short climbing lives. On this occasion, we weren’t aspiring to the North face, but the Mittellegi ridge. Starting from Esimeer station, heading the Mittellegi Hut to stay the night and then traversing to Jungfraujoch station over the Eiger the following day.


Tunnels, Waterfalls and Glaciers


Leaving Esimeer station we followed the tunnel downwards, this leads you out on the south face, a rather bizarre experience. What’s next is an abseil down to the glacier. The snowmelt above meant we did this abseil in what felt like a waterfall and Matts boots never did dry.

Standing on the glacier it hits us, wow this is serious place to be. With an Icefall to our right, and Mittellegi Hut way up on the ridge to our left, we rope up and set off across the glacier. A bridge we had expected to cross a major crevasse with is no longer there, swallowed by the glacier possibly. I didn’t tread to close to the edge to check.  Instead, we head up the glacier to find a safe looking crossing point.


The fall


The climb up, off the glacier is the first difficulty of the route, two pitches of UIAA 4 climbing (whatever that is ….). We locate a few bolts, possibly the way? Thinking it looked like VS climbing we head further up the glacier, hopping over a few crevasses to what looks like an easy way up on the ledge above. Easy, but with a large step over the bergschrund and no protection for the moves, we decide to go with the bolts seen further down. The wrong choice, I learnt that in a painful way! I found myself very committed about four metres above my last bit of gear, a bomber blue nut. By that point I knew it wasn’t the correct way, not only did it feel like it would be hard to climb in rock shoes, I was in my B3s. This doesn’t feel like UIAA 4, whatever that is…. A group arriving behind us confirmed, it’s further to the left, they confirm, the very bit we looked at earlier. So, already very committed, I committed further, and off I came, passed 3 bits of gear, to stop upside down next to the bolt that convinced me this was the correct way, the only bloody bolt. I presume for an abseil. Battered from head to toe, I retrieved the gear, leaving the bomber blue nut of course. Ten minutes later we’re up on the ledge, having breezed past the 2 UIAA 4 pitches, easy days. Now the long-exposed traverse to the hut, which passed without further incident thankfully, rewarded with a beer and views.



The iced Ridge

At 0500 hours we were ready to go. We’d liked to have left at 0300, but were advised to wait by the Hut guardian, as the sun wouldn’t rise until 0730. There had been a good bit of snow overnight, followed by a freeze, and the ridge was snowy and icy. Whether we should have discussed sacking it due to conditions was one of many points we deliberated over in the pub later that night. But I’m glad we didn’t, what followed was the toughest of days I’ve spent on a mountain, and the most rewarding. It wasn’t long before we had crampons on, we should have had them on from the start, lesson number 1, the conditions had changed, we should have adapted earlier. The climbing seemed to go forever, we envisaged moving together for most of the route, the icy nature of things meant we couldn’t, we didn’t have the experience to. 5 hours had passed, the time we thought it would take us to get to top, we weren’t even halfway. We decided not to bother with rest and keep moving, pitch after pitch passed, only moving together for short sections, a more exposed introduction to mixed climbing than I’d ever hoped for, delicate moves on crampon points.

I was still feeling the whipper the day before, both mentally and physically. I thought about falling again, drops of 1000+ meters either side, thoughts of death, thoughts of never feeling more alive, thoughts of, we’re having an epic, ah fuck! We accepted  we weren’t making the train, the Monch hut for a night would do, we’d miss the flight, but who cares, let’s just get up there.

Matt was doing the better climbing of the 2 of us, I think he surprised himself. For someone who struggles with confidence when it comes to rock climbing, he’s never short of it when the crampons are on. A few sections felt like Scottish grade III, without an axe.  The 360 views were stunning, what a place, what situation, not a cloud in the sky and the cold fresh alpine air. Yip, this was an epic day

Summit Energy


We arrived at long last on the summit at 16:00. Surprisingly, there was less snow than we expected. The views were stunning, filling my lungs with the fresh alpine air, all the exhausted feelings I’d had for the last few hours disappeared completely, felt alive, and proud of what we’d have achieved, by this point it had well and truly sunk in that we were out our depth on this route, in those conditions at least. We knew we weren’t going to make the hut by night fall at this point, crossing the glacier was slightly concerning, a bivouac if required, requesting help, that never even crossed my mind. What did cross my mind, another mistake, we only researched one route down, which involved more climbing. A contingency plan would have allowed us to go down towards Eigergletscher.






Back Down to Earth


The highs of reaching the summit were short lived, we’d made a handful of mistakes now, both in planning and personal kit choices. Mistakes we just don’t make in Scotland, why we’re we more relaxed in the Alps? Shire excitement? Lack of in-depth guidebook and UKC feedback? Too many pints, ego? All irrelevant, the lesson learnt were all worthwhile, should we have hired a guide? Nah, I think we both agree that epics are best learning experiences. Maybe reading books about Robin Smith and Dougal Haston encouraged the relaxed approach, epics being common in their early days.


Back-to-back abseils seen as descend the south ridge, progress was slow, made slower by party in front, a polish couple we’d been bypassing and being passed by since leaving the station the day before. Reaching the Col before the Eigerjohns, it became clear one of Polish group was starting to feel the effects of a drop in temperature and increase in wind strength. Bailing from the route still had not crossed my mind, although a night on the mountain was no longer just a possibility.


Reaching the couple again following an abseil they informed us of their plans to call for a heli-lift down and asked if we’d join them. My initial response was no, we were fine, I was warm and feeling good, as was Matt. After facing up to some realities regarding the kit we had for the night, and the distance and level of climbing still required to cover, I agreed. I dawned my puffer, pulled out a bag on M&Ms and sat on bag, all feelings of achievement and pride were picked up by the wind and blown up into thin air.




I’m still proud of climbing to the summit of Eiger, I proud of us both for having the courage to take the Eiger on, I’m proud I bounced back from a whipper, and Matt for climbing confidently on ground he’d never been on before. The way I set goals for myself means I often fail, I didn’t know if I could do the Eiger, that’s what made it attractive. I feel we learnt more in those 2 days than we would have in weeks doing routes we knew we’d have no problems on. Drinking Campari’s and beer after we flushed out a list of should haves and could haves, all great lessons of Alpinism.


What next? Can’t wait! It’s certainly not the last I’ll see of the mighty Eiger.