(composed and translated by S. G. Kalmykov, edited by C. M. Roach)
Climbing the Eiger north wall by John Harlin's route was organized by CET Neva high venture travel agency (St. Petersburg) as part of the Winter Championship of Russia 1996-1997. The ascent took 7 days. On February 28, 1997 the team reached the summit and descended on the same day.
List of climbers:
Anatoly Moshnikov, the captain, honored master of sport, 44 years old.
Vladimir Vysotsky, candidate to master, 46.
Serguei Kalmykov, master of sport, 58.
Vasily Panasiuk, master of sport, 47.
Nicholas Totmianin, master of sport, 38.
The Championship Referee Board awarded our team with the second place, only 0.05 point behind the winning team from Magnitogorsk which climbed Mt. Fitz-Roi in the Patagonian Andes. We cordially congratulate our friends-competitors for their climb at the Extremity of the Land.
We left Petersburg February 12 at 3am in two cars and drove through Finland, then from
Helsinki by ferry to Travemünde, and finally through Germany and Switzerland to reach the Alps. This journey took 4 days. We returned back on March 5. The expedition was noncommercial and we had no sponsors. The expenses, about US $650 per each, were covered by the participants from their personal resources.
In the ascent description below we deliberately refrain from giving technical details. We believe that the human emotional side is more interesting and the slightly non-standard form of the presentation is used for the same reason.
From the History
(composed by N. Totmianin)
The relatively low mountain Eiger (3970m) in the Swiss Alps is one of the most famous in the world. For a long time its north wall was considered to be absolutely inaccessible and even had been named "the Death Wall" due to tragic events that took place there. From 100m below the summit of the mountain it falls abruptly for 1800m.
The first serious attempt to climb it was undertaken by Max Seidlmayer and Karl Meringer from Munich only in 1935. They started in August 21 but three days later bad weather had hidden them... Three weeks had passed before their bodies were seen from an aircraft.
July 1936 brought a new firm attack by Hinterstoisser and Kurz from Berchtesgaden and Reiner and Angerer from Innsbruck. This time the attempt ended again with a catastrophe —Reiner froze to death, Hinterstoisser fell and smashed, Angerer was strangled with the rope while attempting to abseil, and Kurz died of cold and starvation as the rescue team approached.
However, on the next year two more groups decided to try their luck... Two Italians, entirely exhausted, were brought down by rescuers but another two from Salzburg turned out to be less lucky—one of them died from exhaustion while another was rescued with frost-bitten feet. The wall was gaining notoriety. The local guide association declared that it would no longer try to rescue those "maniacs" who attempted to climb the wall. But prohibitions could never stifle human curiosity and endeavour to explore the unknown...
1938. Two Italians died at the top of the third ice field. Now this place is called "the Death
Bivouac". But on the same year success on the wall was achieved by the united efforts of two Germans, A.Heckmayer and L.Vörg, and two Austrians, F.Casparek and G.Harrer (July 27, 1938). The climbers were awarded with Olympic Gold Medals for their ascent of the Death Wall—an extraordinary event in the history of mountaineering!
The first winter ascent of this classic route was in March 1961.
In 1966, from February 23 to March 25, a new way on the wall was put up at the first time in winter conditions—the John Harlin route or "winter diretissima". 13 climbers from two teams, British-American and German, joined together to assault the wall. They climbed in expedition style, fixing ropes on all of the route and descending to the Kleine Scheidegg village for rests. Five participants reached the summit but the price was high—during the ascent John Harlin, the expedition leader, died because of fixed rope breaking. The expedition style provoked heated debate.
Nevertheless the second ascent of the route was also in the expedition style by a Japanese party. The 7 man team spent almost 3 months climbing the wall, December 24 1969 to March 21 1970. 2355m of fixed rope was used on the route and several members of the expedition stayed on the wall for 26 days without descending for a rest.
The tragic and painful history of the Eigernordwand conquest is due to its natural characteristics—average angle about 70 degrees, height of 1800m, unique for low mountains, and appalling weather conditions. Being concave and exposed to the North it is shaded and cold even in summer but in winter it practically never feels the Sun. The legendary wall continues to attract climbers from all over the world. Now there are about a dozen routes, four of which cross the center and lead to the summit vicinity (the red line on the picture is the classic route, the yellow one is John Harlin's route). All four are grade 6 in the Swiss seven grade scale—AS (ausserst schweirig). Among them the John Harlin route appears to be the most beautiful and logical. In summer it is impassable due to extreme danger of falling rock. But in winter it is a very interesting mixed rout of AS+, which corresponds to russian 6b grade. To the best of our knowledge nobody has attempted the climb over the last four years.
Some Additional Notes to the History
1. In response to my questions (October 1997) Jean Claude Marmier, High Mountain Group President in the French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing (Chamonix), wrote (the translation by S.K.):
"I am in familiar with the John Harlin route because I have climbed it straight up through the Fly in February 1978. It took eighteen days on the wall. Not bad since weather conditions blockaded us first on the second wall (near the Eigerwand station) and then on the Death Bivouac. In fact, there are only a few ascents exactly following the original route. The most remarkable climb had been performed in the fall "78 by the American Tobin Sorenson for four days. He was an outstanding climber soloist, evangelical pastor. He has realized many extraordinary ascents of Dru and Grandes Jorasses. He died several years ago, alone as always, in Rocky Mountains."
2. The only russian way on the wall has been climbed by the team from city of Magnitogorsk in August 1994. They have made a diretissima far to the right from the wall center, with exit up to a shoulder of the North-West ridge where the normal descent way goes. The second Russian ascent of the wall has been realized by our group from CET Neva agency, and the third one has been performed in August '97 by Valery Babanov and Michael Yarin on the classic route.
From S. Kalmykov's Letters to His Foreign Friends
...I'd like to explain what the mountain we are going to climb up means for Russian climbers and in particular for myself. I entered in mountaineering in 1960. Then I was only a little bit older than 20 and I was under a spell of the only book in Russian on climbing in the Alps which was accessible at that time in the USSR—"Alpinism abroad" by B.Garf and F.Kropf. I read and re-read it, kept in mind the great climbers" names—those of Frenchmen Guido Magnon and Lionel Terray, of the Germans Hermann Buhl and Kuno Reiner, of the Italian Walter Bonatti... there were whole pages of their exploits on famous alpine walls which I knew by heart. But all my dreams were absolutely hopeless because these were 60s in the USSR! It was like... to fall in love with Sophie Loren.
And in the reverie I composed a list of walls I'd like to climb.
First place on the list was the Great Wall: the north wall of the Eiger. Its 2km of rocks and ice gained the lugubrious title of "the Death Wall" which killed several tens of climbers. Two Austrians and two Germans, who first climbed it by the easiest route in 1938, were awarded with gold medals of the Berlin Olympiad 1936 by Hitler himself.
Of course, I clearly understand that everything has its time, but when my younger friends offered me the chance, at almost 60 years old, to realize the dream of my youth... I could not resist...
I returned yesterday. We (5 persons) climbed the Eigernordwand on John Harlin's route for 7 days. The weather was normal only for the first four days. Then a night blizzard started and lasted for 2 days. So on the fifth day we were sitting in the same place, two rope-lengths (80m) below the Spider, periodically cleaning off the snow. Since besides all other, our team was taking part in the Winter Championship of Russia, we had to top out by February 28 at the latest. Therefore, in spite of the continuing blizzard, we resumed progress on the next day (February 27) and bivouaced at the top of the Spider. The rock conditions became awful and to complete the John Harlin route would inevitably have involved one more night bivouac. This is why for the last 200m we turned left to the crack of the classic route and on February 28 at about 15.00hrs we were standing on the summit under the last rays of the setting Sun, which we saw for first time during the week.
On the descent we got in hugs of our young friend, Canadian climber Conny Amelunxen. On the evening of this same day we were drinking hot wine and cold beer in the Kleine Scheidegg restaurant.
During these days phrases from the "Eiger sanction" warmed my soul: something like "When you're 37 you're too old for the Eiger, fellow... Now I"m 42 and if we succeed I'll be the most aged climber ever having conquered the Eiger".
At the middle of our ascent, another our friend, a climber from the small town of Yverdon (not far from Lausanne) requested from the rescue service headquarters in Zurich on the situation with our team (we had paid our insurance). The reply was: "Monsieur, the present weather conditions on the Eigernordwand preclude any group stay there. For sure, there are no groups on the wall now." "I know this", he said, "but these are Russians. This is not the same that others. Please, check the wall." But there was zero visibility and neither observing nor helicopters could help. However, during our stay on the summit, and then while descending, we were honorably escorted by a beautiful red resque bird until they had convinced themselves that we were OK, though crazy.
People told us that the whole valley watched our climbing. In the first three days many small planes and helicopters circled the mountain.
The great wall!.. But there was one thing that was strange and hardly acceptable for us Russians, in comparison with our wild mountains: the tunnel and the railway station Eigernordwand. Our first bivouac was 100m to the right of the tunnel"s windows, spectators observed our climbing and at night we could see the electric light reflecting on the snow!
Well... Greetings to Erich Hoffmann, with his video about Eric Jones" solo on the Eiger, he was one of the motive forces in our undertaking. Regards, yours, S.K.
From A. Moshnikov's Diary
February 22, 1997.
We started from the snow cave early in the morning (7am) in half-light but with a full Moon. The altimeter displayed 2200m. We were climbing up a steep firn slope to the first icy step, trying not to look down. 2400m. On the step Nick began leading, I was belaying, behind were Vasily, Volodia and Sergei. This was mainly ice climbing up to the Eigernordwand railway station windows.
Spectators, helicopters... There was no isolation and no feeling of being at one with the
mountain. Besides a disquiet arose due to wall approach. Near the windows, under a rock roof we found a huge pile of wind blown snow. The guys stopped to prepare platform for the tent, while I continued climbing, now on vertical rocks, to fixed ropes for the next day.
Extreme climbing... After a long break from technically difficult wall climbing my progress was slow and uncertain. However, as the saying goes "eyes are frightened but hands are doing"... I finished in darkness and left equipment helter-skelter suspended. If snow fell by the night we would have to dig it all out.
The bivouac was perfectly comfortable.
February 23, 1997.
In the morning I continued leading, belayed by Nick. The rocks were difficult, mostly aid
climbing. It was hard to arrange belays, "rams" brows" were all around and no exit. Earlier ice had probably been abundant but now there were only occasional ribbons. I pendulumed to the left, hoping that the others would manage it, and entered into a vertical couloir with vague prospects for further progress. Nick encouraged me from below as I was poising on that vertical wall, standing on my front points and shifting from one ice spot to another. A little to the left I managed to cling to an icy "feather" with my "jackal" axe. I hoped it would be stable enough and climbed into a vertical chimney, which held good ice! It should be simpler here, only a few more meters to the bivouac.
February 24, 1997.
This morning Nick was leading. Sergei was belaying him, and I went third to take a video. This was regular grade 5 climbing, and Nick rushed.
"The Death bivouac". Having anchored the ropes, the guys began to prepare the bivouac site while Nick and I pushed on laying more fixed ropes. We placed two along an icy couloir, and a third steeply, about 80 degrees, up to a rock bastion. We were aid climbing in the dark... and I virtually had "to pull" Nick down—it was time to stop working. The night was not too bad. I spent it bent in the corner of the tent. The guys dozed sitting. I could feel inside that the weather was worsening. It would be nice to have a time to reach the Spider and then... then let God decide.
February 25, 1997.
From the morning we had steep climbing. Nick continued leading and he scrambled up smoothed "rams" brows" and up a narrow icy couloir to some steepening walls abutted against a serious overhang. This was here where we would bivouac.
While the guys chopped at the ice to make the platform I climbed up to the roof. Sh-shit!.. I had barely fallen down—when belaying Volodia forgot to give me more rope. This was just the result of ascents walking, without technical difficulties, on Communism Peak for the last 3 years.
The weather degenerated, and the rocks were quickly covered with snow in the beginning blizzard. I slipped off twice having barely left my fingers in crack... However, I felt with my stomach that the exit into the Spider should be nearby. The crack went upwards, it lured but I did not succumb to its decoy. I put on the crampons and traversed right and went quasi-running up into a darkening nowhere. The Spider! More correctly it was only the base but we could anchor our ropes there and this gave us a hope. I dived back downwards, already in the total darkness.
The bivouac was terrible, the worst sample of sitting bivi.
February 26, 1997.
A whole day of sitting. The blizzard continues and our mood can not be worse. The mountain is large and powerful but the people are small and weak. We sit, dig snow, cook, joke and wait. We wait interminably for the weather to improve. I don't want to think about serious matters, and only occasionally reflect on the condition of the upper anchors —are they safe enough?.. Sitting becomes too painful... I think a little about the way ahead —maybe we should switch to the classic route, otherwise we can fail to reach the summit...
It is difficult to believe that all this would ever end. Far below, behind the blizzard and the haze, there is life, while here there is only the whisper of snow over the tent and somewhere deep inside the mountain something powerful and mechanical is moving. The people yearn to vanquish nature but it is only waiting, smiling, for a proper moment to demonstrate who is master here...
Night... Again long sleepless hours of waiting for the weather, the life and the mood.
February 27, 1997.
A terrible night. The sleeping bags got completely sodden, and it had got colder. Even only a thought about the necessity to get out and start climbing horrified me—I had no desire to move, and felt like I was sleep-walking. I did not understand what the hell had drawn me here, I had not climbed big walls for 6 years. My elbows and knees ache and my fingers became swollen and numb. Several times during the night I crawled out from under Volodia and kneaded my hands.
In the morning the blizzard continued, but I sharply stopped the conversation to discuss whether we should resume the progress. If we sat for another whole day they would rescue us by helicopter: we would not be able to climb the overhang even with the fixed ropes. And there was no way down.
Nick started leading. The roof was no joke, as jumars slipped along the iced-up rope. Serguei took an hour and a half agonizing over one pitch, and Nick had broken the pick of his ice hammer. These were only the people who could endure all this, and the weather did not improve. Frequently we were forced to warm feet and hands, we got still standing under small avalanches, we shuddered of ice pieces which bashed our helmets. We pressed on climbing cautiously up through the Spider, where there was a lot of fresh snow and very poor opportunity for belays. We scarcely crawled up to rocks and made another sitting bivouac.
February 28, 1997.
The summit day!
This morning we left the Spider and switched to the classic route. The view was spectacular: the whole rock surface was covered with "snow flower" crystals from yesterday's snow storm. The rocks were cold and slippery. Sometimes it felt that we would never escape from here, and that the thread linking us to warmth and life in the human world below had just worn too thin.
But Nick the superman was leading ahead—using his crampons and "jackals" to great effect, he approached the crest like a steam train.
About 1pm we were standing on the top where the sunny weather rewarded us with a fantastic sight: the famous Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn saluted us...
And then we descended to the cordiality of the Swiss, Canadians, Frenchmen: all unacquainted but so affable and hospitable...