The Eiger North Face: its many dramas and tragedies have fostered, well… mountains of literature. For generations it was a highly coveted alpine testpiece. Now, due to advances in climbing equipment and techniques, remarkably reliable weather forecasting, and practically up-to-the-minute condition reports via blog posts and mountaineering websites, the Eigerwand (Eiger-wall) is a more accessible, less fearsome proposition. Where once alpinism’s cream-of-the-crop risked all, middle-of-the-pack climbers now try their luck and often succeed.
So you no longer have to be an extraordinary climber to summit, but climbing the North Face safely still demands an appropriate degree of fitness, experience, judgment, and climbing skill. Having convenient, detailed information about the route is useful too, and that’s what this little guide intends to provide.
When to go?
Global warming has changed the Eiger’s North Face. Summer attempts have always held the threat of climbing though cascading waterfalls and incessant rockfall, but where year-round ice fields once held dominion, now sloping, wet, grit-covered ledges abound.
The colder (but not too cold) seasons avoid all that. Late winter or early spring are probably best: wintry conditions typically keep the Eiger’s notorious rockfall in check, seasonal snow and ice offer secure footing and holds, and ice screws can supplement meager rock protection. Plus, the longer days after the equinox buy the hurried alpinist precious time.
The best of all worlds may be starting up with a favorable weather forecast after a heavy, early to mid-spring snowfall has had time to firm up (a week or more). In April, much of the upper face is bathed in late afternoon sun, and the repeated mild melting and refreezing promises decent ice, while still facilitating simul-climbing romps up shadowed, consolidated snowfields.
The Eiger’s limestone offers few cracks. Handholds and ledges tend to angle downward, and the plentiful triangular chips do not favor drytool hooking. On the other hand, the rock along the well-traveled Heckmair Route is surprisingly solid, belying the Eiger’s dreaded reputation for loose stone. Even the Brittle Crack is relatively secure (at least in early-season conditions).
If you’re lucky, you’ll find excellent conditions, perfect weather, and firm tracks made by many previous ascensionists. In this case, route-finding on the long and wandering line up the Eigerwand is moot: just follow the well-trodden path to the summit (avoiding the occasional missteps of misguided parties). But for those who are the literal ground breakers after a fresh snowfall, this guide may prove especially useful.
The Eiger’s rock is not gear-friendly. Typically you’ll find fixed protection when most needed, but during a late-winter/spring ascent, ice screws will probably see more use than rock gear. It is common to bring a few pins, but some parties place none. The bottom line: carry a pared-down rock rack, and bring ice screws (six is not overdoing it).
Eigerwand climbers will likely wear crampons from the moment they begin the approach, until descending to the Eigergletscher railway station at the end of their adventure.
Monopoints are tailor-made for the crux pitches but these constitute a minute portion of the nearly 2,500 meters of climbing; just bring standard crampons.
Drytooling techniques and associated equipment provide a modern edge which, as much as anything, has opened the North Face to the common climber. Using tools on every pitch, you’ll rarely rely on fingers. Hone these skills on your home crags!
Simul-climbing vs. pitching
Unless the ice fields really are ice fields (instead of snow covered ice), plan on simul-climbing large swaths of the route. Occasionally, however, pitching will be necessary for all but the strongest parties.
In snowy conditions, anchors can be difficult to set, and fixed gear may be buried or otherwise hard to find. In these situations, on some sections (for example, on the snow fields) gear placements may indeed be few and far between.
A sound strategy is for the leader to climb with a lighter pack and have the second carry the heavy stuff. Leading in blocks makes this more efficient, and everybody ends up happy: after an hour on the sharp end, the leader will welcome relief and happily hoist the weight, while the second gladly trades that effort for the excitement of being out front—for another hour, anyway.
Strong, experienced parties now regularly climb the face in a long day—a 24-hour tour is not unusual. Less adept groups plan for at least one bivouac. Two bivies make for a more casual ascent. Here are a few possible strategies:
- Climb it in a day: You will likely need to bivouac near the base of the North Face and get a respectable alpine start, maybe 3:00 am. You can’t count on direct moonlight to show the way, since during even a full moon the North Face will be wreathed in shadow. With just a few exceptions (the Difficult Crack and the Ice Hose), the easiest climbing will be in the dark, early-morning hours. That’s good: you’ll have daylight for the hardest pitches. If you can reach the Exit Snow fields before evening, the route is straightforward to the summit. Since the snowy, wide-open West Flank faces the waning dusk or waxing Moon, you can expect more natural illumination on the descent.
- Climb it with one bivouac: A fast and well acclimatized team may be able to leave on the first morning train from Grindelwald and climb quickly enough to reach the Brittle Ledges or Traverse of the Gods bivy by dusk or nightfall. Otherwise, sleep below the face and get a respectable alpine start. Either way, the goal is the Brittle ledges or the Traverse of the Gods bivy one pitch beyond. By getting up early and blasting for the top—a party could enjoy the second day’s lunch at the Eigergletscher Station restaurant.
- Climb it with two bivouacs: This more casual approach demands a suitable weather forecast with three days of clear conditions. The first night’s goal is the Death Bivouac, but the trick is the second bivy: where? Unless you make it to the summit, the choices are to improvise a bivy ledge in the snow, use the bivy in the Exit Gullies or spend the night sitting up.
Perhaps you will climb the Eigerwand in a day. Impressive! But you’ll miss sleeping on minuscule ledges at dizzying elevation—a worthy adventure in itself! As mentioned above, there are a few good sites: the Death Bivouac is the wall’s best accommodation, though there is also a decent spot at the Brittle Ledges, and an even better site one pitch beyond at the beginning of the Traverse of the Gods.
Exhausted and benighted alpinists have also carved out slender bunks on the icefields, in the Ramp, and other spots as well; desperation is the true mother of invention. Past the Traverse of the Gods, there is probably only one prospect for slumbering prone (just before the Quartz Crack and possibly exposed to rockfall) and a handful of uncomfortable, half-sitting possibilities. Consolation: there are worse experiences than watching the stars slowly turn above you between snatches of sleep on the Eigerwand. If conditions are great and you’re climbing fast, you may reach the Eiger’s small but surprisingly flat summit and bivouac there—which is in a league of its own in terms of happy position and comfort.
If the plan is to bivouac during the late-winter or early spring season, a light, winter-weight sleeping bag is recommended. On the Eiger, a good night’s rest (i.e., staying warm) will be a huge advantage. There are the classic arguments against down, but with a reliably dry weather forecast, the risks are offset by significant weight savings. A warm “puffy” jacket is essential. In fact, two are not extravagant: a light synthetic jacket for climbing (mornings are chilly) and a thicker one to layer with a sleeping system.
Beyond these tips, if you have the knowledge and experience necessary to attempt the face, you’ll know what to bring.