American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Eiger Direct, the John Harlin Route

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1967

Eiger Direct, the John Harlin Route

Christian Bonington, Alpine Club

THE term “last great problem” must be one of the most over-used clichés in mountaineering talk or literature. In recent times a new “last great problem” has been found, attempted and solved almost every year. Yet European alpinists are running out of unclimbed ground. Today every face and ridge has been climbed; wherever there is room for one, a direttissima has been made. True, there are still a few unclimbed lines, but these, in the words of the late Lionel Terray tend "to be like old spinsters; they’ve been left alone so long because they are not worth doing.”

Viewed in this light, the ascent of the Eiger Direct in February and March, 1966 had a strong claim to being the true last great problem of the Alps. However hard one looks, there is no other face that combines such size, difficulty and objective danger.

Strangely enough, the first party to attempt the Direct were the first people ever to set foot on the face, Sedlmayer and Mehringer, back in 1935, for they took a fairly direct line up to the Flat Iron, and no doubt, if the weather had remained fine, would have tried to climb straight up to the Spider. Their deaths at least taught those who followed that the Eiger does not lend itself to Direct ascents, for the strata stretches across the face in a series of smooth rock bands and icefields in the lower part of the face, and in the upper part the lines of weakness are all diagonal, seeking to lead the climber to the edge of the wall. The route that was finally made in 1938 was therefore essentially a wandering line, searching out the lines of weakness through this huge maze of ice-filled chimneys and galleries.

Climbers did not start thinking of a Direct ascent until the early 1960’s. Two Poles, Czeslaw Momatiuk and Jan Mostowsky (the latter now living in New York), made the first recorded attempt in the winter of 1963, but were turned back by bad weather at the start of the First Ice Field. Between 1963 and 1966 several more attempts were made by various leading European climbers, but little progress was made; no one did better than Sedlmayer and Mehringer thirty years before.

From the start the name John Harlin was closely linked with these attempts. He camped below the face in the summer of ’63 but the weather was too bad to make an attempt. He did, however, meet Ignazio Piussi and Roberto Sorgato, two of Italy’s best climbers, who were also interested in the Eiger Direct. In the winter of ’64 he joined them and two other Italians, Marcello Bonafede and Natalino Menegus, in an atttempt, but they only reached the start of the First Ice Field. The following June he returned with René Desmaison and André Bertrand and reached the top of the Second Ice Field before being turned back.

His activities have already been so well recorded in the American Alpine Journal that I feel I need say little of his achievements between the summer of 1962, when he climbed the Eiger by the normal route and March, 1966 when he died. I should like, however to describe the impact he made on me, and the others with whom he came into contact. He undoubtedly had a touch of greatness in him. The impact he made on European climbing and the people around him was proof of this. He thought big — his dreams at times seemed fantastic, castles in the sky, and then through sheer persistence and persuasiveness he brought them to reality. He talked of an assault of the west face of Everest, of piloting his own plane up the length of the American continents, climbing the most difficult unclimbed faces on the way, of sailing across the Indian Ocean in a dhow, of starting an international climbing club. If he had lived, I am sure he would have achieved many of these ambitions.

He was known in some quarters as the Blond God. This nickname was not entirely affectionate, for a person like John inevitably made enemies; he was too single-minded in his projects, too determined to get his own way, too forth-right in his opinions to be a friend to all men; and yet, as one came to know him, one discovered a humility. He was eager to respect others, happy to take their advice. His affection and emotions were essentially warm. He wanted desperately to be liked, and yet would ride roughshod over the people he felt were opposing him. Everything was black and white to John — you were either for or against him, and there was nothing in between. At times this made his relationships with other people difficult.

His strength has become a legend — he had the perfect Tarzan physique and looks, from his blond hair to his thigh-sized biceps. He was a brilliant athlete; he had been on the All American Services football teams, junior wrestling champion of California and had come 26th in the World’s Langlauf championships only six months after starting to ski. He had started to climb in 1952, but was not a brilliant natural climber. Climbers who met him in Britain in the fifties were not particularly impressed, and yet in the last three years, through determination and perseverance he had turned himself into a first-class rock climber and a brilliant mountaineer. He had a feel for big mountains, instinctively found the best route, was extremely fast and competent on mixed ground.

Although he had started to climb in America, he was essentially an Alpinist and had developed in a European environment. He brought to his Alpinism however, an American approach, taking full advantage of the technical development that has been made in the last few years in Yosemite. Beyond just using improved American equipment, he also approached his climbing with the thoroughness and seriousness that seems an American characteristic. He took endless trouble in planning his routes, made use of aerial photographs, and was prepared to come back again and again to a climb until he had climbed it.

Climbing the Eiger Direct was John’s greatest ambition. I shall always remember him telling me, "This will be the culmination of our climbing experience; we’re never likely to get onto anything harder; I feel that everything I’ve done in the mountains leads to this, and we’ll be calling on all the experience we have gained in our climbing careers.”

He intended to treat the route as a classic Alpine climb, starting at the bottom and climbing straight through to the top. To ensure speed he wanted to keep the party as small as possible and decided on three as the best number. He had tried the climb in summer, but he favoured the winter since there was then no stonefall and the weather was more settled. He thought that there should be at least one period of up to two weeks of fine weather during the winter and he hoped to utilize this to do the climb, taking anything up to ten days to do it. When he told me this, I could not help wondering how he would decide whether the start of any one spell of good weather was going to last the necessary ten days, for no meteorologist will give a forecast of more than two or three days. John admitted the seriousness of being caught high on the face by bad weather, and had tried to allow for this by equipping the party with two-way wireless; using this he hoped they would have at least twenty-four hours warning of a change in the weather. He also had a thousand feet of fixed rope which he intended to leave on the First and Second Bands. If he was caught by bad weather above the Spider he thought he could fight his way out up the Exit Cracks; he had already done this in summer on the ordinary route, when he had been caught by a bad storm.

The team arrived at Kleine Scheidegg at the beginning of February. With John were Dougal Haston, a twenty-five year old Scottish climber, and Layton Kor from Colorado. I came out as photographer for the Weekend Telegraph which was sponsoring the project. As the climb progressed I was to find myself more and more involved in the actual climbing.

For a fortnight, there was no sign of the fine weather, that John had predicted during this period. The team put most of the provisions and equipment out through the Eiger Station window, to save carrying them from the bottom. John felt that the problem of doing the climb at all was so great, that this step was justified, because, he thought he could save at least a day by travelling light on the comparatively easy lower slopes.

The German team arrived at Kleine Scheidegg on February 18. We had heard rumours that there were eight climbers from Stuttgart in training for the climb, but we had always tended to treat these lightly. It seemed inconceivable that such a large party could contemplate the climb. They would be too slow, spread over too great a distance; we asked ourselves where they could possibly find sufficient bivouac spots? John was confident that he would be able to move much more quickly, once the good weather came. He was also confident that he knew the face better and that he could find a better route.

But the Germans did not wait for the good weather. They started up the face on a grim, overcast day. After two-days’ work, they had climbed about 1500 feet and ferried up a huge quantity of equipment and food. When we talked to Jörg Lehne and Peter Haag, their joint leaders, they confirmed what we had guessed, that they had a completely different concept of the climb from ours, that they were treating it as an expedition rather than a normal Alpine climb. They planned to dig snow holes, leave fixed rope in position, and carry enough food and equipment for three weeks. At this early stage however, they did not conceive using as much fixed rope as both parties eventually did. They also wanted to do the climb in one go, and it was the constant bad weather combined with an element of competition that forced the two parties to put out a continuous line of fixed rope and then use it for going back and forth from the face both for rests at Kleine Scheidegg, and for further supplies.

It quickly became obvious that if we wanted to do the Direct climb we also should have to adopt expedition tactics. Unfortunately the party as it stood was too small for this type of climbing. One needed at least four climbers, two out in front making the route, and two behind to ferry up all the equipment, dig the snow holes and so on. This was the bare minimum, giving no reserves, no one the chance to rest. To make up the four, I agreed to join the team for the early stages, until John could revert to the original plan and make a push for the summit.

At first there was undoubtedly competition between the two teams — it was a race, the slowest race on earth, as one newspaper headlined it. There was no question at first of the two teams joining up. In John’s eyes a party of eight was big, eleven would have been lunacy. Although he was being forced to change his original plan, he still wanted to go back to a fast light-weight push for the summit at the first opportunity. Neither party wanted a race or competition, but each wanted to get to the top first, so whether one liked it or not, there was a race.

The first major problem of the climb was the First Band, though the bottom 1500 feet were very much harder than any of us had anticipated — harder for instance than the North Wall of the Triolet. On the First Band, Layton Kor came into his own. When subsequently I climbed the fixed ropes immediately on his line of ascent I could not conceive how anyone could have got up without using expansion bolts — there just did not seem to be any cracks, and yet somehow Layton had found slight weatherings in the rock. He used bolts only for belays. The Germans made a line a short way to the right, but had to use several expansion bolts for direct aid.

This part of the climb took several days and was frequently interrupted by bad weather. Once the First Band had succumbed things speeded up. John and Dougal went ahead making the route towards the Flat Iron. The Germans had planned to climb the Second Band by the rock wall leading straight up to the Flat Iron, while John had favoured an icy gully to one side. On this occasion John proved right; the Germans, after one of their number, Karl Golikow, had had a fall on friable rock, were happy to follow up our fixed rope. Throughout the early stages of the climb, we were at a disadvantage, both because of our lack of number and because we were constantly improvising owing to our change of plan. As a result of this, having pushed out in front, we were passed by the Germans who found the best route up onto the Second Icefield. We needed a rest day to get all our gear sorted out.

We were quite happy to follow the Germans, using their ropes; after all they had used ours on the previous day. The two parties, therefore, had started to work together, though they still remained essentially separate and self interested. We were, however, now coming into close contact with each other; in face of the immensity of our problem and the ever lurking danger, there seemed no room for man-made competition; from being two different parties of different nationalities, we slowly became twelve individuals on a mountain; we came to know and like each other — and yet, all too often, once we got off the mountain, back to Kleine Scheidegg, we lost contact, became immersed in the hysteric world of the press, forgot the warmth of shared danger and started to distrust the other side, to make plans to our own advantage.

We reached the Flat Iron on March 9. This was the last point where we could shelter in snow holes. These had proved the most important factor in climbing the Direct in winter, for, using these, it was possible to sit out bad weather, something out of the question in a normal bivouac tent. From the Flat Iron, however, we realized we should have to make a push to the summit without this protection.

The day after we reached the Flat Iron the weather began to break up. I had already gone back down, for it now seemed that John would be able to revert to his original concept of a three-man assault. Layton came down on the 11th, leaving John and Dougal to sit out the bad weather. At this stage neither party wanted to abandon their toe hold on the Flat Iron, for above it the route seemed to channel down into a bottleneck. The party that managed to sit it out would have a tremendous advantage once the weather improved, for they could go straight up into the bottleneck. Once all eight Germans had managed to get in front of us, it would have been very difficult to get through them, and yet John’s entire planning was based on making a quick thrust for the summit. With only three climbers, he could not carry enough food and equipment to plod slowly behind the German team; he had to get out in front.

John and Dougal spent six days in the snow hole. They had to seal themselves into it, for spindrift found its way through every chink, covering their down clothing and sleeping bags with a treacherous white film of snow. In spite of this their morale remained high; unfortunately however, John had contracted bronchitis and at the end of six days was running a high temperature. They had nearly run out of food and therefore decided to come down.

Ironically, the weather improved the day they returned. The only way of keeping up with the Germans, two of whom had sat it out in the Death Bivouac, was for Layton and me to go up to the Flat Iron, and keep the climb going while John and Dougal took a well earned rest. On the same day (March 17) that we climbed the fixed ropes to the Flat Iron Bivouac, the Germans went up towards the bottleneck. About three hundred feet above the Flat Iron was a buttress or pillar. There was a gully to either side of it. From the top of this pillar there seemed only one way up into the Spider. The Germans took the right hand gully, which was the most easily accessible, but in its upper parts it became very steep and was blocked with huge cornices of old snow. That day they reached the base of these cornices. The following morning, we traversed across the base of the Pillar, a place where Layton’s skill at pegging, once again proved invaluable. From there, steep ice-covered slabs led up towards the top of the Pillar. For the only time of the climb I found myself out in front. It was one of the most exhilarating pitches I have ever done. The ice was only two-inches thick; it was impossible to get any protection, for the ice was too thin for ice pegs, and there were no cracks in the rock for ordinary pitons.

At the end of the day we were just below the top of the pillar and the way looked straight forward. That night we returned full of hope for the next day; we passed the Germans’ snow hole on the way down, and Jörg Lehne told us that they had got into a blind alley — they could not get up their branch of the gully.

"I realize we are in a weak position” he told me "but can’t we end this competition once and for all, by joining the two parties. Could one of my climbers go with Layton tomorrow?’

I was immediately attracted by the idea, hating the thought of the bad feeling that would grow between the two parties if I refused. After talking it over with John on the wireless, I agreed that Karl Golikow should climb with Layton. They reached the top of the pillar the following morning and Layton climbed a steep rock pitch up towards the Spider. That afternoon I returned to Scheidegg. I felt that I had now fulfilled my role on the face and wanted to get some pictures from the side. The following morning, the 21st, John and Dougal, now well rested, set out for the Flat Iron, while Layton, climbing with Jörg Lehne reached the Spider. The Germans spent the night in the Spider, while Layton returned to meet John and Dougal in the Death Bivouac. Since the forecast was poor, he decided he would slip down to Scheidegg for the evening and return the next day — only Layton could have had energy even to contemplate this.

The 22nd dawned fine, but the forecast remained bad. John was a cautious climber and had no desire to be caught by a bad storm high on the face without shelter of a snow cave; he wanted to wait in the Death Bivouac, which was now well stocked with food and make a dash for the summit as soon as the weather improved. He asked us to give him another forecast at midday.

We had to tell him that the forecast was still bad, but that the Germans were pressing on and had now reached the Fly. John had no choice; the Germans could not be blamed for risking the bad weather and making a dash for the summit. He, therefore, decided to climb the fixed ropes to the Fly, spend the night there with the leading Germans, and join them in their summit dash, the next day.

What followed is well known. Dougal went up the ropes first and John followed. The fixed rope immediately above the Pillar, leading up to the Spider, broke and he fell. There could have been three causes — a small stone could have hit the rope, but that was unlikely. Only a very few stones were coming down and the chances of one of them hitting the rope were remote in the extreme. It could have been normal wear and tear, for we were only using 7mm Perlon, but it seems strange that this rope, which had only been used on eight or nine ascents should have parted, when the ropes further down the face, which had been ascended many hundreds of times, should have remained firm. The final possibility is that the rope had a fault in it. It was not the same make — Mammoth — as we had used on the rest of the face. We had bought this rope in a local climbing shop when we had run out of the Mammoth rope. It was just possible that the rope was substandard.

Immediately after the accident we were stunned — the climb had been building up to a glorious climax — it seemed as if nothing could have stopped the success of the two parties, that in the next day or so, the two teams were going to reach the top together. Our first reaction was that it was all over, that they would have to come down that night, but when I talked to Dougal and Jörg Lehne over the wireless, they told me that they intended to go on.

"If we go back now, nothing will have been achieved,” Dougal told me. "John’s life will have been completely wasted. I’m sure John would want us to go on. We want to make the climb a memorial to him, call it the John Harlin Climb.”

The moment he told me their decision, I realized that this was the best course. They could not have given John a finer memorial. Five of them were going to push to the summit — Dougal, Jörg Lehne, Günther Strobel, Sigi Hupfauer and Roland Votteler. They made little progress on the day after the accident, for they had to reorganize the equipment, get more fixed ropes, and were able to do little more than establish themselves in the Fly. Meanwhile the bad weather was building up; a heavy grey cloud blanketed the huge amphitheatre that forms the upper part of the face. There was no question of their waiting for the bad weather to pass over. Although nothing was said, I am sure everyone realized that it was a question of now or never. They could never have come back down and then returned to the climb.

On the 24th of March, Dougal and Jörg Lehne led up towards the summit. It is difficult to describe the conditions — Mick Burke, another British climber and I reached the summit the previous day, and spent the final two days awaiting their arrival. It was the most savage storm I have ever experienced. -12° Fahrenheit were recorded at Scheidegg and there were gusts of 85 m.p.h. It was all I could do to stand upright and it was difficult to conceive how any one could be climbing somewhere down below.

That day Dougal and Jörg reached a point about five hundred feet below the summit. The climbing had involved difficult mixed climbing, with short stretches of artificial aid. Their visibility throughout was limiter to a few yards, the wind hammered at them, powder snow avalanches poured down continuously. That night Strobel climbed up the fixed ropes which the front pair had left behind, bringing Lehne’s bivouac equipment. Dougal had to return to where the other two were ensconced below. Another bitterly cold, long night followed. The Germans were unable to take off their crampons. Dougal forced himself to do so, and as a result probably saved himself from getting frostbitten toes. Their down clothing was now of little value, frozen nearly solid.

The next morning Lehne and Strobel fought their way out over the top. Dougal and the two Germans, Hupfauer and Votteler, followed up the fixed ropes. Dougal had a desperate time just below the summit, where there was a gap of a hundred feet where the front pair had run out of rope. He had no ice axe, his crampons were loose, and yet he had to lead up the steep ice, feeling for the steps, in the ice, hidden by the torrent of snow. At the top of the steps, he could see the end of the fixed rope, but it was about 20 feet to one side — and there were no steps for him to use. Somehow he tension-traversed across on a piton driven only one inch into the ice.

While waiting for these five near to the summit, I had feared that their chances of survival were about fifty to one against. The fact that they got up at all certainly was not luck — all the luck was against them — it was sheer determination and skill.

It seems incredible that this ascent came under heavy criticism from several quarters, both in the world of mountaineering and the press. It was said that unfair means had been used to conquer an Alpine face. An extract from an article published in Britain sums up a surprisingly widely held opinion. "In early March the circus came to Scheidegg again and we were subject to the ballyhoo that now accompanies each North Wall climb. … Certainly the courageous contestants were supreme technicians but some of them came down to Scheidegg to sleep at nights and this bears no more relation to climbing than taking a plane to Petersgrat does to ski mountaineering. One Wengen guide was heard to declare that he could have dragged his grandmother up the net-work of fixed ropes. …”

Even amongst experienced mountaineers there was a feeling that it was wrong to use expedition tactics in the Alps. I am convinced that the climb could not possibly have been completed by any other methods last winter; it is quite possible that given the ten days of perfect weather that John had hoped for, they would have completed the climb as they had planned by conventional Alpine methods, but even so the likelihood of the weather breaking before they reached the top would have been so great, that I do not think an Alpine-type assault was, or would be justified in winter.

Neither team planned the long drawn out assault that occurred — the fact that they frequently returned to Scheidegg both for rest and supplies was forced on them by the circumstances of constant bad weather. I do not think that this action caused a particularly dangerous precedent in the history of Alpine climbing; just because these methods were used on one climb, because they were expedient, does not mean that they are going to be used on every subsequent first winter ascent or new route done in the Alps — apart from anything else it is much more enjoyable going straight onto a climb and getting up it.

Only a few people would deny that the Eiger Direct was a great line, whatever methods were used to climb it. To the people who climbed on it, it became more than just a climb; it was a place where twelve people of different nationalities came together and from initial distrust and competition built up a very real friendship and understanding under stress and extreme difficulties. This friendship had been forged before John’s tragic death — the two teams would have reached the top together in unqualified victory but for the breaking of a rope. Now, the pleasure we gained from some of the best climbing any of us had ever done will always be blemished by this loss.

Summary of Statistics.

Area: Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.

Ascent: North Wall Direct of the Eiger. Harlin’s team arrived at Kleine Scheidegg, February 3, 1966; German team first set foot on the face, February 18; Harlin and Haston got above First Band, March 6; both teams reached Flat Iron, March 9; Harlin and Haston sat it out in Death Bivouac, March 11 to 16; Kor and Golikow climbed together to top of Pillar, March 20; Harlin killed, March 22; Direct climbed by Haston, Lehne, Strobel, Hupfauer, Votteler, March 25.

Personnel: John Harlin, Layton Kor, Americans; Dougal Haston, Scot; Christian Bonington, English; Jörg Lehne, Günther Strobel, Peter Haag, Sigfried Hupfauer, Rolf Rosenzopf, Günter Schnaidt, Karl Golikow, Roland Votteler, Germans.

Don Whillans helped ferry gear on the lower slopes. Mick Burke accompanied Bonington to the summit at the end of the climb. Peter Gilman, Daily Telegraph reporter, helped organize our base at Scheidegg and ran the radio.

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