American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Eiger: Wall of Death

  • Book Reviews
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1982

Eiger: Wall of Death. Arthur Roth. W.W. Norton, New York, 1982. 350 pages, black-and-white photographs. $15.95.

According to the jacket cover, this book of the complete story of the assaults on the Eiger will easily become the most popular climbing book of the year. At day’s end, from Camp Four to Cathedral Ledge, 5.11 A3 hands will reach into tattered sacks and pull out this volume for an evening of pure entertainment. I have a different prophecy. The Eiger: Wall of Death will be a more popular game than Botticelli. In this game, points are given for finding errors within a specified time period. Here I predict the rules of play, with the most points going for obscure errors, and fewer points for the more obvious.

Here are examples worth 100 points:

• “The waterfall crack is over 100 feet long.” At best it is 80 feet.

• “They (Waschak and Forstenlechner in 1950) were … the first to make the climb without a bivouac stop, taking 18 hours all told, a record … that was to hold for the next 15 years….” Yet, later in the book we are told, “1965 and 1966 were distressingly similar … only one successful climb each year…." The 1965 ascent was the first Japanese ascent of the 1938 route which took three days and the 1966 ascent was the John Harlin Direttissima. The second one-day ascent was not until Messner and Habeler’s 10-hour climb in 1974, 24 years after Waschak and Forstenlechner.

• “Modern climbers can traverse the second icefield in a little over an hour.” Three or four is more like it.

• On Lionel Terray doing the Waterfall Crack, Roth writes, “The vertical rock was bare of holds offering no cracks to take even an ace of spades piton….” Never having heard of an ace of spades piton—thinking I may have been missing something—I checked Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless and found that he’d said he couldn’t get in an “extra plat.” Now “extra plat” means extra thin.

• “They (the Hinterstoisser Team) did a short traverse to … the start of the third ice field … here … they settled down only a few hundred feet below the Death Bivouac…." The Death Bivouac is before the third icefield.

For 50 points, I offer the following:

• On the Sedlmayer-Mehringer attempt, Roth writes, “The men steadily nailed their way upward.” This route is primarily free.

• Of the period after World War II, “The French jumped into the fore with climbers like Terry, Lachenal, Rébuffat, Desmaison, Franco, Ichac, Frendo, Herzog, Martinetti, and a dozen others….” Desmaison and Martinetti didn’t appear until the late fifties and early sixties and were not part of the post-war generation.

And for 25 points, here are some samples:

• “Grade VI came to denote artificial or direct aid climbing … call ing for the free use of pitons, pulleys and other mechanical aids to pull oneself upwards…." Yet the last chapter more correctly equates VI with 5.9.

• “A traverse is a horizontal move…. You go as far across as you can, hammer in a piton, clip your rope in … and repeat the process until you find a couloir, chimney or an icefield, some natural line that lets you start climbing upwards once more.” Like wise, Roth has such a maladroit description of a pendulum move that it is inaccurate.

Lastly, for a mere 10 points:

• “Leaving a rope fixed through the pitons the full length of the traverse as a running belay in case … (of) … retreat.

• The description of Heckmair using post-1970 ice techniques—i.e. two anchoring hand tools and secure front points—is possibly worth ten points because the book laboriously describes the hundreds of steps cut for the next 30 years.

• To note the omission of the problem of frozen hemp ropes on early ascents is also worth ten points.

Certain kinds of comments and observations won’t earn any points at all. No points are given for noting that the author says that carabiners have been greatly improved over the years by the addition of screw gates, but fails to mention the gains from lightweight alloys.

I, personally, would like some points—25? 50?—for “the distinctly surphureous smell” after lightning strikes. From my own experiences, including one on the Eiger, I’ve only noticed an ozonelike smell.

When this game catches on, there will be wild rumors circulating around the country of 2,000-point evenings in the Thesis Bar in New Paltz. Californians will talk of 15,000 scored on the bivouacs during A Sea of Dreams ascent. And Maurice at the Brasserie Nationale in Chamonix will even tell of “un anglais” who one night scored 40,000. Great fun, yes?

John Bouchard

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