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Jeff Lowe on the Eiger

Jeff Lowe on the Eiger

David Roberts*

CLIMBING HARD ALL DAY, Jeff Lowe had forced an intensely complicated route through a wilderness of false leads and deadends, but darkness caught him short of the ledge he had hoped to reach. He had no choice but to carve a makeshift cave in the steep fan of snow where he was stranded, then crawl inside. Stupified with weariness, he fired up his balky stove and turned pot after pot of packed snow to water. Hydrate, hydrate, his brain cajoled his listless body. In the middle of the night the storm came in. The wind was moderate, but a heavy snowfall poured out of the black sky.

By morning, Lowe was in a perilous situation. It was Thursday, February 28, his ninth day on the north face of the Eiger. He was 4500 feet up, but in the 1500 feet of frozen limestone that still hung above him, he was sure to find the hardest passages of all. He was running out of food. He could not stay warm at night. And he was on the verge of exhaustion.

A little after noon, the snow let up. With a tight rope to his anchoring pitons, Lowe cautiously climbed out of his cave to survey his blizzard-struck surroundings. He peered into the void below his feet, still blank with clouds, as he remembered the nine days of agonizing work that had brought him to his stance three-quarters of the way up the Nordwand. Then he craned his neck to look upward, toward the ledge, plastered now with rime, that he had failed to reach the night before. He kicked his right foot into the snow and stepped up. He kicked his left foot: another step.

Seven hours later, in darkness, Lowe settled once more into his soaked sleeping bag. He would have to spend another night in the hated snow cave. He got out his two-way radio and warmed the batteries. Rousing his support team, Jon Krakauer and me, at the hotel far below, Lowe spoke slowly, his voice seamed with fatigue, “I’ve got a decision to make, whether to go up or down. It’s a tough one.” There was a long pause. “I don’t know how hard it would be to get down from here. I figure it’ll take three days minimum to reach the summit if I go up. And that’s only if the weather’s good tomorrow and Saturday.”

* * * * *

On February 19, his first day on the Nordwand, Lowe had cruised up 2000 feet in only two hours. The going was easy but dangerous, a matter of planting the picks of his ice axes in a steady rhythm, of stabbing the crampon points into the brittle ice overlying steep rock. He soloed without a rope: if he slipped, he would die. But Lowe was in his element. The speed and precision that had made his technique famous among a generation of American climbers spoke in every swing of his axes. It was still winter, and this was the Eiger. Over the past six decades, it was the easy start that had seduced so many alpinists. Between 50 and 60 of the best climbers of the world had died here, in a variety of gruesome ways.

At the foot of a sheer 350-foot rock cliff called the First Band, the climbing turned abruptly hard. As Lowe used his rope for the first time, his pace slowed to a vertical crawl. In 3½ hours, he gained only 110 vertical feet. On the second day, a dogged and ingenious struggle over nine hours won him a mere 80 feet more.

On other great mountain faces, clean vertical cracks, good ledges and solid rock abound. The Eiger, however, is notorious for limestone knobs that crumble as you seize them, for downsloping ledges covered with ice and for a scarcity of good cracks. The severity of the terrain brought out the best in Lowe as he “hooked” his way upward.

But already there were problems. Lowe had what he called “fumble fingers,” dropping three or four of his most valuable nuts and pitons. The adjustable pick on one of his ice axes had worked loose. When he searched his gear bag for the tiny wrenches to tighten the pick, he realized he had left them behind, down at the hotel. He had climbed on, which meant he could really never swing the axe hard and plant the blade. It was a bad compromise, like driving at 30 miles per hour on a flat tire.

On the third day, ignoring the malaise that had troubled his snow-cave sleep, Lowe pushed on. By 2:30 P.M., he had almost beaten the First Band, but the storms of the last few weeks had plastered snow and ice into dead-plumb rock. He had to shift back and forth between rock and snow, from spidering with bulky plastic boots and gloved hands among the limestone nubbins to crabbing his way up the hollow snow with crampons and axes. When he could, he placed protection.

At 2:50, he clung to a flimsy patch of rotten snow. He doubted that he could reverse the moves he had made above his last protection eight feet below. He had no idea if he could place any above or climb through the looming overhang that blocked his view of the rest of the gigantic wall. He seized a tiny nut and began to place it in a good crack. Suddenly, the snow broke loose beneath his feet. He was falling.

Solo self-belaying is far more awkward, and far less reliable, than the kind offered by a human partner. He carried a new kind of self-belay device he had never used. Before his first hard pitch, he had not even taken the contraption out of the plastic bag it was sold in. The question now, as he fell through the air, was whether the device would work.

An abrupt jolt gave him the answer; the rig had done its job. Lowe was unhurt. He edged his way back to the high point, where he found another plate of snow to try. Gingerly, he moved up it, anticipating another fall with each step, until he stood beneath the rock overhang. He made a series of delicate moves, angling left through a weakness in the browing cliff, until he could plant the picks of his axes on snow above. The left pick wobbled in disturbing fashion. But the snow was worthless, sloughing loose under the slightest touch. For a full hour, he struggled in place. At last, he found a small patch of more reliable snow. He planted both ice axes, moved his feet up and stabbed the front points. The snow held. He moved a few feet higher, then surged upward.

He had put the First Band behind him, but it was getting dark. After placing three ice screws, he rappelled all the way back to his snow cave and crawled into his thin sleeping bag. Tired though he was, sleep escaped him. The loose pick on his ice axe nagged at him. At the rate he was burning fuel, he would run out long before he could reach the summit. And he needed those nuts and pitons he had dropped.

The boldness of his choice to go without a bolt kit was now manifest. On the First Band, he had been stymied by blank rock. With bolts, you can drill the rock and build a ladder through the blankest impasse. Every other new route on the Eiger in the last thirty years had employed bolts; the Japanese, who had pioneered the excellent line just to the right of Lowe’s, had placed 250 of them. As he struggled to relax in his snow cave, his problems of unhappiness of the last year danced mockingly in his mind. In the morning, he turned on his radio and called Krakauer and me, down at the Kleine Scheidegg. “Guys,” he said in a slow, gravelly voice, “I’m thinking about a slight change of plans.” He paused. “I’m going to come down.”

*****

After the snowstorm on the morning of his descent, the weather had stabilized with high overcast. But the temperatures were strangely warm. There were plenty of reasons to give up the climb; alibis were lying around ready to be seized. However, with minutes to spare, he caught the first train to the Eiger Gletscher station the next morning. By 12:20, he was back at his bivouac site at the lower end of the ropes he had left in place. It was warm, but perfectly clear with a forecast for more of the same.

One of the bugaboos of solo climbing is the weight of one’s gear. On his first day back on the face, it took him 4½ hours to wrestle the gear up to his previous high point. Then, boldly, he led on into the dusk. It was not until 9:55 P.M.—three hours after dark—that he got established in a good bivouac site. He was halfway up the Nordwand.

The next morning, for a couple of pitches his route coincided with the classic 1938 line. The Ice Hose had been a formidable test to more than one party of experts over the years. For Lowe, with his impeccable ice technique, it was almost like hiking. He surged up the Hose and across the Second Icefield and at the day’s end bivouacked at the base of the summit headwall. Only a little more than 2000 feet of climbing remained, but it promised to be severe and unrelenting. As he inched his way up into the dark, concave headwall, it would be increasingly hard to retreat.

It was Monday night, February 25. The forecast from Zürich was for continued good weather through Wednesday, then snow for Thursday and Friday. A fiendish scenario began to propose itself. With two days’ steady climbing, Lowe might well find himself at the point of no return, only to get socked in by a storm.

By pushing into each evening, he had gotten stuck with a late start every morning. On Tuesday, the 26th, he didn’t get going until 10:55. That night as Krakauer and I looked up, we caught sight of a pinpoint of light three-fifths of the way up the wall: Lowe’s headlamp as he dug his bivouac site.

On the night of the 27th, the storm came in hard while Lowe was in his claustrophobic snow cave, not a good place at all. “I’ve never been so pummeled in my life,” he radioed in the morning. “There’s a big avalanche coming down every five minutes. I couldn’t move if I wanted to.” Yet, a moment later he said, “I’m going to have to muscle my way out of here and get a better bivy site.” The forecast was mixed. The snow was supposed to stop later in the day. Friday and Saturday would be better, but another storm was due on Sunday.

At noon, he broadcast again. He had managed to get out of his snow hole, but the search for a better bivouac site had been fruitless. The avalanches were still pouring down, his clothes were wet and he was cold. To our surprise, he said, “I’m going to sign off and try to get something done. If I can get my act together, I think I can get to the Central Band today. If the next storm is bad, I really need to get to the top before Sunday.

Because of the storm, Krakauer and I hadn’t been able to see him since the previous afternoon. At 2:30, the clouds broke for a few minutes. I ran to the telescope. The face was plastered with rime, coating even vertical slabs beneath overhangs. I found Lowe, climbing almost 300 feet above his snow hole. The Central Band, a long horizontal ledge that divided the headwall, lay less than a rope-length above him. The clouds moved back in, and we did not see him again that day.

Wrapped once more in the blank mist, Lowe plugged on upward. It was imperative that he reach the security of the Central Band. With spindrift spilling over cliffs all around him, he seemed to be stopped cold by a rotten overhang until he found a way to bypass it. Then, with daylight waning, he just managed to gain the Central Band. But it was too late to haul his gear; he had to rappel down and camp one more night in the miserable snow cave.

Friday, March 1 marked the sixth day of Lowe’s second push on the Nordwand, his tenth overall. A south wind sent hazy wreaths of fog over the mountain, but the weather was basically good. By noon, he had hauled all his gear up to the Central Band. Only 1200 feet of climbing remained. Here the wall was scored by ice-caked ramps leading up and to the left, most of which ended nowhere. The protection was minimal, the climbing nasty. He was aiming for the Fly, a small icefield 500 feet above. He had to move fast with the threat of Sunday’s storm hanging over him, but he was slowed drastically by what turned out to be the most difficult climbing yet.

Through the telescope, I could gauge how steep the cliff was when I saw loose chunks of snow plunge forty feet before striking rock again. At one point, it took him an hour to gain 25 feet. The rock was loose and rotten. Stone towers, like gargoyles, sat waiting to collapse at the touch of a boot. Pitons, instead of ringing home as he pounded them, splintered the flaky limestone and refused to hold. Bolts would have been a godsend. When he set up an anchor from which to rappel back for his loads, the anxiety peaked. For his shakiest anchor, he strung nylon webbing to equalize forces among eight different nuts and pitons, each of them almost worthless by itself.

On Saturday, March 2, Krakauer started up the west ridge, the easiest route on the Eiger, hoping to camp near the top to greet Jeff and, if need be, help him down, but it soon became apparent that because of soft, wet snow, he could never make it. When Lowe next radioed, I had to tell him about Krakauer’s retreat from the west ridge. He took the news calmly, even though it raised the specter of serious danger for his own descent. For the first time, we talked about the possibility of a helicopter’s picking him up on the summit.

Lowe climbed on. Pushing himself beyond fatigue, again well into the night, he managed an uncomfortable but secure bivouac just below the Fly. His two-day push from the Central Band had been a brilliant piece of work, but the Sunday storm was coming in early and 700 feet lay between him and the summit.

That evening, he settled into his bivouac and tried to sleep. He had two gas cartridges left to melt snow, but his food was down to several candy bars. His hands were in terrible shape. Each morning, his fingers were so sore and puffy that he had a hard time tying his shoelaces. Worse, his sleeping bag, thin to begin with, was soaked like a dishrag. For 14 hours he shivered, waited for dawn, as the snow fell outside his cave.

By noon on Sunday, he had not moved. At two o’clock, through a break in the clouds, we saw him climbing slowly above the Fly. As he started to climb, he grew deeply alarmed. Something was wrong. He felt weak all over. He had been going on too little food, he had spent a sleepless night, and he had not drunk enough fluid. He could do no more that day than advance two pitches and string the ropes. He would then devote himself to resting and drinking and trying to get warm.

Once more, sleep was impossible. He shivered through the night, even though he lit the stove and burned precious fuel in an effort to heat his frigid cavern.

At 7:30 A.M. on Monday, March 4, we received Jeff’s morning call. For us, the night had been filled with premonitions of disaster. It was astonishing to hear him say cheerily, “Right now, I’m just watching beautiful spindrift going by.” At 8:30, he started climbing. A perfect day had dawned, of which he would need every moment. Another storm was due on the morrow. We called REGA, the government-run rescue service, and alerted them to a possible need for a summit helicopter pickup. Then we watched Lowe climb. At 9:15, he turned a corner and disappeared into a hidden couloir.

Lowe had hoped that above the Fly the going would get easier, but in icy chimneys broken by bands of brittle rock, he was forced onto some of the hardest climbing yet. He felt less weak than the day before, but a sense of struggling to meet a terrible deadline oppressed his efforts. It was hard to place good protection. He found himself hooking with front-points and axe-picks on rounded rock wrinkles that he had to stab through the snow to locate. And then, just before it happened, he knew he was going to fall.

The picks scraped loose. He was in midair, turning. Twenty-five feet lower, he crashed back-first into the rock. The self-belay held, but he was hurt. He felt as if someone had slammed a baseball bat into his kidneys. He pulled himself together, started up again and found a way through the dicey hooking sequences, despite the pain. At last he surmounted a good ledge only 400 feet below the summit.

But here he faced a problem. The warm sun had loosened the summit snowfields. Every chute and runnel became an avalanche track. One swept over him, buffeting his body as it tried to knock him off the wall. For two hours he climbed doggedly on. Three more avalanches engulfed him. One knocked his feet loose, but he hung on with his axes.

REGA was waiting in Grindelwald, ready to fly the moment Lowe emerged on the west ridge. A stiff wind had begun to blow a steady plume off the summit. The wind could defeat the helicopter’s maneuvers, or even cause it to crash.

As we prepared to call REGA, we watched in distress as Lowe halted at a mottled band of rock and snow, only 20 feet below the ridge, pitching stones down the cliff. He found the band was only a skin of ice holding together rocks that were as loose as a pile of children’s blocks. When he flung stones aside and dug below, he found only more of the same. He could get no protection in—neither piton, nut nor ice screw.

Lowe got on the radio. Krakauer asked, “Jeff, if you just dropped the rope and went for it, could you solo the last twenty feet?”

“No problem,” said Lowe. “But are you sure the helicopter can get me?” He untied his rope, abandoning all the gear that he had fought for nine days to haul up the 6000-foot cliff, and without it, deserting his own last refuge. We called REGA and the helicopter took off from Grindelwald. He seemed to sprint up the last twenty feet.

The helicopter spiraled upwards toward him. It would lower a cable, which he was to clip into his waist harness. Now it was just above him, hovering in the stiff wind. Suddenly, it peeled away and flew toward the Jungfraujoch. Lowe wailed.

The chopper, we later learned, was carrying three passengers: a co-pilot, a winch operator and a doctor. Appraising the tricky situation, the pilot decided to drop two of his colleagues at the Jungfraujoch so that he could fly as light as possible when he made the pickup.

The helicopter hovered again, its rotors straining against the wind. The steel cable dangled from its belly. We saw Lowe swipe for its lower end, miss once and then seize it. He clipped in and the helicopter swept him into the sky. He was off the Eiger! The cable wound upward as he rode it toward the open door. The winch man reached out his hand. Lowe climbed through the door and crawled back into the conundrum of his life.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Berner Oberland, Switzerland.

Solo Winter Ascent: Eiger, 3970 meters, 13,025 feet, A 60% New Direct Route on the North Face; Summit reached on March 4, 1991 after nine days on the final push; VII, 5.10, A5, 60 pitches (Jeff Lowe).

*Excerpted with the publisher’s permission from an article which has recently appeared in Men’s Journal.