It was breathtaking as I sat overlooking these mountains at Kleine Scheidegg in Switzerland. This was in summer of 2010. I spent a long time sitting there and simply gazing at these mountains. There was something captivating about them – I didn’t know what. I wanted the time to stop so that I could continue sitting there. They rose like a huge wall from the valley. On one hand, they were awesome to see and soothing to my heart. But on the other hand, their grandness made me feel intimidated. The feeling of insignificance of my presence in front of these mountains grew as I saw a para-glider reducing to a speck in the clouds as he got closer to the mountains.
Until recently, I didn’t realise that what I saw then was one of the most revered mountain faces in the world of mountaineering. The north face of the Eiger. It is considered to be one of the most difficult mountain faces to climb and has earned a reputation of “Death Wall”. More than 50 climbers have succumbed to the north face of Eiger till date. The first attempt to climb the north face was made in 1935. However, it was not before 1938 and death of 8 climbers that it was successfully climbed by a group of four Austrians & Germans.
My connection to Eiger was revealed a few weeks back when I saw the video titled “The Beckoning Silence”. It is a documentary about the British climber, Joe Simpson. His opening lines made me watch the entire series of videos which is a little more than 90 mins in duration –
“I still haven’t understood… you were playing a game with very high stakes and you might not actually have a choice of your fate. You like to think… you control the odds by your judgement, by your skills and it’s not exactly true.”
In these videos, Joe mostly speaks about the fateful second attempt on the north face in 1936 by Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer. All four died. The most painful death was of Toni who died in the sights of the rescuers. The rescuers were helpless even though he was only a few hundred meters away from them.
In the concluding part of the video series, Joe’s attempt to rationalize climbing fills my heart with admiration for the passion which people such as him have –
If you were going to risk all that, not just risk the hardship and the pain but risk your life. Put everything on line for a dream, for something that’s worth nothing, that can’t be proved to anybody. You just have the transient moment on a summit and when you come back down to the valley it goes. It is actually a completely illogical thing to do. It is not justifiable by any rational terms. That’s probably why you do it.
I was so impressed by the videos that I immediately ordered the books – “The Beckoning Silence” and “Touching the Void”, both written by Joe. I finished reading the first book today. I couldn’t stay untouched by the indomitable human spirit. Joe writes about his heroes and other climbers who have inspired him to climb. It is full of stories about how these men with simple grit and passion went on to defy the nature and the mountains. Most of these men died young deaths. Every climber walks a thin line between life and death, and has to live with the fateful reality of loosing his friends to the mountains. Yet, they climb!
The only person whom I know who comes closest to exhibiting such a passion for what he loves to do is my friend and colleague, Tomas Webers. He is a passionate hiker and a photographer. He especially likes aviation photography for which he at times undertakes difficult hikes. One of my favorite stories about him, which I often tell people, is about his trips to the air show in Axalp (Switzerland). The airshow takes place in a valley which is at a height of about 1500-2000m. To be able to get good pictures he and his friends climb on one side of the valley which is about 3000m high. They start early in the morning at around 2/3am and hike for about 5 to 6 hrs to reach the spot on time for the airshow.