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From Grindelwald up the East Ridge to Ostegg Hutte along the impossibly long ridge to Mittelegi Hutte then up Mittelegi Ridge, over the top and down the South Ridge. Brutal.
Now, Mittelegi Ridge has the title of being ‘the most popular route‘ on the Eiger. Like popular kids at school, when paired with its redheaded step-brother (the Ostegg Ridge) it is not enjoyed. Way to grueling to be popular in the sophisticated mountaineering world of the Alps the combination makes for questioning looks by Swiss Alpinists who do not understand the masochistic objective.
After our long day and the relief of Mittelegi Hutte my climbing partner, Alvaro, and I had the distinct privilege of meeting the four amigos of Bulgaria. These guys took crazy to a different level and really had no business being on the Eiger. I enjoyed their banter so much that it was tough to call it a night. To understand this a little better you have to understand that Mittelegi Hutte is a managed Hutte during the months of early June to September.
Alvaro making an alpine start on Mittelegi Ridge
Generally, to be the manager of a Hutte at 3000+ meters you are ‘special.’ Jutta was no exception. Probably about 55, never married, and rather motherly in an exaggerated almost scary way she made it her business to explain the rules to us in a strange high-pitched conglomerate of French, English and German. Imagine, after climbing for 10 hours at altitude being told how to do something that will take MORE effort. Now, imagine you come from a country in which corruption is a pretty significant problem and you are out for an adventure between debauchery and episodes of heavy drinking. Welcome to the scene at Mittelegi Hutte on 21 July 2010.
Tarzan (Bulgarian climber numero uno) was the star. With slightly askew teeth Tarzan enjoyed telling Jutta that, ‘we will now play poker,’ to her determined rebukes. The story took on a new twist as we all sat discussing possible scenarios for summit day… and the ensuing descent. Normally you should have these things well planned.
Unfortunately, being the ‘most popular route’ results in several inevitable things. 1) People that have no business being there are there 2) Those people are so excited about climbing this route they don’t worry about how they will get down 3) Numerous accidents and rescues throughout the climbing season.
After several minutes of frustrating and rather annoying conversation Tarzan’s compatriot blatantly stated his intent, asking, ‘And what would happen if we just got on the train at the bottom of the South Ridge without a ticket?’ This question is important. The answer would determine between a descent via the West Ridge, which has no train, and is rather tricky to an unfamiliar party or the South Ridge that is long but generally considered more straight forward and has the ‘railway at the top of Europe‘ at its far end.
Jutta was aghast. ‘This is not allowed. You must have a ticket.’
Tarzan’s friend: ‘Well we don’t have any money and we have to go down.’
Jutta: ‘Well you can make a paper ticket and pay later.’
Other Bulgarian: ‘But the point is that we don’t want to pay.’
Jutte: ‘But this is the way you take the train.’
This went on for some time. There was no progress. As the conversation continued to go nowhere Tarzan made a point of standing behind Jutta performing a pantomime routine that seemed to alternate between sexual activity with the Hutte manager and imitations of a rather obstinate older Swiss hutte manager’s body language.
Finally a breakthrough as culture became foremost in the discussion. ‘In our country it is OK to get on the train without a ticket. Two things can happen when the conductor gets to you. If you have some money you can pay the conductor, less than the ticket, and he will let you ride to your destination. If you don’t have money the conductor will make you leave the train at the next station. At that point you run to the opposite end of the train and get back on. When the conductor gets to you again he makes you get off and you run back to the original end of the train. This can go on for the entire train ride. What I want to know is what would happen if the conductor here came to me and I had no ticket. Would I have to get off or could I give him a little money?’
Now this may seem pretty straightforward to those of us familiar with how most of the world works. Unfortunately Jutta was totally uncomprehending of these possibilities. Alvaro and I, having finished our dinner and tiring of Tarzan’s hip pumping behind the apron wearing Jutta, decided we had to call it a night.
The next day we all made an alpine start. The next 5 hours were tough and gradually Alvaro and I grew further and further ahead of the four Bulgarians. The weather worsened.
Eiger summit with Monch in the background
At the summit, strong winds forced us to our knees. Tracks went in two directions… the West Ridge descent and the Southerly way. With deafening winds by mid-morning and seemingly worse conditions on the way we went south. Maybe we would make it to the Jungfraujoch Station by the last train at 1645.
Several hours later and only a few hundred meters down we realized things were not going well. This was especially evident as our frozen rope whipped in the wind perpendicular to the ridge defying gravity through the power of an unsympathetic gale.
Uh oh. As bad as things got over the course of our day I kept thinking, ‘I hope those Bulgarians turned around.’ By 1600 we had reached a saddle between the Monch Massif and The Eiger South Ridge. Our rope was hemorrhaging its insides as it had been severely cut on some sharp edge. Alvaro looked at me with painfully resigned eyes. Our only option was to keep going and to do this we had to go UP. Legs burning, no protection and cutting wind we forced our way slowly up each knife-edge ridge. Each corner and vista only making the world of safe warm places seem farther and farther away.
Gradually the light slipped away. The wind, unabated by nightfall was ruthless. To keep from dying of exposure we stopped in the closest thing to a refuge we could find. About 4 rocky meters across, the knife like ridge had opened up just enough. We moved rocks for the next two hours constructing a wall of loose scree to hide behind.
Cold morning after a forced night out
The rope uncoiled below us acted as a bit of insulation. Thankfully we had carried our sleeping bags and a small jet boil for such an emergency. After bringing some snow to a boil we sipped hot Gatorade and hunkered in to face the bitter cold. Completely focused on my own precarious situation I only briefly thought of the Bulgarians who we had lost sight of before reaching the summit. They were surely done for if they had not turned around and I was sure they had not.
Not really sleeping but not daring to expose ourselves we finally stirred with sunrise. Through the night we were pelted by freezing rain but by boiling more snow we managed to warm ourselves up. We packed our bags and began moving.
Up and down the ridge continued to leave no room for error and offered no shelter from the wind. At 1000 we reached a small lip where the ridge tapered off to the South East.
Finally the wind stopped. Silence. We skirted the South side of Monch and emerged several hours later on a massive glaciated plane. Overjoyed when two American climbers intercepted our path from the other direction we felt a wave of relief. What a night.
Once in the train station the sheer volume of tourists overwhelmed us.
Alvaro, as we entered the stillness... finally
I made my way down to the bathroom and destroyed a toilet while Alvaro bought our train tickets. No wonder the Bulgarians had been curious; the tickets cost 88 Swiss Franc each. I guess you can charge that much when at the top of Europe. We descended, sitting in the comfort of our train seats, exhausted. Out of the world of ice, the green valley surrounded our train car and a bright, peaceful sun drowned the wind.
‘Alvaro, do you think the Bulgarian guys are alright?’
‘I don’t know but the ticket guy told me that 5 helicopters had to rescue a party from Jung Frau last night.’
The train pulled to a stop and Alvaro pointed then jumped up.
‘Hey guys!’ Tarzan happily smiled on the far side of the train window in old cut off jean shorts and no shirt. He had seen us and come over.
‘Tarzan, we thought you guys would be dead for sure. How did you get down?’
‘We made it down the West Ridge… 27 hours. The others are at the base, I came for the car. We drive to Zermatt for the Matterhorn today.’
‘Man, we are glad to see you. Nice, good luck on the Matterhorn.’
‘We see if the weather is OK.’ As the train shrugged forward and pulled away.
Clearly there are people who are crazier than I am.
Alvaro's digital work on our map
- Wall Of Death (guardian.co.uk)