So, this is a picture of the North Face of the Eiger, a mountain in Switzerland. This was a speech I wrote for my brother because he hadn’t done it until late the night before it was due. It’s just a story really, but feel free to Wikipedia it if you want to know more about the other attempts to climb it, successful or otherwise.
The Eiger is a mountain in Switzerland. At 3,970 metres, it’s not one of the highest in the Alps. It’s summit was reached over 150 years ago, because it’s not hard to climb to the top from the south of the mountain.
But climbing up by the North Face is a whole different story. It’s just a vertical mile of limestone and hanging ice, which the sun never shines on. The documentary that I saw called it ‘The Wall of Death’, and so when I went skiing there I was a little worried. Luckily I didn’t have to climb it, but this is the story of a few brave men who did.
It’s 1936. Four men – two Austrian, two German, have decided to scale the North Face of the Eiger. No one has done it, and the last group to climb the mountain this way all died a year earlier, because the North Face is a vertical mile of sheer rock and ice.
But Andreas Hinterstoisser thinks they will make it. His new idea for getting past the part of the Face which nobody has ever managed to cross before, ‘The Hinterstoisser Traverse’ is different and will be successful.
With good weather they step onto the bottom of the cliff. The first day goes well, and they make amazing progress, taking the ropes they successfully used for the traverse with them. But the next morning clouds arrive, and one of the Germans, Willy Angerer, is hit by a barrage falling rocks. He’s injured below his left shoulder.
He can’t continue up to the summit and down the other, easier side of the mountain, but equally he can’t easily return down the North Face, because they haven’t left the ropes in place. The two Austrians ahead come back down to help Angerer and instead of carrying on, they decide to abseil back down the North Face.
Halfway down, the climbers contact the railway station, and say that everything is going well and alright. They know they are close to safety, and soon will be safely on land.
A couple of hours later, however, disaster strikes. An avalanche thunders down the mountain. Hinterstoisser is unclipped from the group, and he falls with it. His body is found at the bottom of the mountain days later. Angerer falls and dies from the impact of his body against the rock face, and the other German, Edi Rainer, is strangled by the weight of the rope against his lungs.
But the other Austrian, Toni Kurz, survives, hanging on the same rope as his dead comrades. Late on that day, three Swiss guides start a rescue attempt. They can’t reach Kurz because of a dangerous overhang, but come within shouting distance.
The next morning, Kurz is still alive but almost helpless, as one of his hands and his arm are completely frozen. He tries to abseil down over the overhang but his rope is too short. So he goes back, and spends five hours unpicking the plait of the rope and tying together the thinner threads, to make it longer. He dangles this down to the guides, who by now have returned, and they tie the rope they brought with them to it as well, and he starts to abseil down to safety.
But halfway down, Kurz cannot get the knot that joins the two ropes together past his carabiner. He tries for hours to reach his two rescuers, just a few metres below him, desperately trying to move himself past the knot, but in vain. He then begins to lose consciousness.
One of the guides, by standing on another’s shoulders, manages to touch his boot with the tip of his ice axe, but cannot reach higher.
Finally, Toni Kurz says “I can’t go on any longer” and then dies, from exhaustion, starvation and despair.
The bravery of this man is quite astonishing. Sometimes it is disaster that brings out the best in people, and in my opinion Toni Kurz and his companions deserve to be remembered.