On the Eiger
“Victor”, I yelled, “take the rope in really tight. I can’t get past this overhang”. My cramponed feet scrabbled back onto the rock. Seconds before, I had been hanging by both arms from a fixed rope on the Mittellegi ridge of the Eiger, feet swinging free. To the right of this stunning ridge a sheer drop of about 8000 feet went straight down the North east face to Grindelwald. To the left it was a mere 2000 feet down to the Challifirn, the glacier we had crossed the previous day.
Summit ridge of the Eiger (Roland Jackson)
Tyndall had not been here. When he climbed this peak in 1867, now best known for its fearsome North face routes, the only way up and down was by the West flank from the meadows above Grindelwald. There was no railway in those days either, through the Eiger and up to the Jungfraujoch. The Mittellegi ridge, whose serrated edge looms over the valley, was first climbed in 1921. It is usually reached by the route we took: riding the train to Eismeer station, finding a door in the wall opening to a dark passage, and walking along it with light from head torches. At its end is another door. It opens to a glorious view across to the ridge. But it is 100 feet directly above the glacier, so we abseiled down, through a waterfall created by the melting snow above.
The Mittellegi ridge of the Eiger (Roland Jackson)
As Victor Saunders and I crossed the glacier, and scrambled up 1000 feet of pleasant sunny limestone to the Mittellegi hut perched on the ridge, the helicopter visited it twice. The first was to bring the guardian and her daughter, opening the hut for the season. The second brought the food. Our timing was perfect.
We left at 5am the next morning, under a cloudless sky. The ridge can only be described as completely spectacular, essentially knife-edged the whole way. We were not fast, and it was not until about 12.30pm that we stood on the summit, with its views of the Jungfrau, Mönch and beyond, and a seemingly vertical drop of a mile straight down to the Eigergletscher station above Kleine Scheidegg.
Summit of the Eiger, with the steep descent of the West flank down to the right (Roland Jackson)
But how to descend? There is an old mountaineering saying that no mountain is climbed until it has been safely descended. We had intended to follow the South ridge, which leads back towards the Mönchjoch hut where we had left some gear. But it was covered in new snow and no-one seemed to have been that way. So we followed some Tyroleans down the West flank, accompanied also by the aptly named Kenton Cool and his partner.
Tyndall had gone this way too, following the route of his ascent. On the first steep slopes, directly above the sheer North face, he confessed that for the first time in his life he leaned his face to the ice slopes and went backwards down them. I did the same. It was very exposed, and Tyndall did not have the benefit of modern crampons.
We were down too late to catch the last train up to the Jungfraujoch. Kenton, suffering severe ankle pain, ate my entire supply of Ibuprofen. We went back the next day, and then climbed the Jungfrau. Tyndall had climbed it as well, in 1863.