North Face of Eiger? Twice in a week! By Yannick Graziani
Published on 30/4/2021
Hello my dedicated climbing friends!
I don’t really know how I came to climb the north face of the Eiger twice in a week at the end of march, one month ago now. Surely because the weather was too good to refuse the opportunity to guide some of my best and most motivated people on this mythical face. It is a real journey and an epic adventure for them.
The key was a very warm weather... exceptionally warm I would say and of course with no risk of bad weather.
To be caught in a storm on this face would be a vision of hell at 1700 m vertical, and retreat is not an option due to the long traverses.
The total climb is 3 km in distance!
I was already there in February during a good weather window and at the end of March a new window appeared, so I booked a night at ‘Bellevue des Alpes’ hotel, a very stylish old hotel straight out of the 1920s. A 4-star family-run hotel, and situated at the ‘Kleine Sheidegg’, at 2000m altitude at the beginning of the face!
Bernard from Geneva was my first client, and climbing the Eiger was a lifelong dream for him! So from this wonderful hotel, we set off in the middle of the night, then by the dawn we started to climb.
It is not just a professional relationship but also requires a lot of team work. My part was to keep the team safe and create a clear strategy during the climb. There is no place to fall and no mistakes are allowed in this climb. Leading pitch by pitch was not possible we had to move together in simul climbing to have a chance to complete the climb in a reasonable time... Feeling a bit weak at the start of this vertical world of ice and rock we quickly got stronger as the difficulties arrived.
I knew the conditions on the face were a bit dry as the locals said « it’s definitely not fast climbing conditions » so we had to climb very challenging mixed pitches in between the ice fields. Despite the fact that it was over 20 degrees in the valley, there was no rock fall, everything was frozen in the ice after the winter but we still had to climb the rock sections with bare hands.
On the Monday 29th March, we did the bivy in the traverse of the gods, 500 m below the summit after 12 hours of climbing. The sun was there, we were tired but happy trying to imagine what the following day will be like.
I was not sure then, after a long and difficult day climbing, whether to take another client up the face during the same week!
Night helped me to think about that and Bruno was already in Grindelwald waiting and doing some video conference on Tuesday morning to finalise a contract with his company.
On Tuesday morning, I quickly realized that the rest of the climb was fast and the conditions were not too bad, so I send a quick message to Bruno telling him to buy some supplies for our potential climb!
We reached the summit of Eiger at 3970m by midday and celebrated our success with a chocolate bar. 2 young guys were on the summit with us, they had climbed the west face in 4 hour in order to ski down! This was also our descent route.
I told them to be careful then we started our long descent before the temperature got too warm. I had a strange feeling with these 2 guys, one of them had lost one of his poles during the ascent!
After 30 minutes descending, down climbing to be safe I looked up and saw them starting to ski and then the drama happened.… one guy fell down, slowly first then he lost his ski came sliding straight toward us at full speed, we moved to avoid him hitting us and he fell to his death 1600m below, what a tragedy... steep skiing is so dangerous, almost like soloing, everybody must know and evaluate the risks.
Too many people nowadays are posting on social networks their journeys on steep descents and many people are following these « athletes ». I hope they didn’t choose the Eiger west face by looking on the internet! Unfortunately, it was probably the case. This west face was skied almost every day this winter, it was not the best snow that day.
I was sad and desperate, just the time for a glimpse and he fell on the first turn.
Helicopters came and rescued his partner and pick up the body down the face
I won’t say more about that, explanations would be superfluous.
Bernard and I were very concentrated during the descent, it took us 4 hours where normally 2,5 are enough. At that point I was convinced Bruno would have to wait another year!
Bruno was waiting for me at the hotel Bellevue des Alpes and Bernard took the last train down to Grindelwald.
Bruno kindly told me that we could decide to do a different route or even nothing if I didn’t feel like it....Then we spent some time drinking a beer and eating and talking about the climb.
The window weather was still good for the next few days, and now I knew the route like the back of my hand... as I know very well how to manage such situations I blocked my thoughts and suggested we try and see how things go, if not we will descend back to enter the hole to the tunnel quickly after starting.
Same strategy we woke up early, a long walk along the railway, reached the climb by dawn then we started. I felt strangely good again this morning, strong and concentrated.
Bruno is an old client and friend of mine, he is 65 and used to difficult alpine routes. We started slowly again in this vertical world and after the first difficult section I understood it was now or never.
No rock fall, fitness and safety were at the « rendez-vous » and we couldn’t ask for better weather. We were slower but wouldn’t turn back, it was going to take us one day more but we had provisions, good weather and good vibes.
Again, I climbed the tricky mixed pitches then traversed the long second ice field, putting in as much protection as I could to protect Bruno.
We stopped at the ramp for our 1st bivouac, I already knew we would need another one during the descent.
I am used to these long climbs, I’ve experienced many in the Himalayas. Fast is not my motto, but I do aim for success, no matter how long it takes as long everything is going well.
Thursday 1st April, we did a long climb to the summit which we reached at 6 pm, it was Bruno’s 65th birthday, so I was so happy to be with him on that day even if « hey Bruno happy birthday my friend » arrived late in the day, as night fell lying in our sleeping bags on a very nice ledge on the west face, 300 below the summit.
Actually, my demons came back when we arrived at the top and I was thinking again about what happened two days before...
I was anxious, scared and desperately wanted to walk on flat ground again!
Not that day!
The night was cold and we barely slept. Few clouds, a bit of wind frost in our bivy bags, and the major part of the descent was still ahead of us…
In the early morning, we set off making steps in the hard snow. I understood that Bruno was tired and that it would take some time, but that everything would be ok.
We met another 3 skiers, I warned them not to ski from the very top where the terrain is very steep and conditions poor, they did listen to me!
The sun arrived and by lunch time we were back at the hotel Bellevue des Alpes, my haven of peace and the nightmares behind me!!!
The joy came back and I felt like I was in paradise!
The owner of the hotel welcomed us with champagne and a nice meal, he had also felt nervous for us while we were climbing. Understandably!
We enjoyed a glass of champagne together.
Thank you very much sir!
Thanks for running such a nice place, thanks for everything.
Thanks to Bruno and to Bernard for being my climbing partners, thanks to the good weather thank you everybody.
Thanks to the youth! Thanks to the future and may it be as bright as possible!
Yannick Graziani, was born in 1973 in Cagnes-sur-Mer (France). Grivel athlete for 20 years, he is a member of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix . Versatile mountaineer, he practices rock climbing, ski touring, classical alpinism and hight commitment climbing in Himalayas.
Favorite Grivel product: G22 Plus crampons.