Unless you are a state-of-the-art mountaineer, there isn’t much to say about the Eiger North Face. It’s historic; it’s huge; it is dangerous and frightening. It is also a scene where climbers have performed acts of heroism and tragedy for almost a century. Generations of tourists to Kleine Scheidegg have watched it all unfold from the base of the wall.
BBC tries to condense the epic into an hour in its 2010 documentary Eiger: Wall of Death. Diligent primary sourcing and a historical approach help it stand out from its sometimes melodramatic cinematography and storyline.
Yet it portrays Nordwand for what it always has been: climbing’s most visible high-stakes proving ground.
Back in time on the north face of the Eiger
In 1936, tourists at Kleine Scheidegg watched through spotting scopes as guides attempted to rescue German mountaineer Tony Kurz. Ice and rockfall had torn his entire team from the wall, and now he was swinging through space on the end of a rope. He remained there for three days until his death, out of reach of rescuers and unable to cut the rope with his deeply frozen hands.
Two years later, all eyes were on Anderl Heckmair and Heinrich Harrer’s team as they made the heartbreaking first ascent using an amphetamine elixir. The team climbed quickly during breaks between avalanches for three days. Their route was an instant classic, but Harrer’s drug regimen and strong Nazi affiliation gave the story a lasting and bizarre legacy.
Ongoing action on Nordwand
Fast forward a few generations to 2015, when Ueli Steck alone charged the 1,800m wall in a breathtaking time of 2 hours, 22 minutes and 50 seconds. You may have been to Kleine Scheidegg to witness the ascent, but you could have missed every inch of it if your imagination got too carried away in the contents of a single frosted mug. Steck’s speed record still awake.
Why watch Eiger: Wall of Death? (And by extension, why climb?)
Eiger: Wall of Death is far from an intimate portrait of Eiger climbing. However, he manages to hit a nerve near the dark heart of mountaineering. It is disturbing to see Steck refer to his Eiger tactics as “futuristic” knowing they would kill him in the Himalayas less than a decade later. And no luck, future lifeguard Brian Nally makes a haunting figure as he darkly tells the story of his partner, Barry Brewster, dying in his arms after a bad fall.
Compare that to British climber Chris Bonington’s borderline cavalier attitude towards death, which recurs frequently throughout the film. Bonington would make the first British ascent of the Eiger and build an energetic and celebrated career that continues today. Nally passed out in almost total darkness.
So, what is it for ? Why fight against this brutal curtain of ice and rock? You can literally climb across the Eiger to reach the top. But at one point, the north face had seen 12 successful climbs and killed 14 people.
We don’t have the answers, and the BBC certainly doesn’t. But if you look closely, Eiger: Wall of Death can at least get you to the central issue of escalation:
About the Author
Sam Anderson accepts any writing homework he can talk to while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas – er, adventure. He turned a decade of itinerant commercial work into a life of fine-weather rock climbing and trucking before (much to his parents’ relief) finding a way to use his bachelor’s degree in English. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.