A single boulder cartwheels cacophonously down the screes. Just above us and perhaps 30 metres ahead, it explodes in fragments, a couple of them easily as large as my well-stuffed rucksack. One strikes the path in front of us, leaving a dark crater. It’s just the Eiger’s North Face saying hello.
The North Face – aka the Eigerwand – is at the same time one of the biggest and most notorious mountain walls in Europe, and one of the most accessible; the easy gradients of the Eiger Trail take you right beneath it. To know that it is 1800 metres from the first rocks to the summit is one thing. Walk beneath it for an hour, without reaching the end, and you really begin to feel the scale.
Even if you know nothing of its history, you can't fail to be impressed by the Eigerwand, but the Eiger Trail experience is far richer if you know a few of the stories and can pick out the landmarks. The face abounds in features, each with a name and a clutch of tales attached: the Hinterstoisser Traverse, Death Bivouac, the Traverse of the Gods (it sounds even better in German: Gotterquergang), and the fearsome White Spider, to name but four.
Some of the stories are tragic. No Eiger story is more notorious than that of Toni Kurz, dying almost within reach of those who were trying to rescue him. But for every tragedy there are a dozen life-enhancing stories too, especially that of the first successful ascent, 75 years ago. On 24th July 1938, Ludwig Vorg, Fritz Kasparek, Heinrich Harrer and Anderl Heckmair reached the summit after four days of intense effort, chilly bivouacs and avalanches. They started out as two rival teams but joined forces on the Face. In the end it was primarily Heckmair’s strength and skill which saw them through, and the original route up the Face is often called the Heckmair route (otherwise the 1938 route).
Mountaineering techniques, training and equipment have progressed massively in 75 years. The entire Face has now been climbed in under 2 1/2 hours; as one of today’s Grindelwald guides observed, "these guys don't climb it, they run up it." Yet the current record holder, Dani Arnold, calls the first ascensionists ‘heroes’.
The Heckmair route still stands as an absolute classic of world mountaineering, but at least some of its charisma derives from its visibility and accessibility. There's no lengthy approach across a glacier, no night in a hut beforehand. From the train at Eigergletscher, a climber can set foot on the Face within an hour, and be under scrutiny from telescopes on the café terraces of Kleine Scheidegg for most of the climb. However, wise climbers no longer venture on the face in high summer: climate change has made itself felt, and the best season for an ascent is now usually in April, when the snow and ice is firm and the risk of stonefall far less.
Taking the same train, any moderately fit walker can follow the Eiger Trail down to Alpiglen in under three hours, not including gawping time. The path is easy and clear, with perhaps a few snow-patches in early season. And the Trail has far more to offer than just the Eigerwand: there are grandstand views of the green valley of Grindewald, the Faulhorn and Schwarzhorn opposite, the buttressed peak of the Wetterhorn, dazzling Alpine meadows as you descend a little further. Still, the North Face is always there, a brooding presence over your shoulder.
To get a little closer to the mountain and its stories, we took the train to Jungfraujoch. This is Europe’s highest railway – and, kilometre for kilometre, its most expensive – but the outing has many rewards. There’s the stop at Eigerwand station, with its windows gazing out onto the North Face itself, and another at Eismeer. There’s the Eispalast, its tunnels bored through the living ice of a glacier. And you can step out onto the snows of the Jungfraufirn, perhaps take the easy hour’s walk to the Monchsjochshutte, or do as we did and take a short excursion on the ridge which leads to the Monch itself. Even this mild exertion brings home the thinness of the air: the highest part of the Jungfraujoch complex is around 3570m, only 400m lower than the summit of the Eiger.
Expensive it might be, but make a day of it and it’s worth every franc. But we had a cheaper and even more memorable experience the following day. The Rotstock is a small tower on the extreme right of the Eigerwand. Small, that is, by comparison with the main face, for its still over 200 metres high, with a vertical and partly overhanging face. On its left side, however, there’s a fairly easy Via Ferrata. The first section follows a steep nose and feels very exposed, but is fully equipped with ladders, rungs and protecting cables. Then it winds more easily up a broad gully. As we traversed ledges high in this amphitheatre, the setting sun, filtered by cloud, painted the scene in gold. This was our Traverse of the Gods.
And after that, a night on the summit; a little uncomfortable, a little chilly – a true mountain bivouac. And for reward, the moment when the sun burst over the Wetterhorn, bathing us in warmth and light for a few golden minutes before slipping away behind the hulking grey shape of the Eiger. Then, unlike the North Face climber, whose bivouac will be far less spacious, and probably precedes another day of upward struggle, we were down for breakfast in little over an hour.