The White Spider was one of the first mountaineering books I read. Written by Heinrich Harrer in 1959, it describes the trials and tribulations that led to the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 1938 by Heckmair, Harrer, Kasparek and Vörg. My fascination with the face began a couple of years earlier in around 2005 when I was on a walking holiday with my parents in Switzerland. We passed through Grindelwald and I remember seeing the face, albeit briefly, before continuing on our travels. I heard some of the stories about the attempts on the North Face and in particular the tales of rock fall led me to believe that this was a mountain where success could be mostly attributed to a healthy dose of luck to avoid all the objective dangers.
I started climbing a couple of years later and then alpine climbing a couple of years after that and suddenly felt a draw to return to Grindelwald in the winter to climb the 1938 route when all the rocks were frozen in place. In March this year I headed over with my friend Andy to climb the face and after a wade to the base of the wall we bivied at its base ready for an early start the following morning. Unfortunately the forecast was very wrong and a storm hit us that night burying us beneath around a metre of fresh snow! After an awful descent through chest deep snow in places I thought it might be a better option to return to the face in the summer time.
Early this year I contacted Dave Macleod to see if he would be interested in a climbing trip to the Alps. I’d never climbed with Dave before but had only heard good reports about him both as a climber and a person. Dave had never done any alpine climbing before, but I assumed that someone with the fairly outrageous all round abilities that he possesses, should be able to walk around on a glacier alright!
Dave arrived out in the Alps just over a week ago. We had a few ideas up our sleeves but the one that inspired us most was undoubtedly a route called ‘Paciencia’ on the North Face of the Eiger. ‘Paciencia’ was first climbed in 2003 by Ueli Steck and Stephan Siegrist and later freed in 2008 by Ueli Steck. David Lama made a very impressive two day repeat of the route in 2011 describing it as “by far the most difficult rock route I have climbed to this date in the Alps”: this was after his repeats of ‘Bellavista’ in the Dolomites and ‘Voie Petit’ in the Alps.
We arrived in Grindelwald just after three days of bad weather which left the face streaming with water. Judging by the name of the route which translates as patience, our hopes of finding the route dry and the weather good were not particularly high.
After a day of waiting for the face to dry we caught the Jungfraujoch up to Kleine Scheidegg hoping that we could get dropped off at the ‘Stollenloch’; the window that opens onto the face, thus avoiding an arduous slog up to the base of the route. Unfortunately we were out of luck and had to make two journeys up the scramble to reach the Rote Fluh as we were laden with so much kit. We gave the first few pitches a recce to see if the route would be achievable for us and descended, very surreally, by the train inside the mountain!
Having managed all the moves on the first few tricky pitches we were encouraged enough to return for a multi day ascent of the face. We were joined for the first day and a half by the talented alpine photographer Alexander Buisse who took some really stunning images of us climbing on the Rote Fluh. Our upward progress for the first couple of days was really positive, all pitches were climbed first red-point, including the sustained and amazing crux pitch which climbs through the apex of the main roof of the Rote Fluh. We reached the bivi spot beneath the Czech Pillar feeling tired but enthusiastic about our progress. Unfortunately the following morning we both felt pretty wasted. The first 7c pitch went without too much of a problem landing us at a pitch that David Lama upgraded to 7c+ on his ascent. The holds were really difficult to find on this pitch and after the crux lower section the climbing is really quite sustained. Dave took over the lead of this pitch as I was totally knackered but I still just about managed to fight my way up when I seconded it. We fixed our ropes back down to the bivi to help speed things up for the following morning.
Strangely on our final day of the route we felt much more recovered and made steady progress upwards – I even made an unlikely flash of the final 7c pitch through a determination not to be on the face any longer! The final few pitches, although much easier, were quite loose and time consuming with the haul bag regularly getting caught but we eventually reached the west flank of the Eiger to pull over into our first sunlight for three days. We were both elated to have finished the route, both of us having climbed it entirely free alternating leads as we went. Unfortunately we missed the final train down to Grindelwald, so having just descended the Eiger, we were left with a long descent back to the valley.
‘Paciencia’ is an amazing alpine/big wall challenge and should be high on the ticklist of any climber with the capability to climb it. Thanks to Dave for sharing a great adventure with me!