The fearsome north wall of the Eiger occupies an almost mythical space in climbing lore. The aptly named Eiger (German for ‘ogre’) rises magnificently above the Grindelwald valley in the Swiss Alps; the north face presents a 6,000 foot climb, almost constantly in shadow even in summer. Over 50 have fallen to their deaths attempting this climb, earning it the grim tag of Mordwand: ‘murderous wall’. One of the last great walls of the Alps to be ascended, Sir Chris Bonington and Ueli Steck have each contributed important chapters towards the Eiger’s ongoing history.

On December 1st, over a dozen Cranleigh students were lucky enough to hear these two fascinating individuals speak, as part of a Tom Avery Society trip to the Royal Geographical Society in London. Bonington deftly wove together a narrative of his experiences on the Eiger, a fascination that began many years before he was part of the famous first British ascent in 1966. This successful first ascent was, however, tempered by tragedy. Bonington was, forty-five years on, moved to tears articulating the sight of climbing companion John Harlin falling to his death.

Whilst Bonington’s relationship with the Eiger has become an almost memorialised mountain myth, Ueli Steck is at a forefront of a new breed of modern climber. Steck has paved the way for speed ascents: what was to Bonington and others an ascent lasting many days, Steck has cut down to a few hours. Modern climbing equipment, intense training and supreme technical skill have all combined to facilitate Steck’s new form of climbing. Steck knocked hours off previous records in 2007, but he realised he could go faster. Whereas Bonington climbed in a team, Steck climbs alone; whereas Bonington belayed ropes for safety, Steck has (almost unbelievably) dispensed of ropes to save time. These adjustments culminated in 2008, when he set a new speed record on the Eiger north face, a staggering 2 hours, 47 minutes and 33 seconds. This man really does have to be seen to be believed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdHlyjM_8_E

Steck finished by outlining his most  recent expedition, applying his same speed principles, but this time to the Himalayas (supplemental oxygen, for many a Himalayan pre-requisite, is an unwanted burden for Ueli, of course).  In April of this year he solo ascended Shisha Pangma’s 8,000 metre peak, and the still young Steck seems destined to achieve much in the coming years.

Bonington and Steck, separated by time and technique, united by the Eiger’s north wall: few left London in any doubt that they had witnessed two living legends.

JCM