Outdoor Survival – Prior Preparation – Part 2
“Get him into a bag, quick!” I screamed at Calum as the Eiger’s summit cross bowed and creaked in the lightning storm. George was fully hypothermic after two nights on the North Face, one of which was spent lying on a single butt cheek half way up the White Spider. He was shivering violently so whilst Dave and I prepared the abseil ropes, Calum got George into a survival shelter and then jumped in with him. Huge gusts of wind, strikes of electricity across the black skies, stinging ice and snow and then ….disaster! It’s gone – his bag’s gone! The ropes were steel rods by now, frozen and rigid and Dave had pushed too hard. George’s rucksack containing spare food, clothing, money, and passport was now making a speed descent of the South Face! I knew the West Ridge takes a good 4 hours to descend in perfect conditions, but now I was not sure we would make it at all – stay and freeze or descend?
August 1988, and the elite youth of British mountaineering were lounging around Snell’s campsite chilling over bubbling pots of spag-bol and endless mugs of “Builders”! Enter Stage Right - Smiler Cuthbertson – fresh from Grindelwald. “Boys, The Eiger’s in the best condition ever, get your arses out there NOW!” Whereupon three teams departed within the hour leaving me searching the campsite frantically for anyone brave or stupid enough to accompany me up the most notorious route in the Alps at the time – The 1938 route on The North Face of The Eiger (3,970m.) first climbed by Heinrich Harrer, Anderl Heckmair, Fritz Kasparek and Ludwig Vörg, from July 21-24, 1938
Eventually, I found George. Still inebriated from a heavy session the previous night, I dragged him out of his tent, poured hot coffee down his neck and packed his bag. George was coming up the Eiger with me or it was going to be the campsite cleaner and that was looking well dodgy as anyone who has ever stayed at Snell’s Field will tell you…..there were no toilets!
We stopped three times on the 4 hour drive to Grindelwald at the base of the Eiger. Once to do some shopping, twice for George to throw up! As I drove screeching and dodging around immaculate Swiss roads I learnt that George’s alpine experience was not the most comprehensive but at least it was not his first season and he knew what a prussic knot was! And anyway how hard could the climb be? It was first done before the Second World War when they didn’t even have Goretex cags, for crying out loud!
At the train station up to Kleine Scheidegg, we met up with the sole surviving Brit team who had made it thus far. Calum and Dave had ignored the temps and the forecast and were feeling psyched as they had already completed The Matterhorn North Face and The Piz Badile. The Eiger……what a way to end their season! We decided to climb “together” but as 2 separate teams of 2. I was well happy with this bearing in mind the adage “strength in depth”. George looked on..........nervously!
George was justified; The North Face of the Eiger is the biggest north wall in the Alps, and is also arguably the most dangerous. Since 1935, more than 70 climbers have died attempting the North Face, earning it the German nickname Mordwand, literally "murder(ous) wall”. Get caught in a big storm and you can find yourself trapped in the firing line of vicious avalanches, rockfall and, in bad conditions, devastating waterfalls. The route is also a monster - 1,700m high but over 2,500m long as it weaves all over the face. It is Grade ED2, which translates as “hard”!
Long story short, 3 days later we topped out in a storm, starving, and exhausted. But I had done my homework. I knew the route and importantly the descent like the back of my hand. I paced out the abseil stakes from the summit (it took 3 attempts) got the team together and we ascended the mountain in (relative) safety! At midnight my frantic banging on the Eigergletscher station doors produced a flurry of activity inside. The doors were flung open and Ernest Schmidt, the station master announced to the World “Ahh, die Englanders safe back from ze mountain. Come in!!”
It turned out that we had climbed the face on the exact same date as the original ascent 50 years ago and in order to celebrate the anniversary Swiss TV wanted to film climbers on the wall. Three top Swiss teams had declared the mountain in unacceptably dangerous conditions (what Smiler had really meant that it was the first time he had SEEN the face and he was gobsmacked!). So we were the only climbers on the mountain and had been filmed throughout our ascent.
Beers, hot soup, dumplings and then clean bedlinen – after three days on the Eiger that really was Paradise!
So what did I learn? Well lots as it turned out but two things stand out. Partner choice is arguably the most important element to get right. George was a courageous partner bearing in mind his small alpine experience- but he was not up to this climb, and that nearly killed both of us. My fault, not his.
He dropped his ice axe on the second ice field, and his left crampon fell off on the Traverse of The Gods (pictured right) and so I had to pull whilst he hopped up the remaining third of the mountain. He had not taken adequate spare clothing, became freezing after the waterfall pitch and stayed like that for the rest of the climb, resulting in his hypothermia on the Summit. And I had to lead every pitch because his technical ability was not up to it. But he hung in there with me, and survived it all and that is what counts.
Passion and desire must NEVER overcome good sense and judgement. I should not have given in to my emotions. I should have just said “No”. And stayed at Snells. Or should I? The Eiger has tormented me ever since that year until this April, when I determined to do a speed ascent of the North Face to raise money for my diabetic charities; In 2001, I was diagnosed a Type 1 insulin dependent diabetic. Rising to the challenge, each year I undertake an Insulin Challenge (JIC – Jerry’s Insulin Challenge) to create awareness about Diabetes and to raise money for young diabetics in emerging countries. For my JIC 2015 I chose my trusted climbing partner and British Mountaineering Council Ambassador, Calum Muskett.
After a disastrous start on the 21 April 2015 involving a very bad diabetic hypo and a failed attempt, I (54 yrs.) and Calum (21yrs.) attempted the route again on the 22 April. We completed the Eiger North Face route in a time of 7.56hrs – a new (unofficial) UK record. For the committed alpinist 2-3 days is the standard time.
Calum, a member of the Welsh National Fell running team, and I have done speed ascents in the Dolomites and Calum was my climbing partner on our successful Wall of Paine expedition to Patagonia in 2013. I knew Calum was the right partner but the wrong age! So in order to get fit for this challenge, and to give myself any chance of keeping up with Calum (30 years my junior) I had to do alternate days of 1000m vertical trail runs carrying 14Kg rucksacks, with 4 hour weight sessions or stamina training at indoor climbing walls.
And finally……..To get a sense of what this challenge really involved please watch this video of Ueli Steck's solo speed climb on the Eiger where he climbs the exact same route that Calum and I ascended in April 2015.
IDF - LIFE FOR A CHILD (LFAC) and INSULIN FOR LIFE (IFL)
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