I was not the one who gave up
The Eiger announcement “found me” and it was seductive because Eiger is a prominent mountain and I only knew one other person who had climbed this tour. It seemed to be a really interesting climb. All the literature I’ve read, the pictures I’ve found and the maps I’ve put together promised a somewhat scary but fascinating and challenging adventure. For some reason I was quite optimistic about the project, although I had never climbed at this level (E4) for more than half an hour.
This tour was about ten hours, but that did not frighten me. I felt prepared due to my experience with previous expeditions, where I had done well on the long itineraries. On the day before my departure for Grindelwald I called the guide and asked for the detail about the meeting place, was seeking his opinion about the weather and wanted feedback on some of my equipment. I carefully packed two days in advance, replacing some obsolete equipment with newer and lighter stuff; crampons, for example, or a new headlamp. The old one was not strong any more. I checked the weather repeatedly and made a picture of the map with my mobile phone, — so I think I was well prepared.
It was not so easy to find my guide (whom I had never met before) among the hundreds of visitors on the Kleine Scheidegg; they all enjoyed the sunshine and the landscape with the most spectacular mountains of the Swiss Alps. Constantly trains from Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen arrived, carrying even more tourists, most of them aiming for Jungfraujoch. After I finally found Nick, my mountain guide, in happy chaos, we took one of these trains, too.
However, we did not arrive like the other passengers at the Jungfraujoch, but asked the platoon leader for a stop at Eismeer, a dark place in the middle tunnel. I let myself down from the train and followed Nick to a concrete-poured “room” in the mountain with some windows, from which we had a first view into the huge ocean of glaciers. We went down a few steps in the dark to a door onto the glacier itself. We put on crampons (unfortunately, mine were in disarray) and Nick asked me to climb over a rock band onto the ice. I stumbled a little and felt bad immediately. As we crossed the glacier in the afternoon sun I counted further tiny missteps and began to concentrate to show more stability.
Nick had trouble finding the entry, we went back and forth for a while and searched the rocks for boring hooks and iron poles. Finally, Nick decided against the more horizontal ascent of the other team, he decided to go straight up in the vertical. After a while there was actually some iron in the rocks, — very helpful for rope material to secure me. I tried to climb my way steadily, but my breath was hard (we were above 3,000 meters), I felt somewhat insecure and could not really enjoy the climb. I used my hands very often, so my performance was certainly not elegant but rather like a child or animal moving upwards.
What was announced as a short afternoon trip did cost us more than four hours. When we arrived at the hut, I learned that it was closed and that we would stay in the bivouac, would prepare dinner with melting water, and share the place with another team of mountaineers from Quebec.
Fortunately, I found a nice sleeping place in the bivouac and unpacked, changed my clothes and watched from my bunk bed, as the large pot of water slowly heated. I liked the noodles, the cheese, the salad that Nick had bought and spread on the bunk bed next to me. I listened to his conversation with the guys from Quebec in French. Later, I enjoyed the view from my bed through the only window in the bivouac, as the mountain view slowly turned black. Before, I had taken a picture of the route. It was easier to look at the mountain through the camera lense than in reality. The other climbers gathered outside to talk and probably looked at the mountain, too.
I was too scared about the prospect and stayed in the bivouac, sleeping quickly and quietly. At two o’clock I woke up, went outside and saw the full moon standing over our frightening mountain, feeling anxious and went back to bed, trying to relax my body. I realized that Nick was not sleeping either, and I imagined that he was concerned about my abilities and the challenging mountain ahead of us. But the other mountaineers did not sleep either! We all spent the time until four, tossing and turning. Then we all got up to cook water and to eat breakfast. At this point, I no longer had any emotions, as if my fear capital had been spent.
At 5am it was already a bit bright when we stood at the starting point to the route, the first of the three teams of the day. I ridiculed myself when I asked to use a walking pole on the first meters. To be honest, I find it hard to feel completely balanced at five o’clock in the morning at every step. After some steps, I put the stick into my backpack and surrendered to the unreal reality of walking in the morning dawn on a 50 cm wide ridge with remains of frozen snow between steps. Nick pulled me on the very short rope behind him and I accepted this psychological support gladly — assuming that a misstep would bring us both down.
Nick seemed to be quite annoyed by now and said in an unfriendly voice that we would have to be at the top in four or five hours at the latest. Otherwise, he said, it would be pointless to continue. I assured him of my continued comitment to go forward and we continued. I climbed over a steep downturn, tied myself up briefly in the auxiliary rope, untied, and attacked the subsequent upturn. Here we used the first three of the huge fixed ropes that were supposed to help with some difficult and steep rocky mountains. Nick saw me fumbling to remove a carabiner from an iron hook, I was already nervous about his gaze and felt the time pressure.
I firmly avoided to look left or right and just focused sturdily on every single step. The rock felt pleasant and easy to grasp, the stone seemed to be a dark granite, which always offered sharp edges to hold. We ascended.
An hour after our departure the two other teams came along and we let them pass. One of the Quebecois helped me with the rope swing in front of me and showed me exactly where I could place my feet. I felt happy. But when I arrived on the small plateau, Nick suddenly stopped and said that it was too dangerous to continue. He explained that the next steps would be more difficult and that there would be no return. He suggested a helicopter to pick us up, and I felt his angriness, which was probably fear because he did not trust me. He did not want to continue at all.
I had never been taken from a mountain by helicopter and thought it meant total defeat. Of course, I had heard my hard breath, and I had observed myself as I walked on the crest with slightly trembling legs. On the other hand, the other teams had only overtaken us after a full hour, so we were not overly slow. Also, at 3'300 meters a short breath is quite normal. In my opinion I had done it quite well so far. A ridge is a ridge and if you look down on each side for more than five hundred meters, it does not help. Ice on the ridge also does not help and a leader who does not like the situation makes it even harder.
But I kept myself together. I put one foot in front of the other. I did not complain. I was not the one who gave up. So, what should I say if he wanted me to give up? If he wanted to return? My inner voice said I should not give in but wait and explore the options. In his eyes, there were only two: first, to order a helicopter at this point to be pulled up by cable winch — not pleasant — the other was to return to the bivouac.
I assumed that Nick would descend from there to the glacier and guide us back to the train station at Eismeer, which I agreed to. Immediately he became friendly, actually the first time since we had started out together. I also relaxed, but was disappointed because I did not feel worked out. I had prepared for a long day and not just for two hours.
Now I had to walk in front, back to the bivouac. It was harder because of the bright daylight. In some steps, on the ice, for example, I reassured myself by asking Nick if the step was correct. A real failure might have meant my death — and his own. Unlike during ascent, however, he was very relaxed and supportive, gave friendly answers and was patient. We reached the bivouac in cold early sunlight and sat down outside, did not talk much.
In general, we have not talked much anyway. I usually like that a lot. I’m not talkative on tours and embrace the peace of the mountains. It was still early, at 7:30. Did I want him to call Rega, the rescue team? I did not want it, I was doing well and I was totally healthy. About 8 am, Nick called the alternative helicopter company, which provided commercial flights in the area.
It turned out that in one hour a helicopter pilot would arrive at the Mittellegihütte to deliver the caretaker of the cabin, and that we could ‘hitchhike’ on the way back to the valley. An incredible coincidence. I nevertheless begged once more to go back to the Eismeer station, but Nick repeated his opinion that it was too dangerous to return by foot. Although we had come from there and he now knew where the iron poles were. On the other hand, a helicopter flight is exciting and it was a cool idea to do some sightseeing! After agreeing to the cost of the flight, we talked for the first time. I asked him about his career and what else he did (he had been a mountain guide for ten years, and during the week he was a teacher for electrical engineering).
Regrettably, I explained about my previous mountain experience as if I wanted to justify my failure here. Nick assumed that I was not fit enough. I said my teeth might play a role. Teeth and balance are linked, one says, and I’m getting a serious treatment for two. I asked questions about the mountains around us and what was his next tour? Jungfrau and Moench, from tonight and from Moenchsjochhuette. I realized that it was the perfect decision for him to fly and have a relaxing day before leading the next group up there. It would have been a long way to get back to the Jungfraujoch with me in the evening.
I gave Nick my camera because I would have liked to have a picture of me on the mountain and with the helicopter (his cell phone battery was empty). When I checked my phone later, I found only pictures of the helicopter, none of me. The helicopter flew up from the valley surprisingly fast and landed miraculously on the flat, small roof of the bivouac. The cabin chief jumped off and quickly unloaded a whole series of boxes with food, then raised a small boy with headphones in safety, followed by his wife. The boy was quite well and found it perfectly normal to be unloaded here. It certainly was not his first flight up.
We jumped aboard and went off immediately, a steep downturn. A giant hole opened underneath us with a green glacier lake that grew rapidly in the dive. I loved the flight and was sad that it was over after 4 minutes. We jumped off, the helicopter was immediately reloaded with loads, took of again and here we stood — moved from cold and extreme conditions to a lush green and flowering summer meadow.
It was 30 degrees hot and I had gloves on, an anorak and a cap on my head! I saw a small stream, a birch forest, peasants. By foot we returned to Grindelwald Grund and to the nearest train station. On the way through the beautiful little birch forest with a rippling brook and very green moss, we could admire an exhibition of Land Art, where artists from all over the world had created installations from the material found here at the end of the glacier.
At the train station we found ourselves in the midst of many Asian tourists who clearly loved to be here. A middle-aged couple posed for pictures with the mountains in the background and I thought this picture would later stand on the sideboard in their living room. They could have been from Pakistan and looked like they were making the trip of their lives, it was clear that they would never return to here.
I gave Nick the money for the Helicpoter people and a tip. He was surprised. In Grindelwald we parted and I returned home. Unfulfilled. Looking back, it would have been better if I had asked to spend a few more minutes at the resting place and climb a little higher. I would have liked to see the hard part and decide for myself.
The fact that he has asked me no question about myself was disappointing. In a group this is normal. As private customer I expect some professional interest from my guide. Nick learned more about the guys from Quebec than about me. I learned that I can climb at least 2 hours at the E4 level.
What is my conclusion? If there was a scale not only for mountain challenges, but also for trust, I would say that we both did score too low on the scale of the other to successfully complete the tour together.
Boardroom lesson: Select your coach carefully, you — not the coach — are responsible for the result.