Eiger (3970 m) by the West Flank

Typical terrain somewhere around 3450 m. This is the part of the route that is very difficult for orientation on the way down. Photo by Honza.

In July 2017, my friend Honza asked me if I would like to go with him up the Eiger. He intended to climb the Heckmair route on the north face at some point and wanted to take a look at it from the west ridge and familiarize himself with the descent route. I was hesitant at first, due to the information I found about the character of the west-flank route – a very slippery, unstable terrain for the descent, basically the worst type of terrain for my equally unstable knee. But the more I read about the route and the more videos I watched, the more my worries became overwhelmed by the expected beauty and challenge of the ascent. And, of course, by the simple fact that it was the Eiger. We still had to wait for a good weather forecast. It finally came for the 20-21 August.

I hadn’t been feeling particularly healthy when Honza picked me up in Strakonice (South Bohemia) shortly before midnight, and though it was quite warm, when it was my turn to drive, I had to put my junkie suit on – i.e. a hoodie and a winter cap. Neither of us had slept much prior to our trip, so we turned in a few kilometers past Munich. I felt a bit better in the morning, but I was still unsure whether I would be able to continue above our planned bivouac the next day.

On the way from Eigergletscher station toward the Rotstock col. The route goes up the left part of the rock step. Photo by Honza.

We finally arrived in Grindelwald in the afternoon, a bit later than planned, and took a train all the way up to Eigergletscher station (2320 m). Though the forecast predicted clear sky for the next two days, there was a thick cloud sitting on top of not only the Eiger, but also some of the other peaks. On the train, I realized I had left my camera in the car – fortunately Honza hadn’t forgotten his.

Below the Rotstock col. You can see the Eigergletscher station below. Photo by Honza.

From the station, we followed the rail tracks up to the tunnel and then went up the obvious path toward the southern slopes of Rotstock. The trail goes up some good rock and offers some enjoyable easy climbing (I UIAA). We took a break in the col between Rotstock and the cloud-clad Eiger, enjoying the atmosphere and the two non‑alcoholic beers that we brought along as liquid energy bars for the start of the ascent. From this point, we continued up toward and along what looked like a snowfield, but in reality was a small glacier, rather thick at its head. We had intended to go up this “snowfield”, but upon observing the gaping tunnels opening into its side, we opted to go up the scree as far up as possible. When we got all the way up, we found that there was a big bergschrund (a gap between the glacier/snowfield and the rock), up to 10 m deep and about 2 m wide. We put our crampons on and traversed along the bergschrund toward a gully, where the easiest point to get on the rock was supposed to be. And it was, but I would advise anyone who goes up that way to rope up – it wasn’t obvious, but there was an inconspicuous snow bridge at the foot of the gully – it looked as if the bergschrund had tapered off, but in reality, we were standing above a 10-15 m hole above rocks and a stream of water. We would realize this on the way down, only after we had crossed it again, unroped. The snow bridge was solid enough, but I wouldn’t cross it unroped again. After entering the gully, we had to go through a tunnel under another snow bridge, and we emerged at the foot of the second rock step, about 50‑100 m high, the first more demanding part of the climb. There was a fixed rope with some knots there. We took off our crampons and Honza surmounted the first more difficult point (III UIAA), right at the foot of the step. With the heavy bag on his back, it wasn’t without difficulty, and he appreciated the fixed rope being there. I went the same way, but in my case, the rope had skipped over some bump on the rock above, and I turned into the bob of the pendulum. Once on the ground again, I tried to climb up the 10 mm rope, now hanging over a small cliff, but with my feet in the air, it proved to be too difficult. I opted to clip my bag onto the end of the rope and climb up the same way Honza did, only without the heavy bag weighing me down – which proved to be quite easy. After I climbed over the first few meters, I hauled the bag up, and we continued up the rest of the rock step without any difficulties (I-II UIAA). There were two more fixed ropes above this one, but there was no need to use them on the way up – but I would later more than appreciate them on the way down. Once we climbed over the first 50 m or so, straight up, with the gully to our right, we traversed along the ledges to the left (i.e. north), following the few cairns – there are only three of them that I noticed, but the route is quite obvious on the way up, it is much more difficult to find the right path on the way down. At one point, even though I was careful about what I was grabbing and stepping onto, a foothold collapsed under my foot when I had all my weight on it, but fortunately I was holding onto the rock with both hands, so I was able to stay where I was. Otherwise I would have probably just dropped only about one meter onto the ledge below me, but with the fully extended leg, the heavy bag, and the wobbly knee, this would not have been pretty.

At the bivouac at 3066 m, above the clouds. Photo by Honza.

Surprisingly soon, we arrived at the bivouac – the “Eiger Hilton” (3066 m). The bivouac on the outcrop of the west ridge was rather windy, but we had ascended above the clouds at this point, and the views were really beautiful, making up for the wind. It took us less than 2 hours from Eigergletscher station, including the beer break.

A beautiful view of Jungfrau from the bivouac.

As I have mentioned, my main concern regarding this trip was the safety of my bad knee, and I expected some increased risk on the route. What I hadn’t expected, was that my knee would buckle when I was taking off my boot. Well, there wasn’t much to do about it but to hope that it would be OK in the morning, since it didn’t seem too bad.

The bivouac became increasingly windy after midnight, and when it was time to get up at 5:30, neither of us was too eager to crawl out of our sleeping bags, not having slept much. The sky was one big cloud and the strong wind was quite unpleasant. We decided to sleep in for a while and see if the weather improved. I finally dozed off, and Honza woke me up around 7:30. The weather was more or less the same, and I could feel the knee, but we decided to at least take a look at “the mushroom”, where basejumpers jump from, and only then decide whether we would continue further up or not.

Just above “the mushroom” around 3250 m. You can see the bivouac at the furthest outcrop (pointing toward the lake), Rotstock, Eigergletscher station, and Kleine Scheidegg (station + hotels & restaurants). Photo by Honza.

The terrain was quite OK on the way up and the knee warmed up and didn’t hurt or feel unstable, so after we reached the mushroom, we continued up, traversing away from the ridge. The wind wasn’t so bad there, and we had a good pace. We were both surprised by the quality of the terrain – according to the accounts we had read, we should have been passing through some unstable, stone-quarry-like terrain – but the rock seemed reasonably compact, just with some scree on it. We reached the abseil point at 3668 m, drowned in mist at this point, and continued along the ridge and then traversed a snowfield under some steeper rocks. The weather had gradually worsened, with about 50 m visibility in the mist now and with that strong wind gathering some force again. But being only about 200 m from the summit at this point, and thinking it was less than 150 m thanks to the altitude meter on my watch, we decided to continue. For me, the summit part was the most enjoyable bit of the whole ascent, since we had good snow conditions – good, solid firn from about 3750 m all the way up to the summit. The snow field was quite steep (I would guess around 50-55°), so we put our crampons’ front spikes and ice axes to full use for about 200 m. One ice axe was sufficient in the conditions we had, but for the first time, I appreciated that the shaft of my axe is slightly bent – so I didn’t bruise my knuckles too much against the firn.

On the final snowfield leading toward the summit, at around 3800 m. Photo by Honza.

We reached the summit at 11:45, so it took us 3.5 hours from the bivouac (we started very late, at 8:15). We took a photo of each other, ate some grape glucose tablets, and hightailed out of there, since the mist was becoming thicker and thicker and the wind was very strong at the top, the combination of which created some icy crust on parts of our equipment.

Enjoying the summit views 🙂 Photo by Honza.

Climbing down the snowfield was rather enjoyable as well, and it was reasonably quick, so we opted for climbing all the way down the snowfield to where we had stepped onto it, not using the abseil post that was on the rocks at the ridge in the lower part of the field. When we got back to the abseil point at 3668 m, the visibility was still low, with the strong wind still unceasing, plus, as a bonus, it started to rain. We abseiled about 4 pitches (we had one 60 m rope), freezing in turns when one was waiting for the other person to abseil the pitch. Luckily, we were below the freezing altitude now, so the rock was just wet. If it had been freezing, the rock would have turned into one giant ice-slide. The wet shale wasn’t much more slippery than when dry, so climbing down wasn’t the main problem – the main problem was orientation.

Getting back to the abseil point at 3668 m. Photo by Honza.

Though we were trying to memorize some reference points on the way up, finding them on the way down in the mist was quite difficult. I had had to take off my glasses below the summit on my way up due to the mist, so I couldn’t really see any cairns and other smaller pointers. Luckily, Honza’s corneas had been polished with laser, so in the end, we zig-zagged through the maze of ledges and rock steps surprisingly smoothly. Had it been just up to me, I’m pretty sure it would have taken me longer, with some detours. And despite all the accounts of the unbelievably slippery, crumbling terrain, I have to say that with the exception of a few places, it is possible to climb down a rather solid rock – you just have to focus really hard not to slip on the scree that covers it, and of course watch out for loose holds and footsteps. I did dislodge one piece of rock the size of a large watermelon and sent it tumbling down straight in Honza’s direction with the accompanying shower of smaller stones – I yelled at him to watch out, and luckily he was able to move aside and hide behind an outcrop in time.

In the final parts of the maze around 3350 m. Photo by Honza.

It stopped raining, and the visibility somewhat improved in the lower parts of this section. We somehow emerged from the mist already below the mushroom, and continued down the clearly visible path toward the bivouac. We packed our things, had a quick snack, and continued down the last unpleasant part of the descent. For me, personally, this was the most unpleasant part of the descent – even though climbing up the previous day, I had found it easy and enjoyable, now, on the way down, after several hours of highly demanding descent, it was really uncomfortable trying to avoid falling down at every single step. The terrain is very steep here, and if you fall, you either fly down a 50‑m gully or towards a slightly more distant snowfield/glacier at the foot of this rock step. There are three fixed ropes in the lower part of this rock step, each following the other, but it is not very enjoyable to get to them, and neither is climbing down them – though it is the easiest, quickest, and relatively safe way down. But I really have to stress the word “relatively” here. The access to the ropes and the condition the second rope was in (which I only found out after I had climbed down half of it and was in a vertical section), the rope on which you then swing involuntarily, does relativize the word “safe” quite a bit. I would advise against using the second rope (i.e. the middle one), and recommend rappeling down using one’s own rope.

The last fixed rope at the foot of the rock step above the Rotstock col. Photo by Honza.

After we got down this rock step, we crossed the snow bridge I mentioned earlier – again, I would highly recommend roping up here. After the snowfield, there was just one small cliff to downclimb, and then it was over the scree field past the col between the Eiger and Rotstock, and down the ledges back to Eigergletscher station. There are many fixed ropes in this last part, most of which I think will amuse anybody who just came down the terrain further up on the Eiger. But two or three of them do come in handy for a faster descent down the ledges.

We reached the path above the station around 7:30 PM, so the descent from the summit took us about 7.5 hours. A person with healthy knees could do it a bit faster – I think Honza would have been there one or two hours earlier, if he hadn’t been waiting for me, descending at the grandpa speed with my walking sticks.

The Eiger still in clouds as we walked back down to Grindelwald. Photo by Honza.

We walked back down to Grindelwald, which took us over three hours – when we saw some similar figure on the signs along the way, we thought that would be at a leisurely pace, and we should be able to do it in two. Nope, three hours, not a leisurely pace. Again, Honza would have been there sooner, but I wasn’t going extra slowly either.

Starting point: Grindelwald – paid parking lot (not very expensive, I think we paid 10 CHF for two days). Eigergletscher station (2320 m) – from Grindelwald either on foot or by train. I would recommend taking the train, it will save you 3-4 hours walking up an asphalt road.

Bivouac: I think the “Eiger Hilton” on the outcrop at 3066 m is the best option, and above the second rock step, it is the only safe option. The terrain further up the mountain would expose you to potential rockfall virtually anywhere on the west flank. If the Eiger Hilton is already occupied, it shouldn’t be a problem to find a spot somewhere in its immediate vicinity, you would just have to rearrange the rocks a little bit. The downside of this option is the lack of water in summer – there are no snowfields around, you have to bring all the water you are going to need. The only snowfields are in the steep terrain in the upper part of the mountain. The col below the second rock step, between the west flank and Rotstock, is another option – plenty of space there & snow or water available. You can also find a spot somewhere above Eigergletscher station if you don’t mind that there are going to be people there coming down from the Rotstock klettersteig.

Time needed: Eigergletscher station to the “Eiger Hilton” bivouac 1.5-2.0 hours, Eiger Hilton to the summit 3-4 hours, descent from the summit back to Eiger Hilton 4-6 hours, descent from Eiger Hilton back to Eigergletscher station 1.5-2.5 hours. We went all the way up and down solo, without protection, and abseiled only about 4 pitches in the upper part of the mountain – our total time on the way up from Eigergletscher station to the summit was 5-5.5 hours at a good pace and back down about 7.5 hours with me descending slowly. With protection, the time would be much longer – if you need a rope on the second rock step above the Rotstock col, you will probably need it on about one third of the route, so take that into account.

Equipment: Helmet, one ice axe, crampons, one rope (I would recommend at least 50 m), some protection – you might not use it as there are metal abseil rods in some of the more difficult parts, but I would highly recommend bringing it as it may come in handy even if everything goes smoothly, let alone if it doesn’t. If you take the same route that we went up, you probably won’t need the rope for the way up, but you will need it for abseiling. Also, if you decide to get on the second rock step elsewhere than from the snowfield, you will probably need a rope and some protection to do that – the terrain is steeper there. In bad snow conditions, the rope and protection might be necessary on the way up and down in the final part, i.e. in the part that we climbed on snow – it seemed possible to place some protection on the rocks closer to the ridge.

Dangers: 1. The bergschrund on the approach to the gully at the second rock step – from the snowfield/glacier itself, it may not be visible, and you may be standing on a snow bridge over a 10‑15 m hole! Rope up before you step onto this snowfield/glacier! 2. Some loose holds, a lot of scree on the inclined shale, and rockfall from people above you. 3. Fixed ropes along the gully on the second rock step above the snowfield – check the quality. I would advise against using the middle one on descent – when you climb down, it swings and grinds against the rock, and it is impossible to check for defects from above, it is anchored at the bottom. Use your own rope to abseil. 4. Weather – as in the case of any mountain, but here I would stress it as an especially important factor – in icy conditions, the inclined shale would be very difficult and extremely dangerous to climb down, in most parts requiring abseiling and a lot of material left on the route, since most of the route is on inclined shale. Eiger is also well-known for unstable weather, and a day-old forecast might not be accurate, as in our case. 5. Water – we had more than enough due to the weather conditions we had, but I imagine on a hot, sunny day, the lack of water would make the descent very, very unpleasant, and it would make a mistake more likely to occur. As I mentioned above, there are no snowfields between the Rotstock col and the upper part of the mountain (say 3500 m).

The terrain above the bivouac. The difficult maze of rocks starts around the skyline – not difficult on the way up, but on the way down. The summit is not visible. Photo by Honza.
Looking into the north wall. Photo by Honza.
“The mushroom”. Photo by Honza.
The views from about 3500 m. Photo by Honza.
Honza on the summit.
A look down from the end of the maze at around 3350 m. Photo by Honza.
At the end of the maze at around 3350 m. Photo by Honza.
The snow tunnel at the foot of the gully above the Rotstock col. Photo by Honza.

mj

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