Titanic, On the Eiger
Tom Ballard talks about his new route on the Eiger North Face
In December last year, Montane mountaineer Tom Ballard and climbing partner Marcin Tomaszewski broke through to the summit of the Eiger, setting a new route up the North Face.
As he prepares for the forthcoming winter mountaineering season at the end of this year, Tom recounts his experiences on the Eiger.
Read his story below.
Titanic, on the Eiger
What do both the Eiger and the Titanic have in common?
Sadly, they’re both best known for loss of life. The Titanic, of course, sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. The Eiger has seen countless tragedies, particularly on its infamous North Face. Just mentioning that huge brooding concave mass of rock and ice is enough to bring most people out in shivers.
Both the Titanic and the Eiger are recognised by the general public. In a recent TV quiz, contestants were asked: “Which of these is the highest peak in Switzerland?”. The Eiger was one of the multiple choice answers and was chosen as the answer simply because the contestants had heard of it.
But what’s so special about the Eiger?
Errr..can I use a lifeline?
The Eiger to me is like an additional family member, a half-brother who lives abroad. We sporadically catch up and usually have a ball!
But more than that (and I love saying this) – the Eiger is extra special to me because I climbed it before I was born! My mother, Alison Jane Hargreaves, was six months pregnant with me when she climbed the Heckmair Route in July 1988. I was only a bump, but technically alive. Surely I was a nuisance – having a big bump can’t have been very convenient for her, especially in the tight squeeze of the Waterfall Chimney.
It took me 22 years before I actually stood on the summit of the Eiger with my own two feet. Although this was half a year after repeating the ‘Scottish Pillars’ and making the first free ascent, renaming my version ‘Solitaire’.
At this point in my narrative, it’s worth giving you a proper introduction to the ‘North Pillars’ or ‘Scottish Pillars’ as they have become known. In 1968 Toni Hiebeler together with the Messner brothers and Fritz Maschke climbed what they described as the ‘North Pillars Direct’, which in fact is a misnomer as they missed completely the three huge pillars projecting from the face. Simultaneously a team of four Poles traversed in from the centre of the face, across the top of the first of these three pillars and over to join the ‘Lauper Route’ and a similar line to Hiebeler. Summer 1970 saw three talented, keen Scots set their sights on these three impressive pillars, succeeding with sheer ability and strength of will. One of the party, Kenny Spence, compared the position he was in to climbing up the prow of the Titanic. I presume not whilst it was sinking.
Eight years later a pair of Czechs made a winter ascent. We will never know how much of the abandoned Scottish fixed ropes they used, or not. This was common at the time. The routes had only just been climbed for the first time, mostly sieged, and the following winter ascents often utilized these aids!
More recently 2002 saw a pair of Swiss men, Peter Keller and Urs Odermatt, reach into the light with ‘Griff ins Licht’ – a new line on the pillars, which they also climbed free.
Then came winter 2009 and I was next to buckle up my crampons, rack some pitons and test my mettle.
It took me much longer to repeat the route than I had bargained for. My excuse is too much snow (always a good one), but repeat it I finally did. This was my first alpine route.
I then realised nobody had actually climbed the three pillars directly. So whilst waiting for the ‘Scottish Pillars’ to dry out for a free ascent, I started to climb up virgin territory. Before my 21st birthday I had completed a new 1,000m route – ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. I completed my free ascent of the ‘Scottish Pillars’ in July 2009, naming my version ‘Solitaire.
But let’s move on to the story of how climbing partner Marcin Tomszewski and I forged our new route – ‘Titanic’ (A3/M5/6b, 1,800m) up the North Face.
Each time Marcin and I have climbed together we have completed new routes, each one progressively longer than the last. The first was a mere 250m V+, then 1,375m of ‘Dirty Harry’ on the immense North West Face of Monte Civetta.
At the beginning of our Eiger journey, Marcin met me off the train in Interlaken at midnight on a misty November night. The following morning after a discreet bivvy near Grindelwald, we compiled and packed our gear. Enough food and fuel for 10 days on the wall. Enough technical kit to break the backs of several donkeys. When we alighted from the train (we are in Switzerland so trains feature a lot) in a deserted Alpiglen, we had six bulging bags between us – two haul bags and four rucksacks. Fortunately there was a decided lack of snow for our steep approach. Or should that be approaches? Since we had to ferry the stuff up to the base of the wall.
Bright and early next morning we set off climbing. A pure rock pitch led to easier angle slopes which in turn led to a wonderful waterfall ice pitch. We set up the ledge for two nights at the base of the overhanging first pillar. Squeaky neve and delicate mixed movements brought us right up to the broken rock and steepness. By craning our necks we could see a natural line of weakness through this intimidating overhang.
Marcin had deftly aided up the loose rock only to hand over the reins to yours truly. Here we go… An airy traverse left, to…where? I launched myself into the void, heels hanging. Believe it or not, I was reveling in the situation. Like climbing on the Titanic’s prow? More like Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt on the Eurostar. You can add the music.
Hauling our kit, we climbed ever easing mixed ground to the base of the second pillar. Funnily enough (we weren’t laughing at the time), the easier the angle, the harder it is to haul. The ‘pigs’ dig in the snow and catch on every damn rock protrusion, no matter how slight. Give me fast and light any time!
But eventually we stood at the foot of a blank looking vertical wall of 200m, capped by another 200m of overhanging-ness. Marcin utilised a lot of ‘bird beak’ pitons. These little pieces of metal we found indispensable. Except I didn’t have the patience to ‘tap tap’ them in, test, tap again, step up, repeat. Instead, I would stretch up for some handholds from my top rungs, then free climb (forgetting the etriers which would be useful later on), smooth holds, fingers getting sweaty as I progressed above the protection, worryingly far above the last protection…I continued on, spying a flake.
Could be good holds and hopefully some protection, keep going, ahhh, fumble one-handed through the rack, no that doesn’t fit, relief as a bomber cam is slotted in – my new best friend. Back it up and then go through it all again on the next section.
We were being forced left by the rock. By the quality of the rock, deteriorating as we gained height. The features looked familiar. I recognized that fractured flake. Brushing away the snow and uncovering a bolt, recognising the hanger design – one I placed in 2009. Hand-cut drilled-filled by my dad from a redundant dead-man. We ran out of hangers, so we started fashioning them out of any old metal we had lying round. Eventually we ran out of metal too, so we bought some steel from a local ironworks. I’m surprised the pillars haven’t fallen down yet with that weight of ironmongery hanging off them.
We had joined the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ route and the rock improved dramatically on the ‘verdon’-like third pillar. Smooth, sculptured grey rock. I soon found out that 6b in full winter boots is not easy. Particularly the smearing. Soon we reached the top of the third pillar and the end of the technical difficulties. We headed back down to our portaledge camp for dinner. Filled a bag of snow. Took the outer boots off. Slipped into my Deep Heat sleeping bag. Lit the stove and brewed. Brewed again, and again, then a couscous ready meal (spicy tomato tonight). Sucked some sweets. Munched a little chocolate. Another brew. Updated the topo. Moved to a lying down position. Closed my eyes. Tried to sleep. The portaledge creaked as one of us shifted position. Early start tomorrow. Tomorrow we top out (with a bit of luck).
Tomorrow comes and we climbed on mixed terrain as daylight arrived. Weaving around to find the path of least resistance. Trying to remember the rock features for the descent (slightly pointless as it will be dark by then). The angle has eased, but the rock has become the consistency of Weetabix. Finding decent belays is time consuming. We simul-climbed. Huge sheets of brittle ice, at a calf-sapping angle of around 60 degrees. I opted to bring only two ice-screws. Oops. Can’t be right all the time! Security is achieved only with concentration and constant movement. My eye is drawn to the Mittelleggi ridge on my left. Tantalizingly close. I want to force the line as direct as possible. But I’m tired, hadn’t slept properly for almost a week in that portaledge. Low on protein. Low on energy. Still low on the face!
I spot a ‘bit of tat’, and head up to that. Turned out to be an odd (and old) looking bolt. Backed it up with a peg. Brought Marcin up, then off again towards a twisting tongue of ice which should lead to the ridge.
What a relief to feel the sun’s warmth after seven days without! Still a long way along the knife-edge ridge. Ditch the technical gear, all we needed at this point was nerve. The final ridge dragged on interminably (doesn’t it always?). 2:30 pm and we finally stood on the summit. Celebrations and selfies, taking a breather. No prizes awarded, neither a speedboat nor an all-terrain buggy. Not even an etched glass trophy. Only the knowledge of a job well done. The experience is what we were looking for. The memories will be our prize. An all-terrain buggy would be useful though!
The North Face dropped into cold shadow below us. Still enjoying the sun. Come on, better go down. Back along the ridge. First abseil from a bolt down to a ‘frozen in’ block. Then nothing. Marcin scratched around but drew blanks. Hand drills a bolt. I joined him. Pulled down the ropes. He told me not to lean out because he could only find bad rock. Gingerly I abseiled down to that odd looking bolt and clipped in. Marcin joined me and began pulling the ropes – that’s the moment the bolt decided to slide out! Sharp intake of breath (the back-up peg wasn’t great either), teetering on front points as I re-drilled the hole deeper to place one of our dwindling supply of bolts.
Some abseils later I looked around to see the alpenglow on the surrounding peaks lighting them up brilliantly, then slowly fading as darkness began to engulf us. Headlamps on. At least we couldn’t see how far down we still had to go. The two ice-screws were left behind, as well as one I had found. Vague memories of previous belays guided us.
Eventually we reached the top of the third pillar again and the relative safety of our fixed ropes. But only after stuck ropes and much cursing.
We flopped, dog-tired, into our portaledge at 20:30 pm. Knackered but content.
The following morning, I dragged my stiff body up the fixed ropes to strip them. We packed up and abseiled down. The haulbags were lighter but still a constant annoyance. On the lower slopes I lost the belays. How could I have forgotten where I had placed my own belays? It all looked the same, rock bands covered in snow. We left the last of our gear to make it back to terra firma. YEAH! Running down the hill, dragging the haulbags behind us, no longer caring. I kept looking back at the line and grinning. Down in time to catch the train.
Titanic ca.2,000m 6b A3 Wi4 M5, Tom Ballard and Marcin Tomaszewski 30 November – 6 December 2016