Back in the mid-seventies, Clint Eastwood made a mountaineering action thriller, The Eiger Sanction. It’s set largely in the Bernese Alps, where a climber who’s planning to ascend the treacherous Eiger also has to dodge bullets fired by a hitman. People die and double-cross. Great movie.
Original trailer for the 1975 movie. Check out the footage of
the mountain starting around 2:00!
I’d read the book a few years earlier and become fascinated with Mount Eiger, the most dangerous character in the story. Germans call it Mordwand: a sheer, 13,025-foot “death wall.” Since 1935, more than 60 people have perished trying to get up the north face.
So, of course, that went on my list of “gotta do” climbs. Back then, I was in my early 20s, and I had yet to scale any significant altitude. But I’d been dreaming of summitting Mount Everest and other great mountains since I was 5 years old.
This summer, I turn 60, and I’ll finally tackle Eiger during our “Alps Trilogy” just a few weeks after my birthday. We leave for Europe a couple of days after I finish the Badwater Ultramarathon, my annual pilgrimage of 135 miles across California’s Death Valley, then up Mount Whitney for a total of 146 miles. The Alps will be a nice contrast from the dry, extreme heat (the mercury often tops 120 degrees during that race) to the snow-covered peaks of Mount Eiger, the Matterhorn, and Mont Blanc.
Climbing All Three —the Matterhorn, Mount Eiger, and Mont Blanc — In Less Than 10 Days
From July 18 to 27, along with my friend, fellow mountaineer Brad Grant (a.k.a. “Dr. Adventure,” who’s in his mid-50s), we’ll guide two amateur but experienced climbers, Jacqueline Eastridge and Robin Swank, up three of the Alps’ most beautiful and challenging mountains. (We have room for two more — any takers? Contact us for details.)
After training for three days in Switzerland, we’ll take on the Matterhorn first, another intense technical climb I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Then it’s on to “the Ogre,” Mount Eiger. From there, the group heads to Mont Blanc without me, as I’m coming back to the States for the San Francisco Marathon.
These climbs aren’t as high-risk as my 2004 Everest ascent was, but they’re not simple hikes, either. Whereas Everest presents its main hazards in the forms of altitude (with the associated problems of muscle wasting, oxygen deprivation, lack of sleep, and general physical deterioration) and weather — along with no chance of rescue if you get into trouble — on Mount Eiger and the Matterhorn, the primary threat is falling.
The Matterhorn, for example, doesn’t even provide you a wall. It’s more like a craggy finger: an enormous, exposed chunk of rock that seems to hang in the air. It’s considered one of the deadliest Alpine peaks and was the last of them to be summitted; more than 500 mountaineers have died on it since the first successful climb to the top in 1865.
Mont Blanc will be the perfect finale to this trilogy, the birthplace of modern mountaineering and the highest peak in Western Europe. At 15,782 feet and straddling France and Italy, snow and glaciers constantly cover the “White Mountain.” The first ascent was in 1786, and nowadays more than 20,000 people make the somewhat perilous climb (avalanche or rockfall can be hazardous) to the summit every year.
I went up Mont Blanc back in the summer of 2006 when I was the chief coach at a running camp for Olympic hopefuls. It was being held in Verbier, a picturesque Swiss village with views of both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. The director of the camp, a friend of mine, called Vincent Delebarre to ask him if he’d take me, which he agreed to do and then kicked my ass all the way to the summit. (Vincent won the 2004 North Face Ultra-Trail Tour du Mont Blanc and has placed in the race several times since then. ) It was fantastic!
It’s a thrill to be in a place with so much history, and I spent the entire next afternoon in nearby Zermatt combing through antique stores, looking for climbing gear that was old, unique, and affordable. In the end, I came away with some jute rope, ice axe, hand-made crampons, and snow shoes, all circa 1920s-1940s.
So, though I’ll miss Mont Blanc this time out, the Eiger and Matterhorn will help me celebrate my 60th. Mordwand, I’m coming for you.
Have you ever taken on a big adventure for a milestone birthday? What inspired you to do it?