Published: July 21st 2012July 21st 2012
Having decided that my next big goal is to complete an Ironman, it is dawning on me that swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and then running a marathon will require rather a lot of training.
The running bit doesn't particularly bother me - whilst I would struggle to run a marathon tomorrow, I did 10 of them last year and so the mental hurdle has been overcome, and I know that my body is capable of them.
All the literature states that cycling is the key discipline in any triathlon, which is not great for me given that I haven't really done any cycling before - and that which I have done left me with memories of pain and discomfort.
Thanks to Gumtree I managed to buy a couple of bikes (one a lovely sleek white road bike, the other a red mountain bike) and put a few rides together. However to get a proper sense of what awaited me I travelled to Grindlewald in Switzerland.
Grindlewald, of course, is famous as the place from where you get the best view of the North Face of the Eiger. The following is a shortened and edited version
of the Wikipedia entry:
The North Face of the Eiger
Before the North Face of the Eiger was successfully climbed, most of the attempts on the face ended tragically and the Bernese authorities even banned climbing it and threatened to fine any party that should attempt it again. But the enthusiasm which animated the young talented climbers from Austria and Germany finally vanquished its reputation of unclimbability when a party of four climbers successfully reached the summit in 1938 by what is known as the "1938" or "Heckmair" route.
The climbers that attempted the north face could be easily watched through the telescopes from the Kleine Scheidegg, a pass between Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, connected by rail. The contrast between the comfort and civilization of the railway station and the agonies of the young men slowly dying a short yet uncrossable distance away led to intensive coverage by the international media.
The 1935 attempt on the North Face
In 1935 two young German climbers from Bavaria, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer, arrived at Grindelwald to attempt to climb the face. They waited a long time for good weather and when the clouds finally cleared they started. The two climbers reached the height of the Eigerwand station and had their first bivouac. On the following day, because of the greater difficulties, they gained little height. On the third day, they hardly made any vertical ground. At night a storm broke and the mountain was hidden in fog, then it began to snow. Avalanches of snow began to sweep the face and the clouds closed over it. Two days later, there was a short moment when the clouds cleared and the mountain was visible for a while. People obtained a glimpse of the two men, who were now a little higher and about to bivouac for the fifth time. Then the fog came down again and hid the climbers. A few days later the weather finally cleared, revealing a completely white north face. The two climbers were found later frozen to death at 3,300 m, at a place now known as "Death Bivouac".
The 1936 attempt on the North Face
The next year ten young climbers from Austria and Germany came to Grindelwald and camped at the foot of the mountain. Before their attempts started, one of them was killed during a training climb, and the weather was so bad during that summer that after waiting for a change and seeing none on the way, several members of the party gave up. Of the four that remained, two were Bavarians, Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, the youngest of the party, and two were Austrians, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer. When the weather improved they made a preliminary exploration of the lowest part of the face. Hinterstoisser fell 37 metres (121 ft) but was not injured. A few days later the four men finally began the ascent of the face. They climbed quickly, but on the next day, after their first bivouac, the weather changed; clouds came down and hid the group to the observers. They did not resume the climb until the following day, when, during a break, the party was seen descending, but the climbers could only be watched intermittently from the ground. The group had no choice but to retreat since Angerer suffered some serious injuries as a result of falling rock. The party became stuck on the face when they could not recross the difficult Hinterstoisser Traverse where they had taken the rope they first used to climb. The weather then deteriorated for two days. They were ultimately swept away by an avalanche, which only Kurz survived, hanging on a rope. Three guides started on an extremely perilous rescue. They failed to reach him but came within shouting distance and learned what had happened. Kurz explained the fate of his companions: one had fallen down the face, another was frozen above him, the third had fractured his skull in falling, and was hanging dead on the rope.
In the morning the three guides came back, traversing across the face from a hole near the Eigerwand station and risking their lives under incessant avalanches. Toni Kurz was still alive but almost helpless, with one hand and one arm completely frostbitten. Kurz hauled himself off the cliff after cutting loose the rope that bound him to his dead teammate below and climbed back on the face. The guides were not able to pass an unclimbable overhang that separated them from Kurz. They managed to give him a rope long enough to reach them by tying two ropes together. While descending, Kurz could not get the knot to pass through his carabiner. He tried for hours to reach his rescuers who were only a few metres below him. Then he began to lose consciousness. One of the guides, climbing on another's shoulders, was able to touch the tip of Kurz's crampons with his ice-axe but could not reach higher. Kurz was unable to descend farther and, completely exhausted, died slowly.
The 1937 attempt on the North Face
An attempt was made in 1937 by Matthias Rebitsch and Ludwig Vörg. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, they were nonetheless the first climbers who returned alive from a serious attempt on the face. They started the climb on 11 August and reached a high point of a few rope lengths above Death Bivouac. A storm then broke and after three days on the wall they had to retreat. This was the first successful withdrawal from a significant height on the wall.
The first ascent of the north face
The north face was first climbed on July 24, 1938 by Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vörg, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek in a German–Austrian party. The party had originally consisted of two independent teams: Harrer (who did not have a pair of crampons on the climb) and Kasparek were joined on the face by Heckmair and Vörg, who had started their ascent a day later and had been helped by the fixed rope that the lead team had left across the Hinterstoisser Traverse. The two groups, led by the experienced Heckmair, decided to join their forces and roped together as a single group of four. Heckmair later wrote: "We, the sons of the older Reich, united with our companions from the Eastern Border to march together to victory."
The expedition was constantly threatened by snow avalanches and climbed as quickly as possible between the falls. On the third day a storm broke and the cold was intense. The four men were caught in an avalanche as they climbed "the Spider," the snow-filled cracks radiating from an ice-field on the upper face, but all possessed sufficient strength to resist being swept off the face. The members successfully reached the summit at four o'clock in the afternoon. They were so exhausted that they only just had the strength to descend by the normal route through a raging blizzard.
Heinrich Harrer, of course, is also famous for his fabulous book "Seven
Years in Tibet" which I have read several times, together with watching the brilliant film adaptation.
Anyway, Grindlewald itself proved to be a fabulous place to put in some training, albeit everything is pretty difficult since there are no flat roads for miles!
Days were spent in a mixture of cycling up hills, freewheeling down hills together with walking.
Evenings were spent stuffing our faces and drinking plenty of the local beer - weirdly called "Lager Hell."
The first day saw me spectacularly wiping out on the bike during the descent from the Grosse Scheiddegg (a pass which is 1,000 metres above Grindlewald - a climb of around 10% gradient achieved over a distance of 10 kilometres and which took about 1 and a half hours to ascend, and about 20 minutes to descend.) Coming round the bend somewhat on the edge of control I failed to spot a stream of water running across the road - the result being that I and the bike parted company for several metres, and I got my first ever cycling wounds (something of what I was rather proud at the time!)
The best training session saw me put
together a route of around 80km with around 1,600 metres of vertical ascent. Whilst this is nothing to a decent cyclist, I am currently very far from being a decent cyclist and so I was pretty happy with it.
The plan for the trip was also to try and climb a few mountains. Unfortunately, a particularly heavy dump of snow on the mountains just before we were to attempt some summits left conditions rather dangerous - with the death of the climbers on Mont Blanc fresh in our minds we decided to retreat back down the valley and live to fight another day.
I am now back in the UK for a few days before setting off on a 300 mile round-trip to France to attend a party. I will be going on the bike of course!
There are more photos below