Tom Ballard and the Eiger - a hard day's winter
British mountaineer Tom Ballard reports about his recent ascent of the Eiger that crowned his Starlight and Storm project to climb the six great North Faces of the Alps in winter, alone and in just one season: Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Pizzo Badile, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru and the Eiger.
For once I'm not hungry. Most unusual. Normally I'm always hungry. Something must be wrong with me! In the morning of the day we are to begin our journey to the Eiger, I have a very sore throat and ache everywhere. I can hardly walk! As we drive through the 'Land of Milk and Money', all I want to do is sleep. We stop and I close my eyes. Three hours later I awake and we continue on our way.
A similar story the next morning when we arrive in Grindelwald. I sleep a few hours and then pack my rucksack. We have parked the van at Gletscherschlucht, the only free parking in Grindelwald! A cold corner nestled at the foot of the Eiger massif. This is a spot I know well. Hidden in the trees lies a steep wall, bristling with many of my steep and powerful drytooling creations.
We rendezvous with Elena and Angel of Kottom films who have been following me this winter. The Jungfraubahn have been very generous, lending us Martin to act as guide and general fixer, even if he is from Wengen! We take the trains to Eigergletscher. I nip around the corner to bivouac in solitude at the foot of the west flank. The others head down to the valley.
Thursday morning dawns clear. I am very reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. With heavy footsteps I trudge around to the foot of the face. The Eiger is well known to me. I have climbed on here in every season of the year. Put up new routes. Made first free ascents. First winter ascents. From 'swimming' in powder covering rubble, to hanging off skyhooks on blank walls. But never the classic '1938' route. The Eiger has such a melange of styles. Something for everyone.
Alas, here I am, at 07:39 beginning the climb. The face is towering menacingly above me. I follow the recent footmarks, weaving, traversing. Always looking for the easiest path. Perhaps a lost art, finding the path of least resistance, of weakness. Something the pioneers of old were masters at. Nowadays we look for the 'direct' or 'extreme'! I think we have lost something.
The 'Difficult' crack certainly lives up to its name! The 'Hinterstoisser' Traverse is crossed excitingly with tatty fixed ropes. The 'Ice Hose': is just that! The 'Second Icefield' leads to the 'Death Bivouac'. Ummm, better not sleep here. The 'Third Icefield' is brief before the 'Ramp'. Actually more of a diagonal chimney. A trio of cheerful Transylvanians let me past. They are in no hurry they say. They expect to be up there longer still they grin. Rather them than me! The 'Waterfall Chimney' is fortunately dry.
The 'Traverse of the Gods'. Mio Dio! The abyss snapping at my heels. In the eponymous 'White Spider' I feel like a fly trapped in a web, struggling to untangle myself. 'Exit Cracks' are chock full off ice. The picks thunk reassuringly into the ice. If only the feet would respond. Inch by inch I slowly gain the blinding whiteness of the 'Summit Icefield'. The angle eases off. But my tiredness increases. A line of steps, left by a friend guiding a client, leads enticingly upwards. A few steps, stop. A few more steps, stop. The knife-edge Mittellegigrat ridge is a welcome sight. Just a sprint finish now. Hardly! I keep going and after five hours and thirty eight tortuous minutes I finally stand on the top.
The summit not only of the Eiger. But of a winter’s project. Of a lifetime dream. Three months. From the frozen feet on Cima Grande, through the 'idle' months of January and February to the last hectic three climbs within two weeks! Ahh that’s why I'm tired!
A summit where my mother spent a cold night with me inside her as a foetus, after climbing the same route. A summit which brought so much happiness and joy to my sister when we ascended the west flank to then, for me on skis and her with snowboard, descend. It's not just tiredness though. I have a very bad, we'll dramatize and say 'life threatening' cold ;-) Probably caught on the Chamonix bus, or the Grand Montets cable car. Being with people is not healthy for me I think. In the mountains with peace, quiet and no queue's. Ahh, bliss!
The friendly Poles are kind. Saying, "pretty fast for an onsight". But I'm disappointed with my slowness. I should already be back down at the Eigergletscher eating their delicious home made chocolate! I rest a short while before beginning the descent. The West Flank is a dangerous place. This we are all reminded of when, tragically, a skier just in front of me falls and dies. He and his friend I have just met on the summit. And given them a friendly wave the night before as they approached their bivouac not far from mine. I see shards of shattered helmet as I go slowly downwards. Lower, the body itself. Tranquil in his stillness. A reminder that life can be cruel. The mountain is a hard mistress.
Hot but content. I pack up my tent and return to 'civilisation', Eigergletscher! But wait. The film crew and my father are down in Kleine Scheidegg! Martin greets me and I gulp water and chocolate in equal measure until they return. After lengthy congratulations we take the slow but scenic train back down to the valley. Hearty fair wells. My father and I sleep in our van once more. My throat is tightening up. I feel dreadful. But, my winter project has come to an end. Instead of feeling a sense of achievement, I feel a slight emptiness. What comes next? The success will dawn on me in a few days when I have rested. And hopefully when I feel human again! A smile will slowly spread across my face, of a dream fulfilled.
Certainly it has been, a hard day's winter.
by Tom Ballard
Tom Ballard thanks: Calze GM Sport, Dolomitland, Virna Pierobon Projects and S.C.A.R.P.A.
STARLIGHT AND STORM - THE ROUTES
Cima Grande di Lavaredo, North Face, Dolomites
Via Comici - Dimai
First ascent: Emilio Comici, Angelo Dimai, Giovanni Dimai, 13 - 14 August 1933
Tom Ballard: 21 - 22 December 2014. 1 bivouac.
Pizzo Badile, NE Face
First ascent: Riccardo Cassin, Gino Esposito, Mario Molteni, Vittorio Ratti, Giuseppe Valsecchi, 14 - 16 July 1937
Tom Ballard: 6 - 7 January 2015. 1 bivouac.
Matterhorn, North Face
First ascent: Franz and Toni Schmid, 31/07 - 01/08/1931
Tom Ballard: 10 February 2015. 2 hours 59 minutes
Grandes Jorasses, North Face
Colton - Macintyre route
First ascent: Nick Colton, Alex Macintyre 6 - 7 August 1976
Tom Ballard: 08/03/2015. 3 hours 20 minutes
Petit Dru, North Face
Allain - Leininger route
First ascent: Pierre Allain and Raymond Leininger, 1935
Tom Ballard: 14/03/2015. 8 hours
Eiger, North Face
Heinrich Harrer, Anderl Heckmair, Fritz Kasparek and Wiggerl Vörg, 07/1938
Tom Ballard: 19/03/2015
15/10/2014 - Tom Ballard, climbing in his veins
Interview with talented British climber and alpinist Tom Ballard.
20/03/2015 - Tom Ballard climbs the six North Faces of the Alps in winter!
With his ascent of the Eiger yesterday, Tom Ballard has now completed his Starlight and Storm project to climb the six great North Faces of the Alps in winter, alone and in just one season: Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Pizzo Badile, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru and the Eiger.