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Conqueror of Eiger North Face dies

The team which conquered the Eiger North Face in 1938, led by Anderl Heckmair (second on the right)

(Keystone)

Andreas “Anderl” Heckmair, who led the first team to conquer the notorious north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps, has died aged 98.

The successful climb in 1938 was a sensational feat and made Heckmair – a German mountain guide – world famous.

“It was an exceptional feat considering that the other two outstanding Alpine peaks, the Matterhorn and France’s Grandes Jorasses, had already been conquered,“ said Christine Kopp, a Swiss author and journalist specalising in mountaineering.

“The Eiger was a myth and was dubbed ‘The Ogre’ by climbers,” Kopp said.

Previous attempts to climb the awesome 1,800-metre wall – one of Europe’s greatest challenges – had cost the lives of eight alpinists before Heckmair tackled it.

Heckmair and his compatriot Ludwig Vörg began their ascent on July 21, 1938 using special equipment.

Following a snowstorm and a series of avalanches they teamed up with two Austrians, Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek, who had set off on their own.

Classic route

Three and a half days later 32-year-old Heckmair led the four-man rope team to the 3,970-metre Eiger summit where they hoisted the Nazi swastika flag.

Heckmair was able to make good progress along the mountain face despite the bad weather and he had a superb sense for choosing the right route, said Kopp.

“It was a brilliant mountaineering achievement. He found daring passages in this huge wall that made his route a classic to this day,” she told swissinfo.

The success, which was widely covered in the international press and radio, was exploited by Germany’s Nazi rulers for their own propaganda purposes.

However, Heckmair never joined the Nazi party, according to his biographers.

Cigar and schnapps

After the war he worked as a mountain guide, notably for the multi-millionaire businessman Otto-Ernst Flick, and ran a youth hostel in the Bavarian Alpine resort of Oberstdorf.

Germany's professional mountain and ski guides' association was founded at his initiative in 1968.

“Anderl Heckmair never forgot his roots,” said Kopp, who met the mountaineer several times.

The trained gardener came from a humble background, and went through financially difficult periods in his life.

But he had a good sense of humour and was willing to listen and give advice to a younger generation of climbers, said Kopp.

“His other trademark was his legendary cigar and he liked his schnapps.”

Heckmair died in Oberstdorf, Bavaria, on Tuesday after a brief stay in hospital.

He recalled his climbing experiences in several books. His autobiography, Eiger North Face, Grandes Jorasses and Other Adventures, was published in 1999.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

Born in 1906, Heckmair is considered one of the greatest mountaineers of the 20th century.
He led a four-man rope team to the summit of the Eiger in July 1938.
More than 700 people have successfully climbed the North face since his first ascent, but 50 others have died in the process.

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