The first ascent of the Eiger is a minor anecdote in mountaineering annals, compared with the conquest of the Eiger North Face 80 years later. After a wave of historic climbs to alpine summits during the 19th century, mountaineers looked for the most difficult route to the top. Many found the ultimate challenge on the Eiger North Face.
Since the first ascent in 1938, nearly 60 people have lost their lives trying to climb the formidable north face. In 1957, an Italian climber died and rescuers were unable to reach his body. For two years it hung there, a macabre symbol of the "wall of death."
The accident occurred nearly 100 years after a successful Irish jockey, Charles Barrington, became the first to climb the Eiger by ascending the west flank. That feat was acknowledged as yet another British alpine conquest in the golden age of mountaineering. But nothing more. The Eiger, as any experienced climber could see, was smaller in stature than neighbouring peaks and the west flank offered a relatively easy approach.
Most of the top climbers struck the Eiger from their list and it would have to wait decades before attracting a new generation of mountaineers. In the meantime, the British continued to lead the alpine charge, conquering peak after peak. By the mid-1880s, all the significant summits had been reached.
On to the Himalayas
Mountaineer Martin Conway rekindled the romanticism of climbing in the Alps with a classic three-month traverse of the whole range, immortalised in his 1895 book, "The Alps from End to End."
But times were changing. Climbing techniques slowly began to advance, and after the First World War, mountaineering in the Alps developed into a competition. Then British climbers abandoned the Alps for the Himalayas, and a new breed of mountaineer, of German, Austrian and Italian nationality, began the alpine ascent.
They dared go where no climber had gone - up the sheer north face of the peaks. Until then, the northern routes had been considered impossible, but the new climbers had been emboldened by the development of equipment such as pitons and karabiners.
The fascist governments of Italy and Germany encouraged the climbers. Mussolini awarded Italians who had accomplished extreme ascents with medals, and Hitler personally congratulated two young German brothers after they made the first ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn in 1931.
The last problem
The following year, a Swiss team successfully tackled the eastern edge of the Eiger North Face. All that was left was a direct route, 1,800 metres straight up the wall. It became the "last problem in the Alps."
A final series of north face assaults began in 1935, led by the Germans and Austrians. Climbers made several attempts; many died. Some were poorly equipped, and either lost their grip and fell onto the rocks below, or froze to death on the wall. Local authorities vainly tried to ban further attempts to scale the north face.
In July 1938, two pairs of climbers set out separately for the wall - one pair from Austria, the other from Germany. The Austrian team of Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek were first off the mark. But lacking crampons, they were overtaken by Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg.
The Germans, sponsored by the Nazi government, were well equipped; Heckmair was rated his country's best climber. He took the lead of the joint effort, and after three and a half days, the four men reached the top.
The last problem of the Alps had been solved.