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A Hike Below the Eiger with John Harlin

The mountains of Grindelwald are some of the most spectacular in Europe, and a recent hike through them with John Harlin provided a glimpse into mountaineering history
By Peter Potterfield - September 16th, 2008

Still looking boyish at 49, John Harlin speaks with intimate knowledge—and a sense of pride--as he points out on a map the direct  route on the North Wall of the Eiger that his father and Scottish climber Dougal Haston attempted together in 1966. The two of us are on a Swiss train headed up to the base of the Eiger two years after the younger Harlin made his own climb of the mountain's North Face. For me, it’s my first visit to the Eiger, so I’m excited to see the legendary Alpine face up close. 

Harlin’s father, also named John Harlin, had been the first American to do the standard route on Europe’s most feared big wall in 1962. He went back four years later with Haston to try a direct line up the face—in winter. The attempt, which pushed the limits of alpine climbing at the time, ended in tragedy. The elder Harlin was killed while jumaring up to a bivouac in an ice cave during the long siege. The climbing rope suddenly broke, sending him plummeting thousands of feet to his death. 

Now, more than 40 years later, I’ve come back with John Harlin to see the Eiger for myself, and to feel it’s powerful presence. We made the journey in September, often a month for stable—if cool—Alpine weather. While only a handful of climbers, such as Harlin, are motivated to take on the daunting objective of the Eiger, this is the Swiss Alps, where any fit hiker can stroll under and among these famous peaks. Hiking among these mountains and glaciers reveals the Alps' tremendous drawing power that has been bringing hikers and climbers here for more than a century. 

When the train coach—this is the famous Jungfrau Railway train loaded with tourists headed for the rail station at  Jungfraujock, the top of the Jungfrau--stops at Alpiglen, we gather our packs and get off so we can start our hike. It has been only a half-hour ride from the village of Grindelwald to this station stop, the beginning of the Eiger Trail. John and I leave the station and hike immediately into sprawling green meadows full of cows and goats. This part of the Swiss Alps is a veritable metaphor for alpine splendor, where towns nestle in green, narrow valleys, with farms and chalets spreading upward into the meadows rising from the villages until they gradually merge with the steeper mountain slopes above. Even experienced hikers from North America are amazed by Grindelwald, where the mountains are bigger, steeper and closer than one can imagine if you haven’t been here.  

John and I are starting our hike near the middle of one of the most impressive mountain walls in Switzerland, one that begins with the Wetterhorn, to the east, and the amazing Shreckhorn, with the Eiger near the center, and finally the Jungfrau and the Monk at the western end. The fact that a half hour rail journey puts us immediately below the storied North Face of the Eiger—the notoriously deadly Eiger Nordwand—proves that we are in civilized Switzerland, where hiking is aided and abetted by a polished networks of cable cars and railways. 

The trail is steep as we switchback uphill toward the very base of the face, which looms ominously above. It’s early morning, and chilly in the deep shadow of the towering face. I see John’s countenance take on a more serious expression the higher we get. For me, this is a hiking trip, a lark in the Swiss Alps in perfect September weather. For John, any return to the Eiger takes on a more somber tone. This mountain has loomed large in his existence: It took the life of his father, and, eventually, drove John himself to return after 40 years to climb the route himself. This lifelong involvement with the Eiger lead Harlin to write a book, the appropriately titled, Eiger Obsession, where he describes the complicated chain of events that led him to risk his own life to repeat the route climbed by his father.  

"I had serious trepidations about doing this climb" Harlin told me. "I first intended to climb the Eiger in 1979, but that changed after my climbing partner fell to his death. That really altered my attitude toward climbing. I stopped doing the really risky alpine routes. Still, I always had the feeling that I couldn't stay away forever. I knew I needed to one day attempt the North Face of the Eiger.” 

The Swiss countryside strikes me as being straight out of fairy tale as we continue uphill until gradually the pastures give way to alp slopes, then to scree. The trail skirts the very base of the route, passing the climbers track that leads to the start of the climb. Harlin pauses to point out the now-famous landmarks of the route: The Rote Flue, the  Swallows Nest, Difficult Crack, Death Bivouac, the Flat Iron, the Hinterstoisser Traverse, right up to the most famous feature of all, the White Spider. 

As he describes each section of the climb, I can see in John’s face  the unmistakable strain of decades, of what amounts to a near haunting.  This after all, is where his father died. And this is where Harlin himself came to face his own demons—successfully so. Harlin completed the climb in 2005, and the ascent became the centerpiece of a new IMAX movie, called The Alps. (See the trailer from that feature film.)

"I'm really proud of the film," Harlin said. "I got to climb the Eiger in the pure style that I wanted and at the same time, we were able to make a stunning movie that honors my father, the mountains, and life in the Alps themselves. I feel that the film is true to my life and to who I am. I think Dad would have been really pleased and proud."

This hiking trip, John's first visit to the Eiger since his historic climb, is meant to be more lighthearted—a romp through the very Alps that Harlin first saw as a young child, not another demanding climb. I think that for John, however, any visit to the Eiger is one bound to be loaded with emotion and family tragedy.

Even though we’ve gained a couple of thousand feet on the hike, we finish our route at yet another station of the Jungfrau Railway. Here we might have joined the train load of tourists riding up to the amazing station at the top of the Jungfrau, at more than 11,000 feet, an elaborate complex of restaurants and exhibits often called the “Roof of Europe.” But John and I actually take one of the downhill coaches, descending to the historic village of Kleine Scheidegg. There, from the deck of the old hotel, we can gaze up at the looming North Face of the Eiger, and over a glass of excellent Swiss beer, reflect on our different experience here. 

John and I would do yet more hikes and adventures here in the Alps, including the Via Ferratta—an engineered climbing route, with “staples” (metal steps) and cables driven into the rock—on the Tour D’Ai, above Leysin. But today, as we stared into the Eiger’s famous north wall from Kleine Scheidegg, would stand out for both us. We had been on the same hike today, but had seen different things. For John Harlin, the mountain was perhaps his ultimate test, one loaded with meaning and memories. For me, a week hiking among the peaks of Grindelwald was an opportunity to experience some of the most beautiful and accessible mountain scenery in the world.


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