Even in his 90s, the German mountaineer Anderl Heckmair still enjoyed his evening whisky and cigar. A popular guest at climbing film festivals around the world, he would sit wreathed in smoke with a twinkle in his eye as young climbers introduced themselves, eager to shake hands with the man who led the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger.
Heckmair had seen it all. His brilliant 1938 climb with three companions up the Eigerwand, notorious for its rock falls and sudden, violent storms, is still regarded as one of the greatest expressions of mountaineering skill in history. Reinhold Messner, perhaps the most celebrated living climber, thought the three-day ascent “a work of art”.
Quite what Heckmair would have made of Dani Arnold is another question. In April this year, Arnold climbed Heckmair’s route in just 2hrs 28mins, a jaw-dropping record that stunned the Alpine climbing scene.
The scale of Arnold’s effort, two years in the planning, is mind-boggling. The psychological pressure on such a gloomy mountain wall, passing landmarks such as “Death Bivouac” is obvious. A lot has changed since 1938 but the Eiger is still a dangerous place, even for a roped climber. Yet, for speed, Arnold climbed without anything to catch him if he fell. One loose handhold or falling stone and he would be dead – but he had to push such thoughts from his mind. “I didn’t even think for a moment about falling,” he says.
Apart from the danger, the athletic demands were huge. The north face itself is a gigantic amphitheatre, 1,600m in vertical height. Working every day as a guide in the mountains, the 27-year-old says he didn’t need to do any special training. He had climbed the route several times, so knew its secrets. The real challenge was getting his head right for the intense concentration required – he turned back on a couple of earlier attempts because he didn’t feel right. But Arnold’s Eiger ascent wasn’t the only mind-blowing speed ascent this year. In August, 22-year-old Andreas Steindl sprinted up the Matterhorn in just 2hrs 57mins, starting at Zollhaus, on the outskirts of Zermatt. That’s a vertical gain of 2,915m, twice the height of Ben Nevis. And while the Matterhorn’s Hörnli Ridge, first climbed by Edward Whymper in 1865, is a much easier proposition than the Eiger’s north face, the distance involved is much further.
Most climbers attempting the Matterhorn take the cable car to Schwarzsee, a pretty tarn at 2,500m much visited by hikers, and then walk a further two hours to the Hörnli mountain hut at the foot of the mountain. After a night there, they continue at around 4.30am, with the climb itself taking most parties another six to eight hours. Steindl left Zermatt at 4.05am, using running shoes and ski poles approaching the peak, before switching to boots and crampons. He was on the summit just after 7am.
Putting the mountain off-limits to other members of the public wasn’t an option, so Steindl had to overtake about 90 other climbers on his way to the top, not easy on a steep mountain that claims a dozen lives each year, although he said he was buoyed by their words of support. Arnold faced the same problem on the Eiger, passing 20 roped parties, including fellow guide Simon Anthamatten and his client. Anthamatten was the previous record holder on the Matterhorn.
Arnold’s most anxious moments came while passing some climbers at the end of the so-called “Traverse of the Gods”, which leads back into the centre of the face, just before the final difficult section. “Having all of those people on the route also had advantages,” Arnold says. “They’d made a good path and most of the holds were free of snow. The disadvantages of course were that I’d sometimes have to wait maybe one or two minutes to pass.” That suggests it might be possible to go even faster, although Arnold says he is finished setting records on the Eiger.
Despite his youth, Steindl is not just a fast climber but a top skier and trail runner too, reflecting the narrowing gap between mountaineering and mountain racing, or “skyrunning”. Zermatt isn’t just famous for the Matterhorn but hosts two of the most prestigious cross-country mountain races in the world: the legendary Patrouille des Glaciers – a high-altitude ski-mountaineering event held in April – and July’s Zermatt marathon. One of the team that holds the record for the Patrouille’s 53km course is Florent Troillet, who, along with Anthamatten, held the Matterhorn record until Steindl’s effort this summer.
Catalonian skier and ultra-running legend Kilian Jornet, three-time winner of the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc race, has also shown an interest in speed ascents. He holds the record for the fastest ascent of Kilimanjaro, reaching the summit of Africa’s highest peak in 5hrs 22mins. Jornet makes no secret of his admiration for the Italian mountain runner Bruno Brunod. In 1995, Brunod ran from Cervinia, on the Italian side of the Matterhorn, to the summit and back in just 3hrs 14mins, a record that really has stood the test of time and one that Jornet would love to add to his tally.
Are climbers in danger of turning the mountains into a racetrack?
“Climbers have always compared the speed of their ascents,” says Ueli Steck, who held the north face of the Eiger record until Arnold’s climb. And though the speed and style of climbing has been transformed, the danger isn’t much less than it was in Heckmair’s day. “The more you do it,” says Steck, “the more things can go wrong.”’
Ueli Steck and Chris Bonington will speak about their Eiger experiences at a fundraising event for the Mountain Heritage Trust at the Royal Geographical Society in London on December 1; www.mountain-heritage.org