SI Vault
 
TWO LIVES ON A TAUT CABLE
Jack Olsen
October 15, 1962
Inch by desperate inch up a wall of ice, the brave man on the end of the frail lifeline brings his human cargo closer to safety, while anxious men above on the mountain's summit and below in the valley watch helplessly. The attempt to rescue four climbers lost on the treacherous north wall of the Eiger is under way. In the previous installments from the book "The Climb Up To Hell" (Harper & Row), the two Italian climbers, Claudio Corti and Stefano Longhi, were trapped on separate ledges and close to exhaustion. The two Germans, Franz Mayer and Gunther Nothdurft, had continued upward, hoping to reach the top and summon help—and had then disappeared. This concluding installment begins as volunteers from half of Europe converge on the Eiger summit by more accessible routes than the north wall and plan their campaign against avalanche, ice, rockfall and storm
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October 15, 1962

Two Lives On A Taut Cable

Inch by desperate inch up a wall of ice, the brave man on the end of the frail lifeline brings his human cargo closer to safety, while anxious men above on the mountain's summit and below in the valley watch helplessly. The attempt to rescue four climbers lost on the treacherous north wall of the Eiger is under way. In the previous installments from the book "The Climb Up To Hell" (Harper & Row), the two Italian climbers, Claudio Corti and Stefano Longhi, were trapped on separate ledges and close to exhaustion. The two Germans, Franz Mayer and Gunther Nothdurft, had continued upward, hoping to reach the top and summon help—and had then disappeared. This concluding installment begins as volunteers from half of Europe converge on the Eiger summit by more accessible routes than the north wall and plan their campaign against avalanche, ice, rockfall and storm

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"We are having a little trouble," Friedli answered. Long minutes went by, and then the cable began to tense. Hellepart pressed his feet against the wall and pushed outward with all his strength so that he could keep the cable from fouling against the wall. Now the wind began to hum across the tightening thread of steel. It sounded to Hellepart like a giant violin string, starting on a low note and gradually whining higher as it tensed, until it had reached a screaming, piercing pitch. And still they did not move up from the ledge. He looked above him at the delicate strand and wondered for the first time, if it would hold.

Friedli's fears about the winch had increased when it became necessary to haul Hellepart back up 150 feet to find a better route down to the Italian. The men cranking the winch were barely able to lift Hellepart up to his new stance. "I do not think we can use the winch to pull the weight of two men," Friedli said. Gramminger agreed. While Hellepart was readying Corti for the ascent, the crew on top discarded the winch and shifted over to raw manpower. It was a quick improvisation, made possible by Friedli's foresight in ordering the pulling path dug into the south ridge. The cable went up the ridge and through a direction-changing roller. The roller steered the cable back along the pulling path, where 30 men were scrambling into position. At intervals of 20 feet, pulling ropes were attached to the cable by clamps which could be loosened and moved along to new positions as the men came up the wall.

With the voice of a Swiss drill sergeant, Friedli shouted to the men to pull away. They strained backwards against the pulling ropes, but nothing moved. More hands were added to the ropes. Still the cable did not budge. Fearful that the combined strength of all the rescuers would snap the lifeline, Friedli frantically waved them to a halt. Three security brakes on the cable were so constructed that the cable could be pulled through them, but at the slightest accidental downward movement they would clamp tightly shut. Friedli decided that this mechanical equipment must have jammed, and nervously went from device to device until he came to the one which had been fouled. He cleared the jam and ordered the crew to begin pulling again. The cable tensed and whined in the wind, and after a few long seconds the men could feel it begin to move.

Hellepart was coming up the mountain, his human cargo heavy on his back, the radio dangling clumsily in front of him. They swayed from side to side as the cable whipped them about. Every 50 feet Hellepart had to cling to the wall while the men on the summit secured the cable and moved up to new pulling positions. These were agonizing delays. Sometimes Hellepart had to stand upright on scallops of snow, with all the weight of Corti on his shoulders. Sometimes he had to kneel against a tiny ledge, gripping an outcropping of rock with his knees the way a jockey grips a horse. Whenever he kneeled against the wall, Corti would push his face into the snow and bite off mouthfuls. "Don't gobble so much snow!" Hellepart ordered. "It is bad for the stomach!"

The cable rasped over the last foot of the exit cracks after 40 minutes of the tortuous rise. The two men swung onto the summit ice field. Out of the shadow of the overhang, they could now feel the rays of the sun. "Che bello � il sole," Corti said in a strange, loud voice. "How beautiful the sun is." Then he slumped forward into a coma. Hellepart, recognizing this as a shock reaction, and knowing that men in a seriously weakened condition could die from it, forced the final 250 feet of the field. Up he came, staggering like a drunk under his heavy load. The men at the top knew that he was forcing, and increased their own pace, once pulling too far too fast and nearly wrenching Hellepart and Corti into the wet snow. Hellepart regained his balance, kicked through the sticky snow and finally, 59 minutes after the ascent had begun, stumbled with his cargo across the ridge.

Wrapped in blankets and placed in an ice hut, Claudio Corti seemed barely to understand what had happened. Out of a maze of contradictions and incoherences, the rescuers learned that he had not seen Nothdurft and Mayer since Friday, but he assumed that the Germans were clinging to a bivouac positioned somewhere up the exit cracks. Longhi was well down the mountain, but at least 300 feet farther to the east.

While a crew went off to prepare a new anchorage, Lionel Terray was lowered down the route taken by Hellepart to study the whole radiator grille of exit cracks for signs of the two Germans. On his descent he passed the spot where he had driven his last piton into the exit crack when he climbed the north face of the Eiger 10 years before. His eyes scanned the jagged cuts of the upper face, but he could not make out the slightest sign of life.

Terray had not come to the end of the second 300-foot section of cable when his radio transmitter failed. The crew above stopped lowering him as the silence continued. The minutes extended to an hour, then two hours. Heavy clouds were darkening the sky, and billows of mist came up from the valley. Light fluffs of snow began to blow around him. Far down the face he heard Longhi crying out, "Venite! Venite! Come! Come!" But he knew no help would reach the man below on this day. Already it was too late to begin a new descent, with the storm upon them.

Terray felt the vibrato of the cable as tension came back to it, and then he was on his way up, in a lurching, bruising blind ascent through clouds of snow. It was 3 o'clock when he reached the top. The rescue party now divided in the face of the storm, Terray and one group convoying Corti to safety down the west wall, and Friedli and the others preparing a new drop to Longhi. By 4 o'clock the full brunt of the blizzard was poised just above the summit and Friedli was forced to give the order to abandon the operation. The rescue equipment was stored in a bivouac hole. At 4:30 p.m. Friedli signed the mountaintop radio station off the air.

In the valley rain was falling heavily when this last call came from Friedli. At 5:20 a clear avenue opened in the billowing clouds, and watchers at Von Almen's hotel could see all the way up the face of the Eiger to Stefano Longhi's perch. There, standing in the center of the ledge, was the imprisoned man, his face turned upward toward the skies, his arms outstretched as though asking the heavens for a miracle. And then the clouds came together again, the rain beat harder, and a sudden darkness fell over the valley and the mountain.

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