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TWO MEN ON A WALL OF TERROR
Jack Olsen
October 08, 1962
The two mountain climbers shown here are trapped on separate ledges on the north wall of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps, a mile-high cliff that is the most treacherous in the world. They are the Italian half of a four-man team, Claudio Corti (left) and Stefano Longhi, whose assault on the Eiger in 1957 brought an aftermath of suspicion and mystery that still persists. In last week's installment from the book "The Climb Up to Hell" (Harper & Row) the Italians and two Germans, Gunther Nothdurft and Franz Mayer, met by wild coincidence on the wall and began to inch their way upward. In the valley below, veteran Alpinists, watching through telescopes, were at first puzzled and then frightened by the climbers' slow progress.
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October 08, 1962

Two Men On A Wall Of Terror

The two mountain climbers shown here are trapped on separate ledges on the north wall of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps, a mile-high cliff that is the most treacherous in the world. They are the Italian half of a four-man team, Claudio Corti (left) and Stefano Longhi, whose assault on the Eiger in 1957 brought an aftermath of suspicion and mystery that still persists. In last week's installment from the book "The Climb Up to Hell" (Harper & Row) the Italians and two Germans, Gunther Nothdurft and Franz Mayer, met by wild coincidence on the wall and began to inch their way upward. In the valley below, veteran Alpinists, watching through telescopes, were at first puzzled and then frightened by the climbers' slow progress.

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"My frozen hands, they would not hold anymore."

Corti called to the Germans to belay him while he tried to get to Longhi. He began lowering himself on the ice slope. From the beginning it was a perilous belay. Nothdurft desperately tried to maintain his own stance on a ledge a few inches wide; Mayer had to keep constant watch on his German comrade and at times found himself belaying both men as Nothdurft slumped into the rope. Corti went down to an outcropping about 60 feet above Longhi, but further progress meant a descent through the open air, and not even the heroic Mayer would be able to support the free-swinging weight.

"Take me up, Claudio!" Longhi pleaded.

But a few attempts at a direct lift showed immediately that the dead weight of the bulky Italian was too much for Corti in his weakened condition. He called on Mayer to join in the pull, but the ropes were placed in such a manner that all of Mayer's efforts only jammed Corti's hands against the ice. It was hopeless. Corti tried to jolly Longhi into helping himself up. But Longhi's strength was at an ebb; he clawed awkwardly at the wall with his frozen hands and could not budge upward from the ledge.

Corti lowered his bivouac sack with the remaining food and medicine through a snap link to the ledge below. Then he shouted down, "Stefano, I go to seek help. Tomorrow we come back to take you up. Stefano, can you hear me?"

"Yes," Longhi replied. "I'm all right. I'll wait for you."

Corti drove pitons into the rock ledge and fixed to them the two ropes going down to Longhi. Now no storms or winds could blow Stefano from the wall; the lifelines would protect him. Corti shouted, "Addio, Stefano, Coraggio! Coraggio!" and began the slippery climb back up through the mists.

In the valley the reaction to the climbers' slow progress was deepening concern and bewilderment. The rope seemed to have come to a standstill. Through an entire day Fritz von Almen could count only a few rope-length's climb. Robert Seiler and his handsome wife were on a climbing vacation on the nearby Wetter-horn when they heard of the climbers on the Eiger who were in difficulties. A short, chunky man with dark brown heavy-lidded eyes that made him look sleepy all the time, Seiler and three Swiss comrades had conquered the north face of the Eiger seven years before, despite a raging blizzard which overtook them on the fourth day. Peering through the double-barreled telescope at Von Almen's hotel, Seiler found himself baffled over the chances of the climbers. Above The Spider the only way out was a climb through the treacherous area of "exit cracks" running, like the face of a steam radiator, up to the summit snowfield. There Seiler and his ropemates had almost met death. Continual slides of rock rattled down the mountain alleys. One had no place to hide; one could only cover up, huddle against the side of the crack and hope for good luck.

Watching the climbers, Seiler wondered if there was enough good luck in the whole world to see them through these dangers. By now he knew that two of the climbers were Gunther Nothdurft and Franz Mayer, first-class Alpinists from Bavaria. But who were the other two? Seiler and his wife hiked across the meadow to the base of the wall, looking for clues to their identity. But there were no tents or other signs. The Seilers returned to their home in Bönigen, telling Von Almen that Seiler would stand by if help was needed.

Late in the afternoon Von Almen, who had watched and analyzed almost every climb on the north wall, was forced to the conclusion that the rope had reached the point where its chances of success were almost nil. But what to do about it? He knew the policies of the local guides and the Bernese government about rescues on the face. Von Almen went into his office and placed a call to Bönigen. "Seiler?" he said when the voice came on. "They are going to need help."

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