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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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"All right," said Seiler. "Let's start something."

There began, for Seiler, a six-hour marathon of rounding up, by telephone, his own coterie of elite climbers. It was the holiday season, and some of them were away. Seiler reached one in Cha-monix, another in Marseille, others in the resorts of Switzerland. To a man, they agreed to drop everything and meet Seiler the next morning at the airport in Interlaken, where planes of the Swiss Air Rescue Service would fly them up to the meadow below the face.

The four climbers had now been visible on the face for five days; all Europe was watching the drama. At 7 on Friday morning, almost at the moment Stefano Longhi fell, a news report over the Bavarian radio system announced that weather conditions were bad on the Eiger, and there was no hope that the two ropes could be brought to safety. Ludwig Gramminger, the ranking authority on Alpine rescues, heard the report as he was shaving in his little home in Munich. A short, merry troll of a man, with one eye, a flowing mane of wavy gray-brown hair and the bulging leg muscles of a master climber, Gramminger ran to the phone with his face half-covered with lather and called the radio station. Where had they picked up the report and who had decided there was no hope?

The station gave him the name of Willi Balmer, chief of the Grindelwald rescue station. Gramminger rang through to Grindelwald and confirmed that the news had, indeed, originated with Balmer. "I would like to come with my men and see what can be done," Gramminger told Balmer. "But of course it is out of the question unless you give your permission." Mountain rescue groups did not compete with each other.

"I will let you know," Balmer said. "I promise to call you back with a decision."

On the chance that his help would be welcomed, Gramminger remained at the telephone, alerting members of the Mountain Guard and trying to arrange for a rapid passage into Switzerland. Gramminger had been hauling the living and dead off mountains for nearly 30 years. He had invented dozens of rescue devices: winch-and-cable equipment for lowering rescuers down mountainsides, brakes and pulleys for controlling the descents, a back-pack harness in which injured or unconscious climbers could be hauled to safety. He owned almost nothing; all his patents had been turned over to the Mountain Guard and the Red Cross and his lectures and training courses in rescue techniques were free.

An hour went by before Gramminger picked up his ringing telephone and heard the voice of Balmer, agreeing, with no show of enthusiasm, to permit the Mountain Guard to lend a hand. Soon Alfred Hellepart and several other members arrived at the Mountain Guard headquarters and began loading Gramminger's little Volkswagen station wagon with the red cross on its side. At one in the afternoon, with Gramminger at the wheel, they roared out of Munich. They picked up four more members of the rescue group on the way, and crossed the Swiss border to Alten Rhine. Gramminger drove at breakneck speed toward the passes of Switzerland.

At about 10 in the morning that same day Corti and the Germans left Longhi on the ledge. His fall, and the attempts to haul him up, had cost the rope three hours. Clouds of rain dashed against the face as the tiring climbers headed across the upper edge of The Spider. Rockslides and avalanches missed them by a few feet. After several hours they reached the exit cracks, penultimate problem of the north wall. Now they were only 700 feet from the top, and less than that from the relatively easy summit snowfield.

Corti was hammering in pitons as the lead man on the rope, a few feet above the others, when a rock tumbled down the face and hit him in the head. He lost his balance and fell backwards, alternately spinning through space and ricocheting off the slope. He jerked up hard against the rope, 60 feet below the others, dangling head down over the hanging ice of The Spider. The blood from a long gash on his head spilled in crimson drops into the air, and he felt himself losing consciousness. "Pull!" he shouted in Italian. "Pull the rope!"

After long seconds the Germans understood, and Corti was maneuvered into a vertical position. He swung on the rope, grabbed at an outcropping and hugged himself to the wall. Now Mayer dropped down a few feet to a more secure stance on a ledge. Hauling at the rope, he helped Corti regain the 60 feet. Head spinning and face encrusted with blood, Corti was half-delirious. "We are not yet defeated by this mountain!" he announced wildly. He stood up to continue the ascent, but his wobbly knees buckled under him. He mumbled his thanks to the two Germans while Mayer cleaned the wound with snow and bound it with muslin. And then Corti realized that Mayer was trying to say something to him. "Tomorrow at 5 o'clock," Mayer was saying. He handed Corti the red bivouac tent. "Tomorrow at 5 o'clock," Mayer said again, and then the two Germans snapped onto the rope for the climb upward. Corti watched them climb 10, 20, 30 feet. Then he saw them pause, smile wanly at him and vanish upward in the mists.

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