Eric Perlman, 35, of Truckee, Calif., who has been scaling mountains since he was 16, set out in June 1985 to do something no American had done: to climb in a single season the six classic north faces of Europe—Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Matterhorn, Dru, Piz Badile, Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses and the Eiger. Perlman said early on that success was "a tremendous long shot, and almost everyone I know is betting against it." Yet he tried. Here is Perlman's chronicle of what happened—and what didn't happen.
Battleship clouds attack our wall, black and bristling, but we climb farther up the cold face and move deeper into a place with no retreat. Ice blocks as big as boulders crash down the wall and rake our route of ascent. Today is June 19, and we are halfway up the Cima Grande di Lavaredo in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy, the first of the six faces I plan to climb between now and September. My partner, Bill Anderson, 30, is retching from time to time, penance for last night's drinking with four iron-bellied Germans. Occasionally he is hit by abdominal seizures. We probably shouldn't have climbed today, but all we've done all week is watch raindrops spatter the grimy windows of mountain rest stops. When the sky cleared this morning—our first good day since coming to Europe seven days ago—we grabbed the chance and flung ourselves at the mountain.
But this morning's good weather is now long gone. On every rope length I face at least a 100-foot fall—there are so few spots to place protective hardware on this blank, rotten limestone. Aiming for speed, we don't even stop for food and water. Somewhere above us, swallowed in clouds, is the finish.
The dim light of day begins to fade. Now the race is really on. We can't spend the night here, dangling in harnesses. We scramble up, hungry for the summit. At last, in a swirling fog, we make it. Our exhilaration is greatly tempered, though, because we're too late even to think about getting down tonight.
We sip water and nibble raisins, our first and only food of the day. We congratulate each other for our first climbing success in Europe. Now all we need to do is survive. We stack stones into a 1½-foot-high wind wall—a bivouac circle with a floor of dirt, stone and snow. The hours flow like cold syrup. Sleep comes in two-minute segments between shivering fits. We have nothing but time to ask ourselves, What the hell are we doing here?
We're the only climbers for miles around. All the Europeans have the good sense to stay home—it's June, but still winter here. We've come a little early to get a jump on the climbing season. With first light we shake off the snow, sip water and begin to search for what is usually a well-marked route down. Today, markings are buried in snow. We have no clues, but we also have no choice. We can stay here and freeze, or march into the murk. We march, and we are lucky. After eight hours we're down. The gravestones of less fortunate climbers lie scattered at the base of the peak. Picking our way through them, we head for food and bed at the local alpine hut.
The hutkeeper's wife cries out when she sees us. In machine-gun Italian she asks, "Are you hurt? Where'd you sleep? I called for the rescue team." The team leader had told her conditions were too ugly to mount a rescue. "If the Americans are still out there when the storm clears, we'll come look for them," he had said. Retrieve the bodies is what he meant. The storm won't clear for days.
We take a train for Switzerland and head for our next objective—the Matterhorn. The next thing we know we're in the village of Zermatt, elbow-jabbed by 30 kinds of tourists. Zermatt is a lot like Disneyland, except the mountains aren't concrete and paint.
We steam up the trail toward the perfect pyramid tower of the Matterhorn, barely believing that European weather could be so windless and clear. Bill and I check into a funky hut at about 10,000 feet. We eat, drink and try to sleep in the huge community bed (20 mattresses laid side by side), then roust ourselves at 2 a.m. We stomp toward the big front door when—crash...two Italian climbers burst in. They say they left at midnight to beat us up the north face, but the snow up there is thigh deep and rotten. They tell us the route is impossible and get back into bed.
Hoisting our packs, we head out the door. Thirty seconds up the trail, snow begins falling from a thick, gray sky. Maybe it's just a passing flurry. The flurry turns into a furious whiteout. Our headlamps cut barely four feet into the swirling gloom, and after 20 minutes of wallowing up to our knees, we decide to join the Italians in the community bed.
Two feet of powder falls in six hours. The next morning the hutkeeper says that this freak storm has made the north face unclimbable for the next three weeks. We wade down to Zermatt and check out our other climbing objectives. All are in worse shape than the Matterhorn. We go swimming on the Riviera and hit some French rock-climbing spots to stay in shape.
Finally, a good long-range forecast sends us back to the Matterhorn. It is now late July, and at the hut would-be climbers are packed 30 to the bed. But we have come prepared with sleeping bags, stove and tent, and pitch camp a few hundred yards away. While the rest of the climbers snore and squirm, we watch the stars and then snooze. At 2 a.m. we brew tea and shove in calories; by 3:15 we're on the glacier. We pass four Swiss climbers on the initial ice fields.
As daylight colors the east, we come onto the massive Matterhorn couloir and discover two horrible truths: 1) For all its beauty, the Matterhorn is a decomposing rubble heap of steep, rotten rock; and 2) there's no way to prevent loose rocks from peeling off underfoot and crashing down on the helpless climbers below. Fortunately, the Swiss move slowly, and a margin opens between us. Still, every time some 50-pound chunk of death plunges down toward the Swiss, we cringe. The ice is only a couple of inches thick, so our ice screws catch only a few threads before hitting underlying stone. That'll hold about 40 pounds. Worse, the rock is so shattered and rotten that pounding in a piton is like jamming a stick into gravel—it doesn't take much to pull it out.
The climbing terrain goes from rock to ice, then back to rock. We pull out ice axes, strap steel-toothed crampons onto our boots and climb with these for 100 feet, then take off the ice gear and scale the rock. Then we put it all on again for another few hundred feet. On, off, on, off. After more than 16 hours of climbing, we scramble onto the summit. We allow ourselves five minutes to shout at the westering sun, then we hightail it, full speed, toward a tiny wooden shelter halfway down the easy side of the mountain.
Two down and four more peaks to go—not much of an accomplishment after six weeks in Europe. We had better get good weather from now on, or we'll never make it.
Next stop is Chamonix in eastern France, the mountaineering capital of Europe and base camp for two more objectives—the north face of the Dru and the monstrous Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses. We head for the Brasserie Nationale, a bar that is the unofficial headquarters for English-speaking climbers in Chamonix. There we learn that our recommended local guide/adviser has been killed the previous week by falling ice and that conditions have been as miserable here all summer as everywhere else in Europe. Dean Hobbs, 33, a lanky climber from Bishop, Calif., tells me he's looking for a partner.
Rain falls on Chamonix for a week and a half. Wind, fog and snow also take their turns. We make frequent trips to the Chamonix weather board, where maps, upper-air charts and three-day forecasts are updated every four hours. It's stupid. Yesterday's forecasts called for sun, yet today we are sloshing around in rain suits to read tomorrow's predictions. They are always wrong. Day after day we return to study the forecasts.
Finally it looks like a good weather window is opening. Clear tonight, clear tomorrow, with thundershowers to follow. If we move fast, maybe we can zip up the Dru's north face and get down before that storm hits.
We rush back to camp, pack and catch the last aerial tram of the day to a point from which we can walk to the start of the Dru the next day. The tram hauls us up into a cloud so thick we can't even find the start of the trail. We wait at the tram station for the cloud to lift. It hangs close until just before dark, then explodes into a snowstorm. Climbers come fleeing out of the backcountry. Snow bullets pepper the metal roof and blow through the walls and cracked windows.
The next morning dawns cold and clear, but our climbing route is covered with snow, brittle and white—too hazardous to try. Bill and I ride the tram back down to the valley in silence. He has had enough. He's finished. Once down, I take him to the train station. Four peaks left, only six weeks to go, and now no partner. I glance across the valley at the Dru and curse its snowy face.
But suddenly it's melting! All that fresh snow is dripping off the north face in wet, black streaks, and even though it looks sloppy, it may be climbable within a day! I race back to town and into the Brasserie, where I find long Dean Hobbs, all 6'2" of him, with his legs draped over a chair. "Dean, old buddy," I cry, "let's go climb something big."
"Sure," he replies.
Our plan of attack is risky. We know a storm is predicted for the following night, but the forecasts have been consistently wrong and we figure we'll punch it—get as far as we can and hole up if the weather does happen to turn nasty. We hop the tram in the morning and cross the glacier to the foot of the Dru. Big Dean and I are an unlikely pair. We're both red-haired and strongly built, but my chest barely reaches his belt. I take two steps to each one of his, but we move at the same speed.
Dean leads up the Dru. He grovels and flails like a gaffed fish up a soggy chimney, and I can tell already that it's going to be a long day. A hundred feet of un-roped snow climbing puts us on a snow-covered terrace. A pair of Frenchmen in colorful headbands and soggy shoes string ropes to retreat. "Too much snow and ice," they say, shrugging.
A hundred feet more of snow climbing leads to ice-plastered granite. I grab a 70-pound block set in snow and heave myself upward on it. The block pulls loose in my hands! I teeter with it, unroped. "Run," I yell at Dean below. He dives out of the way and I let go of the block and leap aside. It careers down the route, striking sparks as it falls.
Obviously, this mountain is not as solid as it looks. Eventually we reach a stretch of dry granite. I break out a secret weapon. Tucked inside my heavy plastic mountaineering boots are a pair of high-friction, precision rock shoes. Dean is glad to let me lead. It's faster, and with the rock so badly plastered in ice and snow, we'll need every minute of daylight we can get.
Dean and I race upward. All day we hug the ice-encrusted stone. We chop fingerholds in the ice with a hammer. We kick at the snow for footholds. Hope flares as we see the top, three rope lengths—just 150 yards—above us. But then it starts to snow.
The rock grows instantly slick. My smooth-soled climbing shoes will soon be like roller skates. It's time for one last burst of speed, and just as the face turns into a sheet of wet glass, we hit the top. We are able for a moment to get to the lightning-scarred metal Madonna marking the summit, then the falling snowflakes thicken and we can't see 20 feet in any directon. But Dean stays cool. As last daylight fades, he rappels 70 feet down through the gloom and finds a perfect ledge—dead flat and wide enough for two. It's tucked under a steep sloping wall, and some earlier climbing team has already built a wind wall of rocks.
We've brought the works in our climbing packs—sleeping bags, extra clothes, food. This should be fun—a camping trip on top of the Dru. We munch some crackers and settle in for the night. Snow-flakes drift down on us, but we stay warm and dry and peaceful....
Then at 1:20 a.m. a crack of thunder explodes just above our heads, rolling and roaring with deafening force. Lightning stabs all around, so hard and bright I can see the burst through my pulled-down hat, sleeping bag and bivouac sac.
A howling, snarling lightning cloud is surging at us out of the west. It swallows us in its sizzling mass. Climbers die from lightning strikes every year in the Alps.
Ka-whomp! Oh, my God, I'm hit! I've been kicked in the head by cruel light. There's no escape. Lightning engulfs the summit spire. Electricity fires up the bitter-cold air. We cling to our tiny ledge as if it's a life raft. Hunched small as mice, we wait.
Ka-whomp! I'm hit again. This time a slap in the knee where it touches the wet granite wall. Thunder bellows. The lightning reels across the summit. Another flash burns our eyes, but not our flesh. The air pressure is changing. The storm is moving on.
Dean and I lie terrified, breathing in staccato bursts. Sometime before morning the adrenaline subsides, and we slip into restless sleep.
The next day dawns nasty and gray. Snow buries the descent route. It takes the entire day to climb down the Dru.
Dean and I get back to Chamonix and say goodby. He leaves, I go into the Brasserie Nationale, which is jammed with loud-talking Brits. They suck their cigarettes and talk up their latest climbs. A message board in the back corner is crammed with climbers' messages in 10 languages: "Used rope for sale...."
"Beginning climbing partner wanted...."
"Whoever stole our tent, we're going to use your face for crampon practice...."
Tacked to a corner I see: "Eric Perlman, let's climb—Marc T"
Marc Twight, 24, a hot young climber from Seattle, has been building a reputation for bold solos on big, dangerous peaks. Back home he and I had talked by phone about climbing together in Europe this summer. We had never met, but I liked his phone style—cocky, aggressive and bright. I wade through the rain to the appointed meeting spot and find a man with a spiky black beard and a white streak dyed down the part line of his black hair. This is Marc Twight. This should be interesting.
A new storm dumps 3½ feet at the upper elevations. Every helicopter rescue service in the Alps is swamped with business, plucking the snowbound and injured off the peaks. When the snow finally stops, every Alpine route we want is an avalanche trap. My patience wears out. "I don't care if we have to dig, swim or tunnel, let's go get something done," I say. Marc agrees with a grisly cackle. We load up a rented clunker and motor across 200 miles of sweltering Italian cornfields, arriving at the base of the Piz Badile in twilight. The entire top half is blanketed in snow. It gleams and shines and makes me sick. The Piz Badile is a rock climb. The first ascent, in 1937, was a three-day epic of storm and exhaustion that took the lives of two Italians. For us, wet snow on the granite slabs could triple the climbing time. Or maybe this time the route really is "impossible."
The next day we drive toward St. Moritz to examine the Piz Badile from another angle. The face looks just as snowy and grim...but wait! A thin ribbon of black rock threads through the wall of white. It looks close to the line of the climbing route. But when we arrive at the alpine hut at the foot of the Piz Badile, European climbers laugh at us. They say that this route won't be climbable for at least a week, and maybe not until next year. I look at Marc. He turns down his Sony Walkman, which he wears permanently plugged into his ears, and says with a sneer, "I'd rather be forced back by bad conditions than wimp out and never try." He turns the volume back up.
We rise at 3 a.m., peer out and immediately go back to sleep. Dense, wet fog obliterates all visibility. We wait a day. The next morning at 3 a.m. the sky is clear. We hurry up the trail, cross snow-fields, top a granite ridge and see the face up close. We can't believe it. The gleaming slabs of white have disappeared, just in the last two days. The wall is wet, but it's rock, not ice. We stuff our ice tools deep in the pack and hit the climbing surface hard and fast. Running water splashes down almost every crack. Snow and ice fill the gullies. But morning sunshine sweeps the face and dries the rock before our eyes. Strange as he looks, Marc is a swift, skilled climber. Even loaded with bivouac gear and extra food, we devour the altitude so fast we howl with laughter as we race up the rock. Seven hours later we finish the route. How could we climb this monumental face so fast? With a mystical grin, Marc reveals the voodoo totem he has been carrying—a beige teddy bear dressed in climbing harness. "This is Hermes," he says. "He brings good luck."
Back to Chamonix we go (Hermes, too, of course), and back to the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses. As usual, preliminary inquiries tell us we're nuts—the route is "impossible." We'll go for it the next day.
A two-hour hike across the Mer de Glace glacier puts us at the Leschaux hut, an oversized aluminum Kleenex box perched on a hillside in full view of the Walker Spur. We arrive early and study the face with binoculars. It's huge, the biggest one yet—1,000 feet higher than Yosemite's El Capitan. And it is heavily laced with snow and ice.
Climbers arrive in pairs and threesomes throughout the afternoon. By nightfall the hut overflows with bodies. The ruckus begins at about 12:45 a.m. as eager early climbers, rushing to dress and pack, step on each other and clatter across the hut. There is no point trying to sleep. We rise, guzzle tea and head onto the glacier by headlamp. It's tricky picking through crevasses when everything is gray.
A pair of Swiss climbers reaches the bottom of the wall two minutes before us. We pause and watch while they set to work. There's no sense crowding on a wall as big as this, not with the constant risk of being hit by rockfall from climbers close above. But as we wait, streams of other climbers arrive from the glacier—all hot to jump on the Walker Spur. There must be a dozen of them, with more on the way. Their headlamp beams spear the darkness, crisscrossing in confusion. Some climbers try to elbow us aside and take our place at the head of the line. This is typical European Alpine courtesy. We elbow them back and attack the short ice wall with axes and crampons. We cross the ice, gain the rock slabs above, slip off our crampons and commence the marathon to the top.
The Walker Spur is more like a race than a climb. A continuous stream of multicolored ropes and laboring bodies stretches a thousand feet down the face. Faster teams overtake and pass the slower, then tire, pause to rest and are passed themselves. We are able to keep the No. 2 position, just behind the front group of Swiss. They are quick, skilled climbers and drop no rocks down on us, bless their hearts.
Marc and I are 1,200 feet up the wall when daylight comes. A cold morning wind rakes over us and numbs our fingers. We keep on with the steady routine of the climb. Reach, pull, step, reach. The hours roll on as we make our moves in this game of gymnastic chess. We climb as hard and as fast as we can, but the summit never really seems to get any closer to us. This baby is huge!
Climbers now stretch continuously 2,000 feet down the face below us. This isn't a raceway anymore, it's a superhighway. This is the end of the traditional European August vacation. Every Alpine hot rod in Chamonix wants to lay some rubber on this rock as a crowning finish to the climbing season. Never mind the snow and dicey weather, the gang's all here. At least we aren't lonely, but that isn't necessarily a good thing.
Dangers multiply as we begin to catch and pass teams which had slept on the wall the night before. Many of them have now been climbing two days and tired climbers tend to be sloppy. Above us, two Welshmen bellow and thrash like cattle in quicksand. They kick a continuous rain of snow and rocks down the route. They are the most hazardous pair on the mountain this morning.
Marc and I move up toward them like commandos. We hide behind outcrops and slip into corners, creeping ever closer. At last we strike—but only with soft words: "Excuse us, gentlemen, may we pass? No, please don't move aside; stay just as you are. Well, perhaps you could take your boot off my hand...." Mission accomplished, Marc and I flee upward.
Amazingly, we see that the sun is sinking in the west. Can it be? We have been climbing nonstop for 17 hours. Our punctured hands are dripping blood on the rock. The last light is almost gone. But there's the summit just ahead! We turn on the speed in a last desperate burst.
Daylight disappears. The stars return. We strap on our headlamps and finish the climb as we started—our puny little beams cutting through the threatening gray. We pull ourselves up onto the final snow cornice, we shake hands and check off another win.
We see now that the back side of the Walker Spur is solid snowfields. A hundred yards below us we see more than a dozen headlamps. A crowd of climbers is digging snow trenches for shelter from the wind. We join a group of six, pulling off our helmets to use as snow scoops. Soon we have a big enough pit for all. Four more exhausted climbers stumble down to join us, 12 for the night. We stuff ourselves into the trench like zucchinis in a crate. Two Americans (us), two Swiss, the two Welshmen, five Spaniards and a Mexican all lie down together in the snow pit, shivering and snoring while the winds scream across the trench rim inches overhead.
"Hermes didn't help much this time," I say to Marc before we sleep.
"I didn't bring him."
I shiver awhile, mulling that one over. "Well, bring Hermes next time. We need all the luck we can get."
"I will, I will."
We have saved the worst for last. From bottom to top the north wall of the Eiger is 5,250 feet of towering nightmare. The ascent route snakes 10,000 twisted feet back and forth through loose rock, boilerplate ice, rotten snow and falling debris. Throughout the 1930s, European climbers marched boldly onto the Eiger and died one after another. Outraged citizens called for a ban on Eiger attempts. Foolish young men must be protected from themselves, they said. Then, in 1938, the Eiger's north face was at last climbed by two Germans and two Austrians in four brutal days. Hitler gave them a parade and claimed the triumph for the German Reich. The climbers replied calmly that they did it for themselves.
Today, at the same time we are riding up the mountain on the cogwheel Jung-frau railway, a helicopter is plucking a team of stranded climbers off the face. A storm has trapped them for three days. Taking their cue, we purchase a sort of helicopter rescue insurance policy. For $10 each we become members of the Swiss Air Rescue Club. The logic is inescapable: Nonmembers pay up to $1,000 for a bailout by chopper; members pay nothing.
Marc brings Hermes the teddy bear, and we believe that his presence has increased our team strength incalculably. We also have a grizzly bear with us now, one Allen Bradley, 25, a strapping climber from Boulder, Colo. Allen showed up in Chamonix with such an intense desire to do in the Eiger that we decided to expand our team.
We pitch camp at the foot of the wall, sleep a few hours, then get up at 2 a.m. for takeoff. The night is so bright that I turn off my headlamp and move by starlight. For all its beauty the snow is disgusting to climb. We had hoped for firm ice, the quickest terrain. Instead we have fluff and wet slop, which is the slowest. The initial Eiger rock slabs are supposed to be easy, but they aren't today. Our feet skitter and our fingers slip on the icy ooze. We don't break out the ropes because there's no place to put in protective hardware. Tied on to ropes, if one of us falls, we will all die. Unroped, if one blows it, he blows it alone.
We do have one slim advantage: Marc had tried to climb the Eiger last year. Bad weather and snow conditions turned him back then, but he is vaguely familiar with the first half of the route, and he is packing a grudge.
With Marc's half-remembered sense of direction and a half-franc postcard for a map, we alternate leads up the face. We grab anything, kick everything, fighting and scrambling our way up the wall. Armed with sharpened ice axes, one in each hand, and wearing razor-point crampons on his boots, Allen hacks brutally at the ice and shouts with laughter. By contrast, Marc leads with cool precision. By further contrast, I lead like a pit bull—sink in teeth, lockjaw and don't let go, ever.
The climbing is slow, but we make steady gains. Then the rising sun hits the frozen face, and it suddenly becomes a melting hell. Rocks, snow blocks and ice-pellet shrapnel begin exploding around our heads in the tepid warmth of the sun. We are getting close to the Death Bivouac, where two Eiger pioneers froze to death in their sleep, but pinned down in this withering hail of debris, we may never make it that far.
Marc and Allen want to wait until night falls and refreezes the face. If we do that, we won't sleep before midnight. I want to risk it, to hurry from protected alcove to alcove, then make one mad dash through the worst of the falling projectiles—and pray. We try this foolhardy plan. It works without injury. Risk is as much a climber's tool as a rope.
We reach the Death Bivouac by nightfall. We stomp the snow into semiflatness and zip into our sleeping bags. Marc fires up the stove for fresh water from snowmelt. Even with our bodies crammed into crannies and our legs dangling free in the air, we're glad to be here. We're proud of what we did today. We face tomorrow with hope—and with a certain horror.
The next day we move slowly. Every pitch (rope length) of rock is coated with ice. And every pitch of ice is vertical, bulging, fluted and fragile. It takes hours to climb a distance that might take minutes in better conditions. We push as hard and as fast as we can, nursing a hope that we'll make it to the top today. Marc and Allen are particularly eager to push on because they ran out of food this morning. But then the afternoon sun strikes the face, and the bombing begins again.
I lead across the long Traverse of the Gods to the edge of the dreaded ice field called the White Spider. I turn the corner of a rock wall, take one look and fall back, trying to disappear into the wall. It's a bowling alley out there! Hurtling masses of ice blocks and big stones are rocketing down the face.
I shout back to the guys to take in the rope. "Hey, reel me in! Get me out of here!"
No! Stay there! We're going for it!" Allen yells back.
"Oh yeah? Come look!"
Marc moves to my hiding spot, peeks out and sees the death zone ahead. "You want to go out there? Go ahead," I say.
He changes his mind instantly. We reverse three rope lengths to the last flat spot—a ledge where the team before ours got plucked off by rescue chopper. We lay out our sleeping pads for an afternoon of sunbathing and rock-dodging. Marc plugs into his Walkman and dandles Hermes on his knee. Allen watches a moment, perplexed by the sight of a grown man fondling a teddy bear. Then, he ventures a guess. "I'll bet that teddy bear reels in women like a fly rod."
Marc flushes. His secret has been found out at last.
Allen laughs. "I'll bet they go, 'Oohhh, how cute,' and think you're the sensitive type."
"It works," says Marc, embarrassed. He turns up the tunes on the Walkman.
We split my remaining few rations and stare at the thousands of feet we've just climbed and the thousands of feet still to go. Retreat is impossible. We're trapped in this deadly place with less than half a meal left. Every hour we wait the inevitable weather change creeps closer.
Smack in the riptide of all this danger and uncertainty I suddenly find myself enjoying the deepest peace of the whole expedition. This is what I came for: this keen edge of life, this time when we are tempered in battle and honed by hard choices. Each of us has his own limit, but sometimes it takes a struggle and the threat of death to discover it.
We rise before daybreak and hit the route hard. The White Spider's bowling alley is frozen and silent. A thousand more feet of ice-coated gullies snake through rotten rock, then end at an ice wall. Our ice tools punch through this, and we rise step by splintering step. We pull onto the summit ridge and...there it is! The sixth and last journey's end! We rush upward, grinning. Then a few yards from the top, I pause. I stop, realizing that I don't really want it to end.
But the rock and snow have finally run out. There's only the sky to climb. I run onto the summit and I shake my ice axes at the sun. What's next? Endings are only the flip side of new beginnings.
Eric Perlman is a free-lance writer who lives in Truckee, Calif. when he is not climbing mountains in Europe and Asia.