From January 30 to February 5, 2011, Patrice Glairon-rappaz, Paulo Robach and Cédric Perillat attempted to climb the Harlin Direttissima on the north face of the Eiger. Cédric tell us about their adventure:
"It was a major effort in the perspective that the strong American-British-German team committed themselves to the first ascent of the ‘Harlin Direttissima' from February 23 to March 25, 1966 making numerous attempts and using hundreds of metres of fixed rope."
Since its first ascent more than 40 years ago the route has not seen many repeats.
The first repeat is attributed to a Japanese team who took three months during the winter of 1970 with 2355 m of fixed rope. The next repeat was by the GMHM in 18 days in the winter of 1978 (with fixed ropes and everything else), then the ascent of Tobin Sorenson and Alex MacIntyre in four days during autumn 1978. The latter would be the first alpine style ascent of the route. However the first winter repeat in alpine style remained to be completed. With the help of fixed ropes left in place by the GMHM, Slavko Sveticic preformed an incredible feat by soloing the route in 26 hours from 15 to 16 January 1990, exiting via the Spider snowfield high on the face of the classic 1938 route. Nonetheless, it was an extraterrestrial performance! During seven days in February 1997, a team of four Russians also climbed the route in winter using the same variation.
In the end, no winter repeat in alpine style (without using fixed cords) of the route in the original version had taken place.
The large packs are so heavy they are already difficult to deal with in the small train that climbs from Grindelwald to the Eigergletscher via Kleine Scheidegg. But they should allow us to more comfortably endure the many different bivouacs that we have prepared for during this long journey. The route description of Robert Jasper, who made his first free ascent of this climb from 20 to 22 September 2010 with Roger Schaeli, promises several days of good battles against the beautiful, steep, limestone walls. The A3/A4 aid ratings from the first ascent transform themselves into free and mixed ratings between 7a and M8-, with an additional English engagement rating of E5, which suggests the potential for big falls. However, we lack precise information on the exit for the original route. Indeed, Jasper and Schaeli finished by the classic 1938 route at the start of the Spider.
Although the face is much higher than the Grandes Jorasses, it is much less wild.
The approach from the train station is much faster, and due to the hum of the piste bashers and the ballet between the helicopters and fighter planes we are reminded of the closeness of civilization hidden beneath the layer of clouds covering the entire Swiss plain. The day before the start of the climb, we will take the opportunity to put in the track and leave our haul bags at the foot of the route where they will identify the start for us. After a comfortable night spent in the warmth of the train station toilets, we will be able to return quickly to the foot of the route in the dark with lightweight packs thanks to the gear we cached the day before.
Once equipped, the true climbing really begins, and we quickly assume the climbing pace of the days to come. The first pitch, a good V+ dihedral is clogged with loads of inconsistent snow requiring Paul to do a tough job of mixed climbing combined with heavy duty cleaning. The next pitch, although a bit less steep, is no less physical. The weight of the haul bag begins to be felt in our backs. It is a big first day, which will go well all the way to the first bivouac at the foot of the first wall called Window Wall in reference to the windows of the railway tunnel opening onto the mountain. Comfortably settled for the night, we do not yet know that this wall, steep and compact, will give us a much more difficult time than expected on the second day. With all our winter gear, the steepness requires us to aid climb often, and we proceed by a method called ‘bourguignonne' in reference to the snails from the same region. Some areas are more compact forcing us to climb some passages free / mixed with no lack of commitment, the big boots sticking to the holds, freshly cleaned of the snow that covered them only a short time before.
The verdict of this second day of climbing is hard to accept: 80 metres of climbing in 10 hours…
The summit of the Window Wall is located 40 m above our heads, we choose to avoid an uncomfortable bivvy in etriers and fix our ropes for a descent to the comfortable bivouac of the night before. Although morally exhausted by the long day, the night will be comfortable!
Third day: the delicate pitches
In the darkness of early morning we climb back up the fixed ropes to reach our high point before sunrise. A few passages of free climbing, feet on a snow-splattered slab, interspersed by cleaning cracks filled with snow in order to place solid protection, and then suddenly we are out of the initial difficulties of the route. The route continues less steep until a few mixed pitches lead us to what looks like a good bivouac. Though they look easy, these pitches will prove to be tricky. Big piles of snow cover poor rock in which it is difficult to place good protection. But once these pitches have been overcome, a good bivvy awaits us in the shelter of a small cave. It will be the third night on the wall and every bit as comfortable as the previous ones. It's a big change from the Grandes Jorasses!
Cédric leaving the Window Wall, haul bag on his back, via a mixed pitch that is delicate to climb and to protect (lots of snow and rotten rock) at the end of the third day.
Fourth day: the difficulties are not to high, but the low angle terrain forces us to carry instead of haul.
The straps of the haul bag imprint themselves without pain into our respective shoulders. The weight is felt in our small bulging quadriceps and the burning calves that come with the bestial effort of climbing with a haul bag on your back… The Death Bivouac is reached at the beginning of the afternoon. Two teams, parties on the 1938 route, left us these two beautiful platforms ready to use. We drop our packs and in order to take full advantage of the short winter days we leave immediately to locate the route and fix a few more pitches so that we can get a head start on the next day. Then we return to the comfortable Death Bivouac. Tonight more than the others, fatigue is present. The day has been long and physical and on top of that it was worse because of the cold, which was made more uncomfortable by the light wind that was blowing… But it's not serious, tomorrow will be worse…
Fifth day: beautiful but committed climbing
In the morning, we quickly climb the ropes that we fixed the night before then continue our ascent with some very beautiful mixed climbing. We find the pitch difficult to protect, which makes the climbing slow. The waits at the belays are long and frigid. The wind from yesterday has strengthened slightly. It's good that we are unable to achieve our goal of leaving the central buttress between the Death Bivouac and the Spider because we are able escape a poor bivouac and manage instead to carve out a wide terrace where we place our Ascent tent.
But during the night, harassed by spindrift deposited by a small storm that passed at the end of the afternoon, we have no other choice but for all three of us to squeeze inside the tent.
Patrice on the central buttress (beneath the Spider)
Sixth day: the storm has blown through...
But it took with it some low temperatures in exchange for a few km/hr of wind… Under a blowing north wind, we climb. And the waiting during the belays are more and more difficult to endure. At 1:00 p.m., we finally emerge onto the snow of the Spider. From here, a logical line climbs towards the left: the classic route of 1938. To the right, disappearing into the buttress, the Harlin route… It's pretty steep and the rock is rotten, exactly as JC Marmier, who made the ascent in heavy style in 1978 with the GMHM, described it.
The story of the first ascent talks about the gruelling fight against the death of the first climbers caught in a storm in the final difficulties… We have enough rations for one, perhaps two bivouacs. It probably shouldn't take us any more than that to overcome the difficulties of the original route. On this sixth day, a north wind has been forecast to crash against the mountain at 50 km/hr. Tomorrow will be worse and the day after will be even worse than that…
After a quick consultation, we all three agree to abandon the original route and leave as soon as possible by the original 1938 route. The climbing becomes easier. With the haul bag on our back, the pitches run together until we reach the final crux of the classic route, the quartz chimney rated M5. Then the traverse left, and a climb of 100 metres of exit chimneys leads to night on the last slopes before the summit arête.
We are constantly buffeted by the wind. The aerodynamics of the haul bag are not optimal and carrying it is not easy. At 10 p.m. we finally escape the north wind by crossing the to the other side of the summit arête. The summit is no more than a few minutes away. We get to work digging a good platform where we will make our sixth and final bivouac.
Cédric at the beginning of the Quartz crack rated M5, after joining the classic 1938 route on the sixth day. Cédric and Pat on the summit arête during the sixth bivouac.
The next day: wake up wet and a late departure for the summit.
The alarm does not sound: we allow ourselves to wake with the pace of the dawn. All three of us are inside the tent, waking up wet, condensation playing a perfect role by covering us with a thin layer of frost. But breakfast in the sun quickly warms us. After a late start, we reach the top without difficulty. The 70 km/hr north wind leaves no regret at not having made the first winter ascent of the Harlin Direttissima in alpine style."
Cédric and Pat on the summit arête
Left: Pat and Cédric enjoying the sun at the bivvy on the morning of the seventh day. Right: Paulo, Cédric and Pat on the summit.