Sunday, 11 August 2019

Kurt Diemberger's 'Summits And Secrets'....Extract

An extract from Diemberger’s account of his and Wolfgang Stefan’s ascent of the North face of the Eiger:

A stone whizzing past, not very far off – the first sign of life on the face. Then all quiet again, here in the shadow; utter silence. High above, rock and snow lay bright in the sunshine, quiet, peaceful, warm looking. And that was precisely where the menace hung – the menace that could at any moment shatter the cold silence down here, the menace of that beautiful warm glow.Tick … tick … ssst. Just a baby stone, hopping harmlessly, dancing down the rocks, whispering past like an insect, small and no danger to anyone. But how long before the cannonade would start, to shatter the peace and quiet down here? It could be minutes, it could be half an hour … It was 9 a.m.

I looked up at the warm, even light on those rocks. Then I started cutting steps again, smaller ones, quicker than before. I was up. In went a piton and then I hacked out a stance.I shouted down to Wolfi: ‘You can come now – but look out! The first stones are arriving.’‘So I noticed,’ came up from below. ‘One has just gone past me.’ Wolfi was coming up – the traverse, the piton, retrieving the sling, pushing a leg into the crack, reaching up with his arm. At that moment there was a ‘click’ on my helmet, and I enjoyed an instant’s satisfaction at the thought that I was wearing it. Then Wolfi joined me.

‘We’ll have to get up there before it really starts,’ he said, pointing to the upper rim of the huge ice field. He was right; there seemed to be at least a measure of cover under the jutting cliffs up there. We should take much longer by following that long curving rim than if we traversed diagonally, but – ‘Look out! Something’s coming!’ Wolfi, six feet above me, reacted instantly, pressing himself hard into the ice. A host of little dots was coming down in a grotesque dance across the grey surface 300 feet higher up. They grew larger, bounding down towards us in great leaps, a grey army of them. Now! … that one’s missed me, and that one, but what about this one? … sssst, ssst … Suddenly everything was quiet again. It was all over.

Wolfi straightened up slowly. ‘Benediction over?’ he asked. ‘Then I’ll lead on again. You keep watch and shout if you see anything coming.’I cast an anxious eye up the face, the surface of the ice, the groove running up to the rocks above. Nothing stirred. The rope ran out quickly, as Wolfi went diagonally up the next 130 feet. He dispensed with step cutting; we had to get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. Tack … tack … tack, his crampons bit into the smooth surface, tilted at fifty degrees or more. It looked uncanny. The view down the face had completely disappeared; all we could see was the lower edge of the second ice field projecting over the abyss like a ski-jumping platform, with green ground beyond it, sending up a pale green reflection, mirrored by the surface up here, making the blue shadows look even colder.

We wondered whether we had been spotted yet. Not that it makes the slightest difference. There is no place on earth where one is so utterly alone. I squinted up the runnel to where Wolfi stood, with only the frontal points of his crampons biting into the steep, bone-hard surface. I stooped and took a tighter hold on the rope.Everything else had lost all meaning. Wolfi was standing up there on four steel spikes. Whether they held or slipped depended on his next movement …We were alone … alone with the North Face of the Eiger. At that moment even our friends had ceased to exist for us.

Another whilst Diemberger is making an ascent of the unclimbed Chogolisa with Hermann Buhl in 1957. They are making an attempt on the summit when a snow storm descends:

I reckoned we must be at about 23,600 feet, and that we must be near the steep avalanche slope which had pushed us so close to the cornices. If only one could see a bit more! I turned and saw Hermann coming after me, keeping the distance unaltered, following in my actual steps. As I moved down, I kept on looking across to the left, trying to see through the mist. All I could see was that it was getting a bit darker overhead and a bit lighter below. That must be the edge of the cornices. It seemed a safe distance away, but in mist distances can be deceptive. Perhaps it would be better to keep a bit to the right, but then I should have to look out for the precipice. It ought to be here by now. Ah, there’s another axe hole …

I looked anxiously to the left and then down to the surface at my feet. I was at a loss; it was almost impossible to see anything at all. Crack! Something shot through me like a shock. Everything shook, and for a second the surface of the snow seemed to shrink. Blindly, I jumped sideways to the right – an instantaneous reflex action – two, three great strides, and followed the steep slope downwards a little way, shattered by what I had seen at my feet – the rim of the cornice, with little jagged bits breaking away from it. My luck had been in, all right! I had been clean out on the cornice. What would Hermann have to say about that, I wondered? I stopped and turned, but the curve of the slope prevented my seeing over the crest as I looked up. The light was improving a little. Hermann must bob up any moment up there. I still couldn’t fathom that extraordinary shaking sensation; had the snow really settled under my weight?

Still no Hermann. ‘Hermann!’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake, what’s up? Hermann!’ I rushed, gasping up the slope. There it was, the crest … and beyond it, smooth snow … and it was empty … Hermann … You! …Done for …I dragged myself up a little farther.

 I could see his last footmarks in the snow, then the jagged edge of the broken cornice, yawning. Then the black depths.The broken cornice – that had been the quaking beneath my feet, then.I couldn’t get a sight of the North Face from anywhere near. I should have to get down to Ridge Peak for that. As I went down, the storm gradually abated, and the mists lifted from time to time. I was utterly stunned. How could that have happened just behind me? I had the greatest difficulty in getting up the short rise to Ridge Peak, but even before I got there it had cleared up. I hurried out to the farthest edge of the cliffs. 
The storm was hunting the clouds high into the heavens. Above the veils of mist and through them a ridge loomed up – a tower – a great roof with tremendous banners of blown snow streaming from it. Chogolisa, the horrible. I could see the spot where we had turned at about 24,000 feet. Our trail down the broad snowfield below was crystal clear. Then that fearsome drop to the north – into the clouds. And there, even closer to our tracks as they ran straight downwards, the encroaching precipice. And then I could see it all with stark and terrible clarity. Just at that point, Hermann had left my tracks at a slight bend, where I was hugging the rim of the precipice, and gone straight on ahead, only three or four yards – straight out on to the tottering rim of the cornice – straight out into nothingness. Of the foot of the wall I could see nothing.Stupidly, I stared upwards again. If we had been roped …

I looked down along the face, shuddering …No, I should never have been able to hold him there; at the moment of his fall I myself was too far out on the overhanging snow.

At last I could see clearly down below, where the broad snow-masses of an avalanche fanned out. The crashing cornice had set it off and it had swept the face clean. Hermann was nowhere to be seen. He must have fallen at least 1,000, maybe 2,000 feet and was lying there buried under the piled-up snow. Could he have survived that? There was no answer to my shouts and I had no way of getting down there. I should have to fetch the others and we should have to come from below. That was the only faint possibility. I strained my eyes, searching every cranny, searching for a rucksack, a ski stick, a dark blob. But there was nothing to be seen – absolutely nothing. Only our tracks – up there. Clouds blotted the mountain out again. I was alone.

Mists and a high wind were sweeping the corniced ridge as I tried to find the way down. At times I could see nothing at all and could only tell from rifts in the snow that I had strayed too far down the slope. After what seemed an age, I found our tent. It was a horror of emptiness. I took the absolute essentials for the descent and went on down. At the Kaberi Saddle there was knee-deep fresh snow, through which only a tiny corner of the marker-pennants showed. I probed with my feet under that smooth expanse of white to find out from which side our ascent route had come, then went straight on into the whiteness … to the next pennant. I wandered vaguely down endless hollows, over crevasses, through fog, then into the darkness of night. For long, indescribable hours of horror – during which I at times had a feeling that Hermann was still with me – I managed, by some miracle, to find my way, onwards, downwards. Then, just before the great icefalls, my pocket-lamp failed; so I had to bivouac On and on … endlessly on … till, twenty-seven hours after Hermann’s fall, I tottered into base camp.The search which followed found absolutely nothing.
Once again, the monstrous rubble-covered river of ice lay freed of all human presence. The sun burned down on it with scorching intensity. The snow was rapidly vanishing, melting into the waters of gurgling glacier streams. Chogolisa’s white roof-tree seemed to lift into the very sky itself. The great peaks stood silently all around. Were they, too, mourning? Or was this only the great healing silence which eternally enfolds all living and dying? 

 Kurt Diemberger: 2019

Further details from Vertebrate Publishing