Wharton Speeds Up the Eiger

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

UPDATED: 4/7/11 - On April 7, Josh Wharton onsight soloed the north face of the Matterhorn in about five hours. (He timed himself from two different starting points at 5:05 and 4:26 to the top; he was unfamiliar with the “official” start but believes it was the latter, higher point.) “Rad choss heap,” he wrote to a friend. “Was definitely not in good shape. Lots of black ice and slab climbing choss in crampons.” The speed record for the north face, set in 2009 by Ueli Steck, is 1 hour 56 minutes.

4/5/11 - After spending a few weeks climbing bits and pieces of the Eiger route Metanoia as a double for Jeff Lowe's upcoming movie, Josh Wharton decided to climb the original north face route. Despite less-than-perfect conditions, Wharton blazed up the climb in 7 hours 15 minutes—a remarkably fast time, considering he had never been on the route before.

The Eiger speed record was set in 2008 at 2:47, a tour de force of speed climbing by Ueli Steck. (Look for a feature profile of Steck in Climbing's May issue.) But sub–eight hour ascents are still rare. Only a few men (all from the Alps) are believed to have soloed the 6,000-foot face faster than Wharton.

Wharton, from Estes Park, Colorado, said he was slowed by having to break trail through fresh snow on the lower-angle bottom third of the face. He also got off-route in the dark at one point and had to backtrack. "Conditions were apparently 'okay, in the middle of the route, and poor (i.e., dry) on the Exit Cracks, according to locals," Wharton said in an email. "It seemed really fun to me, like doing a bunch of Bird Brain Boulevards in a day." (Bird Brain is a classic seven-pitch mixed route near Ouray, CO.)

Wharton only used his rope once, on the first stretch of the Difficult Crack. "I wish I hadn't," he said, "as it got stuck, and I had to go down and get it. Mostly I just free-soloed, using tethers with screamers on fixed tat when things were 'interesting.'"

Despite his film work, Wharton said the Eiger climb was "essentially an onsight."

"I'd done a little work in the area of the Hintertoisser Traverse (coming out onto the face via the Stollenloch train-tunnel window), while working on Jeff's film, but never actually climbed on any sections of the '38 route."

Wharton told his friend Kelly Cordes that he could imagine doing the climb much faster. "With a little training, better conditions, and knowledge of the route, etc., I could see sub four hours, but 2:47 is pretty outrageous," he wrote. "You'd need all of the above, and also willingness to take some big risks. Don't think I'll be chasing that record anytime soon!"

Wharton broke his back very badly in a fall while rebolting climbs in Rifle Canyon, Colorado, last year. After emerging from a back brace, he quickly regained strength, and in January he dominated the mixed climbing competition at the Ouray Ice Festival.

Date of ascent: Spring 2011

Sources: Josh Wharton, Kelly Cordes