On august 15, 1974, tourists swarmed the deck of the Hotel Bellevue des Alpes in Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland. While many hoped to glimpse the fabled Eiger Nordwand, the mountain’s north wall wasn’t the only famous face in town: Clint Eastwood milled around the hotel between shoots for his upcoming film, The Eiger Sanction. The movie’s plot was ludicrous—an assassin is tasked with killing a spy who has infiltrated his climbing team—but then again, Nixon had resigned the Presidency the week before, after a scandal tinged with similarly absurd espionage.
The mood in Kleine Scheidegg had been somber. Two days earlier, rockfall had killed a 26-year-old British mountain guide and stunt double named David Knowles as he filmed a scene on the North Face. Eastwood considered cancelling the entire shoot, but his stunt team, which included the brooding Scottish alpinist Dougal Haston, had urged him to keep filming.
Above on the Eiger, three real climbers from Poland were stranded on the Second Icefield. One had broken his leg, and a Swiss rescue helicopter was hovering above. An onlooker might have been forgiven, then, for not noticing the two men who were speeding up to the Poles on the icefield. As Eastwood and others watched with binoculars from thousands of feet below, the leader of the new party shook hands with the injured climber, made sure everything was all right, and then dashed across the icefield.
Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner were quickly gaining reputations as the world’s best mountaineers. As they swapped leads up the North Face, both men were aware that the Hollywood legend’s trademark squint was fixed firmly on them.
“He sped us up, because we knew he was watching,” Habeler says.