The North Face of the Eiger is among the most famous alpine faces on Earth. Sheer rock and ice rise for 1,800 meters out of the Bernese Oberland in central Switzerland, making it the tallest north face in the Alps. An ascent of the Eigerwand via any route is a coveted feat among alpinists. On September 14, Italian climber Jacopo Larcher and Austrian Barbara “Babsi” Zangerl set a speed record on Odyssee, the most difficult route on the Eiger, climbing 33 pitches in just 16 hours.
Odyssee was first established in 2015 by Roger Schaeli, Simon Gietl, and Robert Jasper. The route is 1,400 meters long and climbs up to 8a+ (5.13c). Larcher and Babsi climbed Odyssey ground-up in 2018, free climbing and redpointing every pitch. It took them four days to reach the summit. Standing in the sun atop the Eiger that day, they began to toil with the idea of tackling the monstrous route in a single day. This August, they returned.
“The plan was to climb up the wall-checking out some details of the crux pitches and try to climb them fast,” Babsi wrote in a press release. “We put some chalk marks on the crux holds before we wanted to give it a proper try. We stayed a few days on the wall waiting out the very bad weather. Three days we stayed in a cloud—climbing on very damp holds and freezing-cold conditions.”
The team patiently dealt with the temperamental alpine weather. When it dried they quickly finished their preparations, but not in time for the conditions to flip once again and a half-meter of snow to fall on the summit of the Eiger. Their chances looked grim. The pair knew that the season could be over. But Larcher and Babsi stayed positive and were lucky enough for things to warm up once again.
“Then the moment arrived, the conditions seemed to be as good as we were going to get, at this stage,” Babsi wrote. “We climbed fast, we felt pretty solid on the hardest part of the wall. No falls before we reached the spicy part shortly before the Czech bivy 2. Then, we heard the water dripping from above. Four completely wet pitches from 6c+ [5.11c] to 7c [5.12d]. We fought very hard—and it took us some time to get over those challenging pitches. It was a lot of luck that we made it through. You basically can slip off at any moment on this wet part of the wall.”
After being physically and psychologically battered through the difficult and soaking wet pitches, the partners felt as though they were already standing on the summit. They knocked out pitch after pitch with ease, moving quickly through the upper part of the wall. Sixteen hours had elapsed since they'd tied in that morning, and they had only three pitches remaining to the summit.
“Jacopo and I were 100% sure it was in the bag,” Babsi wrote. “But, the Eiger is the Eiger. You can never be so sure. Suddenly, the whole day flipped 180 degrees and became, probably, the most challenging climbing day we have ever had.”
Babsi was on lead only a pitch-and-a-half away from the summit, when the Eiger was abruptly pummeled by a storm. Rain and hail came down in droves. Babsi was soaked to the bone. There was no way to continue upward in such conditions—retreat was the only option.
“In this situation we perfectly worked together as a team thanks to all the adventures we [have] experienced together,” Babsi wrote. “The temperatures dropped to freezing cold and the water turned into ice. We rappelled 31 pitches in a waterfall.”
As they descended through the tempest, the team questioned whether or not they would try again. “This was the most challenging climbing experience I have had in my life. Did I want to repeat it?” Babsi asked herself.
But as soon as they returned safely to their bivy and warm sleeping bags, they knew they had to return, weather permitting. Two days later they were back on the wall.
They set out at 1:30 a.m., and by the time they reached the Czech bivy (about midway), they were three hours ahead of their previous attempt.
“The psych was high and we were enjoying giving everything we had as we climbed fast through the upper part of the wall,” Babsi wrote.
When they reached their previous high point, Babsi was nervous with the memory of the harrowing retreat fresh in her mind. But conditions were clear, and she pulled through the pitch with ease.
“It was Jacopo’s turn to lead the wet gully, we took extra care and moved slowly on these last pitches,” Babsi wrote. “It was quite dangerous up there. The final part was partly covered in ice and you don’t want to take a big fall up there. At 5:30 p.m., we both were standing on the top. We were elated! It was a really hard and demanding time to finally succeed on this mythical Eiger North Face. What an unforgettable adventure!”
They clocked in at exactly 16 hours from when they left their bivy to the time they reached the summit, free climbing and redpointing every pitch. Jacopo Larcher and Barbara Zangerl made history with the fastest free ascent of the most difficult route on the Eigerwand.