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The Eiger’s First Survivor

When the two Italians Claudio Corti and Stefano Longhi started up the Eiger no climber had been rescued alive from the North Face. What unfolded was one of the most Herculean and heroic rescue efforts of all time.


The North Face of the Eiger is so menacing and foreboding that when climbers initially began attempting to scale it in 1935 the first six alpinists died on its flanks. Two of the next four climbers met the same fate. With those stats it’s no wonder this 6,000-foot face in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland became known as the Mordwand or “wall of death.”

By 1957, 20 years after the first successful ascent, only 12 teams of alpinists had repeated the climb. And more had died falling off the mountain laced with brittle ice and rotten rock. But, that didn’t deter two climbers from Lecco, attempting the first Italian ascent, to begin picking their way up the scree-strewn ledges at the base of the wall early on Saturday, August 3.

Claudio Corti, 29, and Stefano Longhi, 44, were members of the prestigious Lecco Spiders who were world renowned for difficult ascents in places near and far. Hoping to find a trail of pitons to lead the way, the two Italians hadn’t brought a route description with them and it took them two days on the wall just to locate the correct line.

When they awoke on Monday, their third day on the Eiger at the bivouac at the base of the Hinterstoisser Traverse roughly a third of the way up the wall, they saw two Germans, Gunther Nothdurft and Franz Mayer, both 22, who were among the top alpinists in Germany climbing quickly toward them. When the Germans caught the Italians, the two ropes continued up the face separately, with Corti in the lead.

Climber Claudio Corti being carried in a stretcher off the Eiger mountain.
Claudio Corti, the only survivor of four climbers to attempt the Eiger in 1957, is carried off the mountain, the first-ever successful rescue from the face. (Photo: RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

 

1938 Route, Eiger North Face.

That day the four of them made it to the base of the Second Icefield just past midway, but during the night the Germans lost their bag of food when Mayer placed it under his sleeping bag for leveling and it slipped off the wall. Corti offered to share the Italian’s food and the four continued upward in the morning.

But the steady progress from the day before slowed measurably and over the succeeding days the climbers only reached the Death Bivouac on Tuesday night—the name given because the first-ever rope of climbers to attempt the face froze to death there in 1935. The two teams reached the base of the Ramp, the key to the upper third of the face, on Wednesday night, and arrived at the start of the Traverse of the Gods, so named because of the 5,000-feet of exposure beneath one’s boots, on Thursday night—three sections that collectively they should have climbed in a day.

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By Friday morning, those watching the climbers through telescopes and binoculars from the valley floor started to worry. Their fears were realized when the climber fourth on the now-combined rope, Longhi, fell on the Traverse of the Gods and was left on a ledge when his three companions were unable to haul him back up to them. Corti, Nothdurft, and Mayer climbed up through the snow and ice gullies of the White Spider and into the final section known as the Exit Cracks. They now had less than 1,000 feet to ascend to reach the top, but an eerie mist engulfed the face obscuring the view of them from those watching below.

Among the spectators was Swiss alpinist Paul Seiler, who had made the seventh ascent of the wall five years earlier, and he decided it was time to launch a rescue. However, when he approached Willi Balmer, head of the Swiss Alpine Club’s Grindelwald rescue section, he was informed by Balmer that the professional Swiss guides would not participate in a rescue. This policy stemmed from a long-standing belief by the Swiss guides that the North Face of the Eiger was too dangerous to climb and they would not attempt to save anyone foolish enough to attempt it.

Some of what would end up being 50 rescue members assembling on the summit of the Eiger in 1957. (Photo by RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The Swiss guides believed that the North Face of the Eiger was too dangerous to climb and they would not attempt to save anyone foolish enough to attempt it.

Twenty-one years earlier, in 1936 a handful of professional Swiss guides had broken ranks when a party of four climbers led by the German Andreas Hinterstoisser had become trapped on the face. The guides attempted unsuccessfully to reach them via a train-tunnel bore hole that exits onto the face itself; the four climbers died. By 1957, there had never been a successful rescue, either up from the bottom or down from the top on the North Face of the Eiger—you either succeeded or died on the Eiger.

Undaunted by the Swiss guides, Seiler contacted Erich Friedli, an expert in mountain rescue who lived nearby in Thun and possessed the cables and winches necessary for such a rescue. Friedli agreed and he and his 21-man crew left for the Eiger.

World renowned alpinist Lionel Terray, who had made the second ascent of the North Face over two days in 1947, was also in the area guiding two Dutch clients. He offered his services, which were immediately accepted. At the same time, Ludwig Gramminger, head of the Munich Mountain Guide rescue unit, heard about the potential tragedy unfolding. Over his 30 years in mountain rescue he had invented many devices now commonly used including a special type of portable stretcher. He and his men left immediately for the Eiger.

Lastly, a group of Polish climbers training for a Himalayan expedition under Dr. Jerry Hajdukiewicz were nearby and offered their services. In total, over 50 men from five different groups were converging on the Eiger, but the problem was how to get them to the top of the mountain, and then lower a team to the distressed climbers on the face, and with a storm approaching on Friday night time there wasn’t a moment to delay.

Friedli’s and Seiler’s men took the train up through the Eiger and to the Jungfraujoch, the saddle between the peaks of the Jungfrau and the Monch, but this still left them with a dangerous two-mile traverse to the the Eiger’s summit. Gramminger, Terray, and the Poles chose to ascend the 6,000-foot West Flank of the Eiger, a much easier alpine climb and the standard descent route, on Saturday morning. At the last minute, legendary Italian climber Ricardo Cassin, then 48, and his ropemate Carlo Mauri appeared. They quickly lent their services to the rescue.

On the climb up the West Flank, Cassin and Mauri called out to the trapped climbers and were stunned to find that it was Corti and Longhi, both still alive after eight days on the wall, were clubmates of theirs with the Lecco Spiders. But, there was no sign of the two Germans.

Friedli’s and Seiler’s teams arrived at the top first and set about anchoring their winch. Seiler went down on the cable, but the winch was 200 feet too far to the west. Friedli went next, but the repositioned winch was still too far west. By this time Gramminger and his crew from Munich had arrived at the summit and set about anchoring their winch in the correct location. Rotten rock and unstable cornices made anchoring the winches difficult. The last resort used climbers holding ropes as a human deadman as a backup in case the winches broke free.

At 8 a.m. on Sunday morning Gramminger was ready to lower his most trusted rescue man, Alfred Hellepart, down on the 1/4-inch (!) steel cable. After an hour and about a 750-foot descent he reached Corti, who poked his head out of a red bivouac tent and asked for food. Hellepart dug a chocolate bar out of his parka. Corti shoved it into his mouth wrapper and all. The snow and ice on his ledge was gone. In his thirst Corti had scraped up and eaten everything he could, breaking several teeth in the process.

It took an hour to get the Italian into the aptly named Gramminger Sitz harness and then Hellepart gave the order for the cable to be raised. Because the wall was less than vertical Hellepart had to walk back up the slope carrying Corti on his back with the cable as an assistance. It was a Herculean effort but after 59 minutes they reached the summit. It was a miraculous moment: The first-ever successful rescue on the North Face of the Eiger. The non-smoker Hellepart asked for a cigarette. Over the next day, he smoked 30 cigarettes then never smoked again.

Alfred Hellepart had to carry Corti on his back 750 feet up the North Face to the summit using the cable winch as an assist. (Photo: Albert Winkler/Archive Carlo Caccia)

 

The non-smoker Hellepart asked for a cigarette. Over the next day, he smoked 30 cigarettes then never smoked again.

But there were three other climbers unaccounted for somewhere on the wall. The indefatigable Terray offered to go down next. A storm was fast approaching and the logistical problems of managing such a long length of cable thwarted Terray’s attempt to reach Longhi about 300 feet lower than Corti, nor did he learn of the fate of the two Germans.

Throughout the attempt to reach Longhi, Corti had been left alone in a snowhole on the summit, and now Terry realized that Corti was near death and all effort must be made to get the Italian down the 6,000-foot West Flank. The storm engulfed the rescuers after they had descended just 1,500 feet, and they dug in for another night on the mountain. It was another miracle that Corti survived his ninth night on the mountain.

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Stefano Longhi, on his tiny perch below the Traverse of the Gods, did not survive the storm. His stiff body was observed swinging in the wind tethered to a rope. Because of this and the inability to determine the fate of the two Germans, the rescuers put all their effort into getting Corti down the remaining 4,500 feet where a special train took him from the Eiger to a hospital in Interlaken.

A battered Corti would become the scapegoat for all that had gone wrong, but he was ultimately vindicated when the bodies of the two German climbers were discovered on the Eiger’s West Flank descent years later. (Photo: Albert Winkler/Archive Carlo Caccia)

While Corti recovered in the hospital there were many unanswered questions, the most important being, “Where were the two Germans?” Haltingly, Corti recounted that late on Friday afternoon he had been struck by rockfall and had fallen over 60 feet while leading the Exit Cracks. Nothdurft and Mayer had given him their red bivouac tent and had planned to climb up and over the summit to get help.

Corti became the scapegoat for all that had gone wrong on the Eiger and was pilloried by the press and his fellow climbers who didn’t believe his story about the Germans. Corti returned to his home at Olginate near Lecco to his wife, Fulvia, and their child, and resumed his job driving a truck. He would go on to make notable first ascents in the Alps and participated in the 1974 first ascent of Cerro Torre by his beloved Lecco Spiders.

Stefano Longhi’s body stayed tethered to the North Face until 1959 when a Dutch newspaper consortium, hoping for exclusive rights to the story, paid a group of professional Swiss guides who lowered a climber down the wall and brought the body up.

The mystery of the Germans was solved in 1961 when their bodies were found on the West Flank, their frozen and mummified positions indicated that they had been caught in an avalanche on the descent after successfully climbing the wall. Claudio Corti was vindicated, and though deceased, Gunther Nothdurft and Franz Mayer were credited with making the 14th ascent of the Eiger North Face.

Corti would go on to make numerous first ascents in the Alps and was a team member on the first ascent of Cerro Torre. He died in 2010 at the age of 81. (Photo: Carlo Caccia Archive)