Robert Jasper Has Spent a Year of His Life on the Eiger North Face
Robert Jasper has spent decades at the top of German alpinism and a year of his life on the Eiger’s notorious North Face. How do you not know his name?
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Robert Jasper thinks it was the goat cheese. Vacationing on the Greek island of Kalymnos in June 2017, he woke one morning feeling vaguely off. Then, to his surprise, he failed to on-sight the 5.13b he’d picked out; he thought it should have been straightforward. Even in his late 40s, he found routes of that grade routine. More annoying, he, his wife, Daniela, and their two teenage children were due to fly home the next morning. No time to put it right.
That evening Jasper developed a temperature, and by the next, as the family made it back to southern Germany, he was in the grip of a raging fever.
“The doctors never identified it,” he tells me, “but it was clear I’d picked up some kind of bacterial infection.” Within hours, Jasper was fighting for his life as sepsis took hold, and doctors, including a tropical-medicine specialist, struggled to find the right combination of antibiotics to treat whatever it was. It took five long weeks to control the infection and bring Jasper fully back from the brink of death, and another two before he was allowed home.
By that time, as Jasper puts it, “I’d lost everything.”
Getting taken out by dodgy goat cheese would have been galling for anyone, but especially a man of Jasper’s exceptional physical ability, something he also depends on for his livelihood. His name may not be as recognizable as that of the Huber brothers or Stefan Glowacz, let alone Reinhold Messner, but Robert Jasper is likely the best alpinist you’ve never heard of, and he deserves a place alongside all those names. His resume glitters. No one has spent more time on the North Face of the Eiger than he has or done so many impressive routes there. Since his first time up the 1938 route at age 16, he has climbed 16 lines on the face, with several firsts, including the Eigerwand’s first 8a/5.13b, Symphonie de Liberté. In total Jasper has spent a day or so shy of a year on this most notorious face. He has myriad other achievements in the Alps, both on mixed climbs and hardcore suffer-fests, and continues in later life as a thoughtful and innovative explorer. And yet the most impressive thing about Robert Jasper may be the way he has thought through what he does in the mountains—how and why.
So losing it all to a rogue cheese seemed surreal. Jasper’s route back to the big time, or even normalcy, was a hard one. As soon as he got home from the hospital, though, he was outside walking with sticks. His wife, Daniela, says it was “heart-breaking” to see her once-powerful husband struggle just to move. “He came home walking like an old man of 80,” she says. She confessed to him later that when, before his release, the doctors told him he would likely never climb again, she thought they might be right.
“She did not tell me that at the time,” Jasper says. “For her it was extremely hard to see how hard it was for me to move. Luckily you don’t see yourself like that.” When Jasper was told he wouldn’t climb again: “I said, ‘No, that’s not possible.’ But I had to start from zero.”
Despite her doubts, Daniela joined Robert to work on his recovery, a process in which he applied the same level of dedication that had once taken him to the top to scrape himself off the floor and start again. In a few days, he was walking unassisted. Almost at once, Daniela was driving him to the local climbing wall, and soon after that to a nearby crag to find a short, easy climb close to the road that she could lead and he could drag himself up. As soon as they could, they went back to Kalymnos.
Jasper says that during his many weeks hospitalized, “I tried to see it as an expedition. I tried to apply my mountain philosophy.” He viewed the doctors, in their white coats, as polar bears, a natural threat to treat with respect, as was the whole situation, requiring patience and analysis.
One doctor, himself a climber, had an acute understanding of the psychological implications of the illness that appeared to have just ended the career of one of Germany’s leading climbers. They connected, and every time Robert advanced a grade on rock, he would phone him. Jasper recalls with humor, “When I got to 6b [5.10d], he said: ‘Hey, you’re climbing at my level now.’ When I got to 7a [5.11d], he asked me to stop phoning him.” By the winter, six months after his near-fatal ordeal, he was fit again. “Afterwards, [the illness] felt like a good experience, because I’d come through it. I thought, well, if I can get through that, I can get through anything.”
Jasper looked around for a challenge to benchmark his recovery. What could be better than one of his classic FAs from his breakthrough years? In late February 2018, he drove south two hours to the Swiss resort of Kandersteg, above which looms the Breitwangflue wall, with some of the finest mixed and ice climbing in the Alps. His objective was a roped solo of his and Daniela’s route Flying Circus, climbed 20 years earlier and today one of the most sought-after ice lines in the world. On the first ascent, back in 1998, Flying Circus had been big news, in retrospect a milestone in the development of mixed climbing, regarded as the first M10 anywhere.
Conditions for his comeback climb were good, although the ice on the first of the route’s four pitches wasn’t properly formed, so he climbed the harder initial pitch of another of his routes, Ritter der Kokosnuss, which shares the first belay. (Jasper is a big Monty Python fan, with “Ritter der Kokosnuss” translating as “knights of the coconut”—the German name for “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”) Despite his recent travails, the challenge was not so much the climbing—“M10 isn’t too difficult for a professional mixed climber nowadays,” he says—as psychological. Although bolts had been added at the belays, the four pitches of Flying Circus are still a spicy proposition on trad gear and the occasional peg.
After the first ascent, as a keen budding pro, Jasper had returned for photographs, again climbing with Daniela. The weather was warmer than before, and Daniela grew uneasy about the conditions. At the route’s big icicle on the fourth pitch, 350 feet off the deck, as Jasper prepared to place an ice screw, she shouted not to risk it.
“I don’t often get that mad,” she says, sitting across the table from Robert in their spacious family home in the little town of Schopfheim, close to Germany’s border with Switzerland. They laugh in saying the place is a bit suburban for their taste, and have plans for something more unusual, but it’s stylish and open. Daniela is a keen gardener and it shows; their flower garden is beautifully done and nicely wild. Their two teenagers, Stefan and Amelie, are out at school the day I visit, but usually not far from the conversation, whether it is about climbing holidays they’ve shared or aspirations for the future. “My family was always my center of attention,” Jasper says.
Of the Flying Circus 20 years ago, Daniela says, “I don’t panic either, but suddenly I was panicking. And he was so far above his last piece. He said, ‘No, no, it’s perfect today, I can do this.’ And so we went back and forth.” She wonders what the photographer must have thought as they argued. “Anyway, he went higher and shouted down, ‘Now can I put in an ice screw?’ But when he planted his axes, the whole icicle fractured.”
Jasper took a monster fall, 50 feet or so, but at least he wasn’t clipped to tons of ice hurtling to the ground. The young Robert Jasper, then about to turn 30, was likely a more impulsive version of the wise veteran who returned there alone at nearly 50. But while he laughs as Daniela recalls their squabble, Jasper points out, gently but firmly, how infrequent such near misses have been in his long career. Many alpinists have endured far more drama.
“You can die doing really stupid things,” Jasper reflects.
Laughing, Daniela says, “Like eating cheese.”
It’s clear from the way they pick up each others’ sentences that they’re devoted to one another. They met in 1993, when Robert was in his mid 20s and Daniela (then Daniela Klindt) was a leading sport climber, the second German woman to climb 8a/5.13b. Keen to try new challenges in the mountains, she partnered Robert on the first ascent of Symphonie de Liberté on the Eiger as well as the landmark first ascent of the M8- Vol de Nuit on Mont Blanc du Tacul. In some ways the two are quite different. She’s outgoing and laughs readily, is a little less serious. Robert is focused, judging by the intensity with which he talks about his career, and a little shy, with none of the easy banter of a media pro. Daniela’s English is better, and she gently nudges him in the right direction when he’s hunting for a word. She has a formidable climbing record herself, is a mother, and runs her own riding school, using interactions with horses as an educational experience. “Once or twice a year I can persuade him to ride,” she says of Robert. “As long as he cleans the stables, I don’t care.”
That February 2018 rope solo of Flying Circus is a good example of Jasper’s deliberate methodology. It was a time-consuming process: climbing each pitch, rapping down to clean the gear and then jugging back up, doing the work of two people while relying entirely on his own judgment.
The route has a traverse under hanging icicles, where he held extra focus to keep the ropes running smoothly and reduce the risk, while dealing with 35-foot runouts. When Planetmountain.com later asked whether he had thought about doing away with all the hassle and simply free soloing it, Jasper was unequivocal.
“No,” he replied, “for me that’s like playing Russian roulette. While I respect people who do free solos, this style of climbing is not for me anymore. My life is more important than anything else; it’s the most important thing we’ve got. You know, you’ve always got to balance things up, consider the risks and ask yourself if it was really worth it.” Rope soloing, he said, gave him an acceptable level of “calculated safety.”
This clear-eyed statement reflects the sober mountain philosophy Jasper has developed over many years, while lacking the extravagance or bravado that are more likely to catch the public eye. He free soloed hard routes in his youth and probably could have done the same on Flying Circus, but flamboyant statements just aren’t his style.
The German climbing writer Tom Dauer says that Jasper’s quiet thoughtfulness may explain that while his record is astonishing, spanning more than three decades, he is lesser known in his own country than other German alpinists, like Alex and Thomas Huber or Stefan Glowacz (an occasional climbing partner of Jasper’s).
“In Germany,” Dauer tells me in an email, “Alexander and Thomas symbolize the somehow free, wild hippie lifestyle connected with outdoor adventurers and mountain people. In a way, they are directly connected to the generation of Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert, and on top of a long tradition of German romantic idealism. Stefan stands for a new[er] generation of smart, success-driven sponsored climbers and mountaineers seeking strong bonds to brands and media. The Hubers fulfill the public need for daydreaming adventures and individual freedom; Stefan stands as an example of how to combine an adventurous life with financial success.”
Jasper, according to Dauer, fits neither trope. “Robert may have tried to build a similar image, but he never succeeded. I’m not saying that he wasn’t professional; he always had good contacts in the specialist media. But he wasn’t willing to make a show out of his passion. Robert doesn’t sell any other person than the one he really is.”
This is not to say that the Hubers or Glowacz are inauthentic, more that they know which parts of their lives to harness and enhance into technicolor. Jasper just isn’t built that way. “He’s very down to earth,” Dauer continues. “A rather quiet and shy person. I don’t think he would ever exaggerate things just to be able to tell a good story, even if some exaggeration would make it easier for non-alpinists to understand what this guy is doing. Robert doesn’t play with images, stereotypes, and so on; he is always straight. Robert stands for Robert, which is great and admirable in my eyes, but not enough to earn the spotlight of publicity. I guess he’d be a nightmare for most PR people.”
Jasper does have sponsors, but they haven’t always made the most of his presence. Even so, with lectures and guiding, he’s pieced together a respectable living. To his credit, the climbing has never come close to being secondary to his media profile.
Dauer first came across Jasper in the early 1990s during the flurry of impressive solos and first ascents that marked the young man’s arrival. Then in his early 20s, Jasper tore through the Alps, gorging on solo ascents of familiar north faces, including the Eiger, Matterhorn, and Grandes Jorasses, and then, usually with partners but sometimes alone, adding serious, technically hard new routes. In May 1993, on his second attempt, he soloed an incredibly demanding new route on the northeast side of the Jungfraujoch that he dubbed Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and graded ED3 (in the overall Extremement Difficile, or extremely difficult, category for scale, threat, and difficulty), with sections of vertical ice, rock to VI (5.10a), awkward aid moves (A2/3), and Scottish 6 (roughly equivalent to M6+) mixed climbing.
That year he also often climbed with the climber-writer Malte Roeper, a few years his senior and the first German to solo the Eiger. Earlier, in March of 1993, Roeper and Jasper had done the first winter ascent of the Jean-Marc Boivin and Michel Piola route Flagrant Délire (meaning “stark staring mad” and a pun on the phrase flagrant délit, or “caught with your pants down”), on the Grand Capucin above Chamonix. Also in March, the pair climbed Schwarzwaldklinik, a new ED3 on the northeast face of the Graustock, a three-day route that required aid climbing on skyhooks, vertical ice, and mixed climbing up to Scottish 5/M5.
I first encountered Jasper in 1994, on the north face of Les Droites, the winter after he did Schwarzwaldklinik. As Tom Prentice and I progressed cautiously up the classic Cornau-Davaille, Jasper and Roeper, with Roeper’s mathematician friend Jörg Steinsberger, were peering down at our headlamps from their bivouac somewhere up to our right, freezing their sit-bones on hacked-out ice ledges at the base of a steep unclimbed wall that would soon become the Maria Callas Memorial Route. The name was Roeper’s idea: suitably operatic for such an extravagant creation. When daylight arrived and we paused for a breather, with the long sweep of the face beneath our front points, I craned my neck to watch Jasper swinging around on fiercely steep and technical aid. Maria Callas went in the book as another ED3, with a pitch of A4.
Back down in the valley, we ran into the trio in a Chamonix brasserie and shared a few beers. Roeper was gregarious and good-humored, Jasper a quieter, more intense presence. That reserve can look like arrogance in a young man, although the intensity was real enough. Malte Roeper later recalled in his essay compilation Auf Abwegen that while discussing tactics for the climb on Les Droites, Roeper and Steinsberger had told Jasper they should descend the south side and walk down the Mer de Glace back to Chamonix.
“You can’t do that to me!” Jasper said.
“Panic flickered in Robert’s blue eyes,” Roeper wrote. “We’d only suggested the easiest and most uncomplicated descent from the Droites. However, the descent to the south is followed by a nine-mile walk down the glacier back to the valley.
“‘Walking that far? It’ll take me way too long to recover for the next route.’”
Neither Roeper nor Steinsberger had been thinking about what would come after the Droites route. Neither was a mountain guide like Jasper. By his mid 20s, Robert was wholly committed to the mountain life, at work and at play, having qualified as a guide early. These hard routes were an opening salvo in a fireworks display that would light up alpinism for decades to come. But the pattern for that blazing career—Jasper’s fascination with the Eiger, his regard for safety, the steadiness that underpinned his burning ambition—had already been set.
Jasper’s signature climbs extend beyond the Bernese Oberland. In his early 30s, he returned to the Matterhorn to climb a new 30-pitch route up the Zmutt Nose with Rainer Treppte. Freedom took five days, with pitches of VIII- (5.11c), A2, and M5+, all on the Matterhorn’s fractured rock. And while he was happy to tough it out for days on hard new ground, Jasper could also climb fast, such as in a rapid solo ascent of a new route on the north face of the Grand Pilier d’Angle, 2,500 feet of 80-degree ice, from there reaching the Freney face for the first solo ascent of the rarely climbed testpiece Abominette, another 2,500 feet of even steeper ice and rock of VI, all in under 13 hours.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, was Jasper’s first free ascent, with Markus Stofer, of the famous No Siesta, the Grandes Jorasses, one of the outstanding mixed routes in the Alps. A futuristic first ascent in July 1986 by the Slovak climbers Ján Porvazník and Stanislav Glejdura, the route had seen only five repeats by the time Jasper got on it in 2003. With his ability for mixed climbing honed on modern routes on the Breitwangflue and beyond, Jasper freed the line at M8 in three days. In the American Alpine Club Journal he called the route “ingenious and psychologically demanding,” and “a masterpiece, far ahead of its time.” At a time when hard mixed climbing in the high Alps was still in its infancy, Jasper’s free ascent pointed to the future.
Jasper was born in the small railway town of Waldshut-Tiengen, a little to the east of where he lives now, on the north bank of the Rhine, the border with Switzerland. Real-estate prices are lower in Germany, so the town is popular with commuters crossing the border. Zürich is less than an hour away. His parents taught high school English and German, and in their long summer vacations would pack Robert and his two brothers into the car and tow a caravan around campsites across Southern Europe and the Mediterranean: Italy and France and what was then Yugoslavia.
“For me,” Robert says, “those holidays were a kind of expedition. Discovering became the main thing. You often think it’s great to reach a different level, the next level, but the most important thing is to develop yourself. See the next summit from the one you’re standing on. This is why I’m still doing it. And this is how I grow up.”
Daniela interrupts to correct his English from across the table. Grew, not grow. They laugh, but the slip actually illustrates something: that not only has Robert’s exploratory zeal not dimmed, it’s how he continues to grow. It’s how he turned his illness into a challenge and learned from it for the next phase of his career, giving him the psychological resources for a major expedition completely alone.
Waldshut-Tiengen is on the southern fringes of the Black Forest, with its deep valleys thick with trees and, from the hills, a distant view of the Bernese Oberland and Mont Blanc range. Further north the rock is sandstone, but in the south the predominant rock is gneiss. You could hardly design an environment more likely to awaken a latent passion for climbing, starting, in Robert’s case, with trees and then the crags. His father had no knowledge of climbing, but made time to nurture his son’s interest, kindled when he first saw alpine climbers practicing on the crags near their home. (Elsewhere, German climbers were on the cusp of the sport-climbing revolution, but the locals were still hanging off pitons.) The father and son learned together, reading books and making harnesses out of an old car seat belt. Yet the son would always lead the father. Robert was not yet 12.
Around this time the family spent a holiday at Grindelwald, and Robert got his first look at the Eiger. His father had set up a toprope on a little crag near the bottom of the 5,500-foot North Face, and the boy stared up at it, wondering. “I thought it wasn’t possible for me,” he tells me. “Then I thought maybe I could climb the easy route to the summit.” His first time up the 1938 route came just a few years later, at age 16. Since then he’s climbed this classic several times, including an ascent in 2005 with John Harlin III for the IMAX film The Alps.
The two had met a couple of years earlier at a sponsor’s event in France, where Jasper gave a presentation that caught Harlin’s attention.
“It was the first time since my father,” Harlin tells me in an email, “that I’d met anyone who seemed to really love the face, for its ambiance and its climbing. Until then everyone seemed to want to tick it off a list and be done with it. The general impression [of the face] was always of intimidation. For Robert it was attraction and passion.”
Harlin intended to climb the face where his father had perished in 1966. He approached Jasper as a partner, and Jasper agreed, but their chosen window of September 2004 came and went without a decent forecast. Harlin was still in Leysin, staying with the British guide Roger Payne, when he got a call from Stephen Venables, who had just successfully pitched the idea of an Alps IMAX feature film to the producers MacGillivray Freeman.
Harlin and Jasper agreed to climb the Eiger for the movie, but the arrangement came with its own complexities. The producers wanted a woman involved to widen the movie’s appeal, which was no problem since that meant Daniela could join them. The weather, on the other hand, wasn’t so cooperative and, as Harlin recalls, the producers became increasingly keen for the climbers to get going. “Robert patiently kept saying no, we need to wait for the cycle to complete and then for the right length of clear weather to be forecast. I was quite happy leaving that decision in Robert’s expert hands. He wasn’t going to be pressured into anything rash. I might not have been able to resist.”
Jasper and Harlin filled their time before the climb with visits to the climbing wall at Thun, near where Robert was then living. “We climbed until I was exhausted,” Harlin recalls. “Then he needed a final pump session, five separate long, hard, overhanging routes without touching the ground. I didn’t think such endurance was possible.” They and Daniela climbed the Eiger on September 24.
Harlin had developed an instant respect for Jasper. “He’s modest, soft-spoken, cooperative, professional, and easy to get along with,” Harlin says. “He’s also supremely talented and strong. I really can’t imagine a better climbing companion.”
Nor anyone who knew the Eiger better, considering Jasper’s track record on this most famous of north faces. In 1999, soon after they got together, he and Daniela climbed five new pitches on the Eiger’s steep right-hand wall to link two hard routes, Le Chant du Cygne and Spit Verdonesque, creating the 27-pitch Symphonie de Liberté, the first grade X- (5.13b) on the face. While routes on the Eiger Nordwand’s Geneva Spur are sometimes regarded as sport climbing, the face remains serious: in 2011 the Swiss star Giovanni Quirici was fatally injured in a fall from the seventh pitch of Le Chant du Cygne.
In 2005 (before the IMAX ascent with Harlin), Jasper and Roger Schäli attempted a free ascent of the formidable Yeti, another Eiger route, put in with aid in 1998. At 3,300 feet, it’s a big route, and the hardest pitches are at the top. The rock is solid but hard to read and often wet. And while there are bolts on the hardest climbing, the route still requires trad gear and long sections of, as Jasper puts it, “no falling.” The redpoint escaped him and Schäli that year, but Jasper went back in the summer of 2006 with Stefan Eder and finished the job.
Three years later, in 2009, he and Schäli pulled off what Jasper says was “absolutely a highlight in both our mountain-climbing lives”—the first free ascent of the 1969 Japanese Direttissima, a whale of a route running straight up the face for 4,000 feet in parallel to the John Harlin Route and clipping the right-hand end of the Second Icefield. The following year, in 2010, they went one better with a free ascent of almost all the Harlin Direct.
If the Japanese Direttissima was a whale, then the Harlin Direct was Moby Dick, with the sort of moody history that typifies the Eiger. Its first ascent, involving competing teams, fixed ropes, winter storms, and the very public death of the American climber John Harlin, remains a landmark of 1960s alpinism. It was also something of a compulsion for Jasper, who had tried the route four times, including a solo attempt, before his eventual success five years after he did the face with the younger Harlin. The loss of ice compared to 1966, under the influence of climate change, added to the risk, since the rock is often difficult to protect.
“You have to climb very tactically,” he told Planetmountain after the climb, “because the wall is very dangerous. We had reckoned on three to four days and we took one haulbag with [25 pounds] of gear, two lightweight sleeping bags, a small tent, a stove [and] food for three days.”
The most technical sections came at the first steep band, with four pitches up to 5.11d. On the pillar that ends at the White Spider, a system of ice-and snow-filled cracks on the upper face, Jasper was switching from M8- to 5.11d. “For me, this route is the most complex alpine line on the Eiger. You need a lot of experience, as it takes you through the most dangerous section of the entire north face.”
Jasper led the pitch into the Spider, where in 1966 the fixed line John Harlin was climbing broke. It is part of the history of the face that Peter Gillman, a British climber-writer, had been watching through a telescope at Kleine Scheidegg and saw Harlin fall, a moment that has haunted Gillman ever since. As Jasper climbed toward the Spider, memories of his climb with Harlin’s son crowded his mind and he couldn’t help thinking about his own son: “About the risks on a mountain face, whether all of this is worth it or not.”
What happened next illustrates Jasper’s shrewd take on where to draw the line. The Harlin Direct continues up the Eiger’s upper headwall, but when Jasper and Schäli reached the Spider they could see that the finish was plastered with powder snow and were uncertain they could climb it free. They knew also that they had only one more day of good weather left. The original German team, with the Scottish climber Dougal Haston, completed the route in the teeth of a gale, but Jasper wasn’t about to repeat that history, and the pair topped out on the original Heckmair Route.
“The aim was the free ascent,” he tells me, “ground up, in alpine style of a direct line, and the Harlin was perfect for this. The exit of the classic [Heckmair] route is maybe more logical than the exit of the Harlin, but to be honest, of course it would have been nice to climb it completely. [Still,] because the weather dropped during our final ascent, I’m happy we climbed it as we did. If you get caught on the headwall by bad weather, you can easily lose your life.” Since that ascent, the route has been repeated only two times, neither free. “So there is the goal for the coming generations,” says Jasper, “to free it in alpine style with the original [Harlin] exit.”
In the decade or more since, Jasper has continued to find ways to experience the shadowy compulsion of the Eiger. In 2013 he made the FFA of the Ghilini-Piola, another direttissima, climbed in 1983 at ED3/4, freed at 7c (5.12d). But what came next was the real prize: a major new route that was the hardest both in technical terms, at 8a (5.13b), but also exceptionally sustained.
Six years in the making, Odyssee was an epic and uncertain voyage on the steepest and most challenging part of the North Face. It follows the overhanging Rote Fluh and goes straight up the Czech Pillar, to the right of the 1938 route. Jasper and Roger Schäli had seen the line while freeing the Japanese Direttissima in 2009, and even though they became absorbed in other Eiger projects, still put some time in. Over the next four years they pushed the route up the face, crossing paths with other legendary hard routes like La Vida es Silbar (5.12d, 3,000 feet) and Ueli Steck’s Paciencia (5.13b, 3,000 feet), which had previously held pride of place among the Eiger’s hardest routes. But it was slow work, hampered by indifferent summers and the threat of rockfall.
The climbers pushed the route up the Czech Pillar, but by the end of the 2014 season were only two-thirds of the way on what would become a climb of 4,500 feet. Fresh impetus duly arrived in 2015, partly in the form of excellent weather, the second-best summer in 150 years, but mostly with the recruitment of the young South Tyrolean climber Simon Gietl to the team, bringing new energy to the enterprise. Even so, they were on the face for two months. Sixteen of the 33 pitches were 7a (5.11d) and up.
In 2018, another South Tyrolean, Jacopo Larcher, and the Austrian climber Babsi Zangerl tagged the second ascent. “We’d like to congratulate the first ascensionists. I seriously didn’t think the route would be that overhanging,” Larcher told Planetmountain.
There is something both paradoxical and revealing about Jasper’s long love affair with the Eiger. Here is a man thinking of his young son as he free climbs up the rock where John Harlin lost his life, leaving his own young son without a father. And yet Jasper had repeated a portion of the route for the camera. Tom Dauer, after watching the footage of Jasper climbing hard rock and thin ice on the Harlin Route, felt he was in control: “I never had the feeling that this man was going to risk too much, let alone do something dangerous. Jasper is as far away from the alpine gambler who senselessly risks life and limb as the Eiger is from Mons Huygens” (the highest mountain on Mars).
An episode early in his career, “a key point in my life,” as Jasper describes it, both explains and encapsulates his particular relationship with risk. The summer he was 16, Robert took off for the Mont Blanc range at the start of a six-week vacation from school. “I hadn’t really made a plan,” he says, “and I was there alone. I couldn’t find a partner.” So Robert thought he’d solo the Gervasutti Couloir on the Tour Ronde, a satellite peak of Mont Blanc, as a warm-up. Climbing by the light of his headlamp, he heard a noise, “like a really big falling rock. I moved out of the way and watched it go past. I saw it was a body, another climber. It was a big shock, a person falling to his death. I climbed down but there was no chance to help him.
“His death perhaps saved my life. I understood what could happen if you risk too much.”
With the body airlifted to a hospital, Robert marched straight down to the valley and caught the next train out of Chamonix. So keen was he to leave that he bivouacked at a station en route. He spent the rest of the summer sport climbing at Arco and only went ice climbing again that winter.
“Did you tell your parents?”
“Not much. I remember them saying to me, after they’d seen something I’d done on television, how they hadn’t realized what I had been doing. But I didn’t want to tell them everything.”
The life he has chosen has raised challenges inside his own family. “When the children were very small, I did long expeditions to Patagonia with Stefan Glowacz and was away for two months. Yeah, I enjoyed it, but for Daniela it was a hard time. It was OK for me, because I knew if I was safe and happy, and she didn’t. I was in control but she didn’t know what was going on. Much harder to sit at home, especially as a climber. She knows what the risks are.”
He and Glowacz got a major new route out of it, on the north pillar of Cerro Murallón, which earned Jasper his only nomination for a Piolet d’Or.
Mostly, Jasper has concentrated on challenges closer to him. He has climbed in the Himalaya, including a strong effort on the seriously hard southeast pillar of Nuptse East, gaining 2,000 meters, including 90-degree ice and rock of VII/A3, to reach the Diamond Tower. But with the summit in sight, he retreated in the face of predicted 120-mph winds to leave the route unfinished. It was a similar story when he attempted the direct route on the southwest pillar of Bhagirathi III. He’s certainly never been interested in extreme altitude climbing, in contrast to his near-contemporary Ueli Steck (who died in 2017). “I love climbing,” he says. “I don’t like running. That’s why I wasn’t interested in 8,000 meters. For me, it’s not really climbing. It’s more walking and living at high altitude. I want to be at my technical limit. It’s more absorbing, focusing on the next move, the next hold. For me, it’s much more creative. It’s the art of movement.”
Of course, extreme altitude attracts attention, and Jasper understands that in the celebrity stakes he’s been somewhat left behind. “For sure, I’m not the most famous. But that’s not so important for me. I don’t want to be well-known, I really don’t.” Having come of age as an alpinist long before the era of social media, Jasper has a perspective that is fading out. He says: “I met this guy who told me he wanted to be the most famous climber. I thought, yes, you’re strong. But being the most famous? That felt strange to me. People now on social media communicate what they want to do, not what they’ve done. And that’s become the news. In the past we didn’t do that.”
Living in the Oberland for many years, he saw Ueli Steck often. “I knew him quite well. It’s hard to talk about other people. To see inside their minds. He seemed stressed. He was [focused] too much on his sponsorships. I try to do what I like. I don’t want to compromise in my climbing objectives. I’ve seen what happens if you risk too much. You have to stand behind your principles. I’ve learned so much in the mountains. They were like my school. And people now lose so much contact with nature.”
If his rigorous philosophy hasn’t led to global fame or fortune, Jasper is still doing just fine and in recent years has experienced some of the most satisfactory adventures of his career, the culmination of a lifetime in the mountains. In 2018, a year after his illness, he made a solo trip to Greenland, leaving the last Inuit settlement at Kungmit and paddling a kayak with 200 pounds of gear and provisions about 20 miles up the Angmassalik-Tasilaq Fjord. It took him 12 days to reach his basecamp in the Fox Jaw cirque, where he rope-soloed a 1,500-foot 5.12d that he named Stonecircle.
“The biggest journey was in my head,” he says. “I had a lot of experience solo climbing but I didn’t know if it would work. The hardest thing was leaving civilization. Paddling away from the last village was like crossing a border. I wasn’t sure if I would come back. But it was all so interesting. So beautiful. You have such open eyes for everything.”
Ed Douglas is a writer and climber living in Sheffield, England. His latest book is Himalaya: A Human History.