Top Reads #6 The White Spider
The White Spider By Heinrich Harrier
In August 1935 Max Sedlmayer and Karl Mehringer became pinned down by a storm at 10,800 feet on an imposing Alpine face. The small ledge they were on was quickly getting banked out with snow and their condition deteriorated as the storm continued to rage. In the end they never left their ledge and the North Face of the Eiger had a new iconic feature. Sedlmayer & Mehringer's last resting place became known from that moment on as the 'Death Bivouac'.
The next year 4 more hopefuls died on the face. They actually perished while trying to retreat and their story became another famous chapter in Eiger history. Having successfully traversed across a blank section of rock during their ascent, the team now found their route back across the same section was impassable. Their increasingly frantic attempts to find an alternative all failed and one by one they died or were swept from the face.
The last member of the talented but tragic team ended his journey dangling above the gallery window (a tunnel chiseled through the mountain to clear debris during the construction of the Eiger's internal railway) only a short distance from the guides that had come through the window to try and save him. Toni Kurz battled super humanly against his failing strength and frostbite, but he couldn't overcome the final obstacle of a knot in the rope. After struggling desperately, and with help only metres away, he uttered his final words, "I'm finished".
The team's tragedy gave the name to another Eiger feature. The talented young alpinist who had successfully tiptoed sideways across the blank slab and then also battled valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to reverse it again was called Andreas Hinterstoisser. The Hinterstossiser Traverse was his legacy.
A few more attempts passed before another talented team finally unlocked a wandering and ingenious line up this vast face. Finally, in July 1938, when Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vorg, Fritz Kasperek and Henrich Harrer stood on top of the Eiger, their place in mountaineering history was secured.
The 1938 route has since become a highly sought after 'tick' for alpinists worldwide, and for many the fire will undoubtedly have been partly fuelled by the book Heinrich Harrer later wrote. The White Spider is a dramatic feature of icy runnels on the North Face and conquering it was the key to the teams success. It now became the obvious name choice for one of mountaineering's most famous books. Harrer is a great writer and his book really draws the reader in - The White Spider is the closest you'll get to climbing this amazing face without actually climbing this amazing face!
However, in writing this book Harrer does far more than tell his own story. The White Spider is also a great account of many attempts on the face. It is a truly great book and should be on every mountaineers bookcase. It should also be compulsory reading for all aspiring alpinists! The White Spider is, quite rightly, another Peak Mountaineering Top Read.