Climbing, briefly, the Eiger

Can we just briefly climb the Eiger here? No really. With Charles Barrington, described curtly by Wikipedia as “mountaineer”, who first got to the top on August 11 of 1858.

I really have no idea how. To quote Wikipedia again, he had “little or no mountaineering experience” by which standard I am myself a “mountaineer” though not I suppose a “sarcasticeer” because I practice a lot at that whatever you think of the result.

Barrington didn’t. He just decided to zoom up a death-defying peak chosen for a reason a Scotsman cannot help admiring: He wanted to do the first ascent of the Matterhorn but didn’t have enough money to get to that part of Switzerland. Mind you he did have enough to hire a couple of guides who somehow knew enough to get an amateur to the summit but not enough to be scared off by the prospect. And they were using the usual hobnail boots, wool pants, pointed sticks and hemp ropes whose main safety feature was that as an entire party was being swept from the mountain to certain death they sometimes snapped and spared a few.

As you undoubtedly don’t guess, Barrington summited the Eiger, left Switzerland for his native Ireland and never visited the Alps again. I mean why bother? Unless you wanted to do the Matterhorn in style as well. The style being clueless amateur wandering up deadly peak and down again which you’ll admit has some panache.

Today’s mountaineer is a different creature. It’s not enough to climb a mountain. You need to get the highest of high-tech gear then find a route up the dang thing that is well calculated to destroy your gear with you in it. Barrington slummed it up the Eiger from the west side. The infamous North Face defied all efforts until 1958, littering its morbidly visible surface with bodies and such appealing names as “Death Bivouac” (a 1936 attempt saw one climber killed while training and four others during the climb including one guy who’d been uninjured in a 121 foot fall just scouting routes so he must have been pretty tough; it wasn’t until 1937 that anyone survived even a failed serious go at it) and leading predictably to a rash of books and articles slagging one another for inaccuracies.

And yes, The Eiger Sanction is set on the North Face, which I only mention here because it lets me quote my all-time favourite movie insult, in which some creepy two-bit agent tells Clint Eastwood’s character Prof. Jonathan Hemlock that “My superior wants to see you” only to have Hemlock respond “Well, that doesn’t limit the field much!”

Actually climbing a real mountain has the opposite effect. I admire everyone brave enough to climb one even if I also think they must be insane to try. And I do like the fact that Barrington must have gotten some money somewhere because he later owned the horse that won the first Irish Grand National, and organized Ireland’s first mountain race, which was a running along not a plodding straight up event, Ireland being a bit short of Eiger-like peaks. No cranky letters from the Shamrock set please; the Eiger is 13,020 feet tall whereas Ireland’s majestic Carrauntoohil (or, if that’s just too easy to say, Corrán Tuathail) is but 3405 feet. And a half. Easy to scale with one’s tongue.

As for myself, someday I’d like to do the Eiger and, clad in the most advanced modern winter gear, look really hard at it.