Our relationship with the mountains is built on awe. Their age seems to impart wisdom; their violence, humility; their proximity to the sky, faith. We go to the mountains for peace and solitude or a stroll with a date. But sometimes it’s more: an ancient struggle of man’s imagination versus the hard truth of rock. We dispatched intrepid GP editor Jason Heaton on three journeys to three mountain ranges in three countries. Over the next month we’ll share his stories and photos from the Bugaboos of British Columbia, the Swiss Alps, and New Hampshire's White Mountains in what we've come to call The Mountain Series.
For alpinists everywhere, including those confined to armchairs, the name “Eiger” conjures up excitement, fear and dread. Considered the most daunting climb in the Alps, the mountain’s north face, the “Nordwand”, is a 6,000-foot sheer wall of crumbling, often ice-coated, rock that is continually scoured by rockfalls and avalanches. First climbed in 1938, it has been the scene of countless adventures, tragedies and one Clint Eastwood movie. The name and the image of the Eiger were etched in my brain for years, and I read everything I could about the mountain. So to see it there, across the valley from the sundeck of the Berggasthaus First, seemed like a dream; I could hardly take my eyes off it.
Early September found me and my wife, Gishani, 7,000 feet above Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland, where we were attending a Mountain Sports Photography Workshop hosted by Viewfinder Photo Center and taught by the renowned Swiss-American photographer couple Dan and Janine Patitucci. Our classroom couldn’t have been more perfect: days were spent out hiking with camera gear, dodging grazing sheep and cows with the big trio of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau providing a dramatic backdrop.
The Swiss love their hiking, and it shows. Trails are obsessively marked so it is virtually impossible to get lost. Instead of distances marked in miles or kilometers, they are in hours of hiking, assuming a certain level of fitness and sure-footedness. Stone and wood huts have been constructed along the trails with simple benches and sometimes a small fireplace inside. In one, we found an old mouse-eaten book left by a hiker who had to wait out a storm there, pulp fiction in a language I didn't understand.
The day the workshop ended, all of the other participants departed for home, boarding the last gondola down the mountain to the train station in Grindelwald. Gishani and I had an extra day to practice what we’d learned. When we awoke the next morning, a light drizzle was falling and the Eiger was hidden behind a low cloud deck. Shrugging off the weather, we donned rain gear, shouldered our packs and set out for a hike to the top of the Faulhorn, an 8,800-foot mountain.
The going was steep and slick in the rain and we took refuge in the huts, now, thankfully, understanding their true purpose. As we gained the last ridgeline, the rain had turned to a pelting sleet. Through the fog, we spied the peak, where the oldest mountaintop hotel in Europe perches precariously, built in 1830. The innkeeper eyed us with disgust as we stumbled into the dining room dripping wet and ordered a cup of tea. Through the fogged windows we could see fat flakes of snow blowing sideways and decided to forgo a refill and get back down the mountain.
The descent felt dangerous, but it was faster going, and soon we were back down skirting around the shore of Bachalpsee, a small lake that had provided a fine foreground for many of our practice photos the day before when the sun was shining. As we hastened down the trail back to the guesthouse, the rain let up and the clouds parted. For a brief moment the Eiger showed its glowering countenance. Then, just as quickly, it vanished and the rain began to fall again and during the night, turned to snow.
Photos continue below.