Climbing hard all day, Jeff Lowe forced the route through a wilderness of false leads and frustrating dead ends, but darkness caught him short of the ledge he had hoped to reach, stranding him in a vertical labyrinth. He was left with no choice but to carve a makeshift cave in a fan of snow plastered against a steep rock, then crawl inside. Wet, cold, and physically spent, he lit his balky stove and began the task of turning pot after pot of packed snow into drinking water.
In the middle of the night the storm hit. A heavy snowfall poured out of the black sky, and as the snow gathered, it set loose spindrift avalanches that filled Lowe's cave and threatened to smother him. All night he lay in his sleeping bag, pashing and pounding the walls of his flimsy bivouac sack to maintain some breathing space inside the cave.
A lifelong tendency toward claustrophobia compounded Lowe's distress. As he grew drowsy, he would be seized with panic; ripping open the door of the bivouac sack, he would gasp fresh air, allowing snow not only to spill inside the cave but to fill his sleeping bag, where it melted and soaked his clothes.
By morning, Lowe was in a perilous situation. It was February 28th, his ninth day on the north face of the Eiger. He had climbed 4,500 feet over those nine days, but in the 1,500 feet of frozen limestone that still hung over him, he was sure he would find the hardest passages of all. His food was almost gone. He could not stay warm at night. And he was on the verge of exhaustion.
This, Lowe knew, was how climbers died on the Nordwand. In just such a way the audacious Toni Kurz had come to grief, his rappel jammed on a knotted rope; or Stefano Longhi, left behind by his partner to freeze to death after a bad fall; or Max Sedlmayer, climbing hopelessly toward the avalanche that would pluck him from his life.
Getting down from so high on the north face, in the midst of a storm, would take a desperate effort, if it was indeed possible at all. At the moment, with avalanches thundering over the cliffs above and sweeping the fan of snow, descent was out of the question: Lowe could not even escape his snow cave.
Hunkered inside his claustrophobic hole, alone in a gray universe of nothingness, Lowe brooded on his predicament. During the last few days, with the weather holding, he had climbed so well; at last he had felt in perfect form, as success had dared to whisper in his ears. Now the prospect of failure loomed larger with every hour of snowfall. And if the situation got any worse, Lowe would be in a battle for his very life.
No, things were not going right – and the pattern was all too familiar. For a year now, things had been going wrong for Jeff Lowe. Major things, disastrously wrong. Bankruptcy. The failure of his marriage. Separation from his two-year-old daughter. He had scrambled to hold it all together, but his despair had peaked in late October, just after his 40th birthday, leaving him sleepless, his antic mind tormenting him with a parade of furious creditors and disapproving friends. Out of the nadir of that depression had come the decision to climb the Eiger. A new route on the north face – a clean, direct vector between the Czech and Japanese lines. Solo. In winter. Without bolts.
If he could pull it off, it would be greatest climb ever accomplished by an American in the Alps. And at a deeper, more personal level, the Eiger might somehow tame the internal voices howling of failure and loss. It would be a way for Lowe to return to his strength, to the thing he did better than almost anyone in the world.
Twenty-four hours after burrowing into the mountainside, Lowe was still stuck inside the inadequate snow cave. As he prepared to spend a second night there, shivering in a soggy sleeping bag, he got out his two-way radio and warmed the batteries against his body. Rousing his support team at the hotel far below, Lowe spoke slowly, his voice seamed with fatigue: "I've got a decision to make. Whether to go up or down. It's a tough one."
There was a long pause. "I don't know how hard it would be to get down from here," he said. "I figure it'll take three days minimum to reach the summit if I go up. And that's only if the weather's good tomorrow and Saturday."
Another pause: "I guess tomorrow's going to tell. If I go for it, I'll have to pull out all the stops."