The hotel at Kleine Scheidegg near Grindelwald is a rambling Victorian masterpiece, festooned with tiny rooms supplied by elegant if quirky plumbing, with linen wallpaper and richly varnished wood wainscoting, cozy reading nooks, 18th-century engravings, and oak floors that creek and undulate like a glacier. For 56 years the hotel has been the headquarters for Eiger watching. As he prepared for his ascent, it became Lowe's base camp.
The hotel is owned and run by the legendary Frau von Almen. She is a handsome woman of 70 with an imperious manner and a constant frown of disapproval on her brow. Checking in on the three of us, I told her about Lowe's plans. The frown deepened. "This is insane," she announced. "It is more than insane – it is mad." She turned and walked away. "I do not like the accidents," she nattered. "Because they are so unnecessary."
To stay in the hotel is to put up with Frau von Almen's tyrannical regime. There was a lengthy codex of unwritten rules, a good portion of which we managed to break. I wore my climbing boots upstairs; Krakauer and Lowe brought sandwiches from outside and ate them in her café; I foolishly asked her to unlock the front door of the hotel before 8 a.m.; and Krakauer had the nerve to wonder if he might move and photograph a portrait of the pioneers who had made the first ascent of the Nordwand in 1938.
There was no way to get on her good side. After dinner one night, I complimented her fulsomely on the four-course repast. "And did your friend enjoy the dinner, too?" she asked ominously.
"Oh, yes." I answered.
"Because he will not eat like this up on the mountain."
Only Frau von Almen's longtime guests – those who had come every winter for more than a decade and skied innocuously each afternoon – seemed to bask in her approbation. The truth was the she was down on the climbers. And this was sad, because her husband, Fritz, who died in 1974, had been the climbers' best friend, watching them for hours through his telescope, exchanging flashlight signals with the bivouacs each night. The Frau still had the telescope but would unpack it, she said, "only for emergency." An old-timer told us that a few years ago some climbers accidentally knocked over the telescope and broke it, then ran away.
On February 11th, Catherine Destivelle arrived from Chamonix. Five feet four inches tall, with curly brown hair, a conquering smile and a formidable physique, she is a superstar in France, yet fame has left her relatively unaffected. Though they could hardly disguise the fact that they were staying in the same room, at first Lowe and Destivelle maintained a demure propriety. Gradually the handclasps became less furtive, the kisses semipublic.
For a first-rate climber, Lowe seemed woefully disorganized. For days his gear was spread all over his hotel room, but as he inventoried it, he discovered that he was lacking essential items. From Krakauer he borrowed a headlamp, pitons, first-aid supplies, and a crucial pair of jumars for ascending ropes. Destivelle brought him foodstuffs (she swore by powdered mashed potatoes) and a two-way radio.
Destivelle was scandalized by Lowe's preparations. "I can't believe he is climbing with equipment he has never used before," she told us again and again. "I would never do this." Lowe dismissed the problem, omitting one of its causes: He was so broke he had to sell much of his climbing gear and now was dependent on the largess of European companies intrigued with his Eiger project.
On the night of February 18th, Destivelle joined Krakauer and me in the bar, where she chain-smoked half a pack of Marlboros. (Ordinarily, she goes months without a cigarette.) At breakfast the next morning, she said she had dreamed obsessively about an all-out war in which everybody was hunting Lowe. She had spent a fitful, miserable night, while beside her Lowe had slept soundly.
In the morning, Destivelle rode the cog railway up to the Eigergletscher station, where she kissed Lowe goodbye. He put on his skis and headed for the base of the wall.