On February 19th, the first day on the Nordwand, Lowe waltzed up 2,000 feet in only two hours. The going was easy but dangerous, a matter of planting the picks on his aces in a steady rhythm, of stabbing the crampon points strapped to his boot soles into brittle ice overlying steep rock. He soloed without a rope: If he slipped, he would die. But Lowe was in his element on the nerve-stretching ground. The speed and precision that had made his technique famous among a generation of American climbers spoke in every swing of his axes.
It was, however, still the heart of winter, and this was the Eiger. Over the last six decades, it was the easy start on the north face that had seduced so many alpinists. Between 50 and 60 of the best climbers of the world had died there, in a variety of gruesome ways.
The names of the Eiger's most historic landmarks – the Ice Hose, the Death Bivouac, the Traverse of the Gods, the White Spider – are canonic touchstones to alpinists everywhere. Whether or not they have ever seen the notorious wall, all climbers grow up with a keen awareness of its history. Eight of the first 10 men who set out to climb the Nordwand were killed trying. The first man to attempt a solo ascent backed off prudently, only to die on a subsequent attack with a partner. The second, third and fourth solo attempts all ended in death. Early on, the wall acquired its punning German nickname, the Mordwand.
Accounts of these disasters built up the Eiger mystique. Every climber knows the tales, as visceral as tribal legends passed on around the campfire: Hintertoisser falling to his death as he tried to reverse his traverse on iced-up rock. Angerer strangled by his own rope. Toni Kurz expiring when the knot jammed in his carabiner, only a few feet above his rescuers, as he spoke his last words, "Ich kann nicht mehr" ("I can do no more"). The last words of Longhi, borne on the wind from the ledge high on the face where he froze to death: "Fame! Freddo!" ("Hungry! Cold!")
At the foot of the sheer 350-foot rock cliff called the First Band, the climbing abruptly turned hard. As Lowe used his rope for this first time, his pace slowed to a vertical crawl. In three and a half hours, he gained only 110 feet. On the second day, a dogged and ingenious struggle over nine intense hours won Lowe a mere 80 feet more.
On other great mountain faces, clean vertical cracks, good ledges and solid rock abound. The Eiger, however, is notorious for limestone knobs that crumble as you grasp them, for down-sloping ledges covered with ice and for a scarcity of good cracks. The severity of the terrain brought out the best in Lowe, as he used tiny metal hangers and the tips of his axe blades to "hook" his way upward.
But already there were problems. Lowe had what he called fumble fingers, dropping three or four of his most valuable nuts and pitons, and the pick on one of his axes had worked loose. He climbed on anyway, adjusting his technique to the loose wobble of the pick, which meant he could never really swing the ax hard and plant the blade securely into the ice. It was a bad compromise, like driving at 30 mph on a flat tire.
Late on his third day of climbing, he had put most of the First Band beneath him, but the climbing was the most frightening yet. The storms of the last few weeks had glued snow and ice onto vertical and even overhanging rock. Lowe had to shift back and forth between rock and snow, from spidering with bulky plastic boots and gloved hands among the limestone nubbins to crabbing his way up the hollow snow with crampons and axes. When he could, he placed protection – a machined nut or piton in the rock or a screw in the ice.
At 2:50 p.m., Lowe clung to a particularly flimsy patch of rotten snow. Two thousand feet of cold, empty air fell away beneath his boots. He doubted whether he could reverse the moves he had made above his last protection eight feet below and had no idea whether he could find protection above or climb through the looming overhang, that blocked his view of the rest of the gigantic wall. For all he knew, he was creeping into a vertical cul-de-sac.
The boldness of Lowe's choice to go without a bolt kit was now manifest. Throughout his efforts to surmount the First Band, he had been stymied right and left by blank, unclimbable rock. With bolts, it is possible to drill the rock and build a ladder through the most featureless impasse. Every other new route on the Eiger in the last 30 years had employed bolts; the Japanese who had pioneered the imposing line just to the right of Lowe's had placed 250 of them.
Bolts also bestow a huge bonus in safety. When a climber is "running it out" – leading into uncertain terrain, with bad protection – he never knows whether he can find a reliable anchor before he reaches the end of his rope. With bolts, a solid anchor can be manufactured where nuts and pitons are useless. Without bolts, the process is like creeping farther and farther out on a lake covered in thin ice.
Lacking bolts, Lowe fiddled with a tiny nut, trying to wedge it into a crooked, quarter-inch crack that split the First Band. Suddenly the snow broke loose beneath his feet. He was falling.
In conventional climbing, with two people on a rope, one anchors himself to the precipice and feeds out the rope as the other leads above. If the leader falls, he plunges a little more than twice as far as he was above his last protection, until his partner "belays" or stops him by holding tight to the rope. For a soloist, the belayer is a mechanical apparatus. As one might suspect, solo-belaying is far less reliable than the kind afforded by a human partner.
As he started up the wall three days before, Lowe carried a new kind of self-belay device he had never used. Before his first hard pitch, he had not even taken the contraption out of the plastic bag it was sold in. The question now, as he fell through the air, was whether the device would work.
An abrupt jolt gave him his answer: The rig had done its job. Lowe was unhurt. He had not even had time to be scared, but now the delayed adrenaline rush started to surge. In response, he edged his way back to his high point, where he found another plate of snow to try. Gingerly he moved up it, anticipating another fall with each step, until he stood beneath the rock overhang.
The only way to proceed was to angle left through a weakness in the browing cliff. Lowe made a series of delicate moves on rock, until he could plant the picks of his axes on snow above, the left pick wobbling in its disturbing fashion. But here the snow was worthless, sloughing loose under the slightest touch. For a full hour he struggled in place, patiently probing the terrain for its arcane secrets. At last he found a small patch of more reliable snow. He planted both axes, moved his feet up and stabbed the front points. The snow held. He moved a few feet higher, then surged upward.
He was over the First Band, but by now it was getting dark. Lowe placed three ice screws at his high point, then rappelled back down to the snow cave he had slept in the night before. He crawled into his thin sleeping bag and pulled the frosty bivouac sack over him. Tired though he was, sleep escaped him. His problems danced mockingly in his mind, their shadows darting from wall to wall inside the cave of unhappiness in which he'd lived for a year. The loose pick on his ax nagged at him, and at the rate he was burning stove fuel, he would run out of gas canisters long before he could reach the summit. And he needed those nuts and pitons he had dropped.
In the morning Lowe turned on his walkie-talkie and called down to Krakauer and me at the hotel. "Guys," he said in his slow, gravelly voice, "I'm thinking about a slight change of plans." He had decided, he told us, to leave his rope in place over the most difficult part of the First Band and, while he was still low enough on the wall to do so, descend briefly to Kleine Scheidegg, where he might fix his malfunctioning ice ax, replenish his supply of food and fuel, and replace the hardware he'd dropped. Then, in a day or two, he could go back up the wall.
Lowe reached the hotel before noon. "Why did you not tell me before the weekend that you were coming down?" Frau von Almen complained, fingering her room charts. It happened to be Friday. "Now I have to put you in 88, way up on the fourth floor."
"That's fine with me," said Lowe.
"I know," said the Frau as she walked away. "But you are very simple."
A stack of faxes was waiting for Lowe at the hotel, most of which were from furious creditors demanding payment. These did not appear to rattle his composure, but a long missive from Janie seemed to trouble him deeply.
Having come to admire and like Lowe, I was puzzling over the vehemence of his detractors. Jim Bridwell, who claims Lowe still owes him $3,000 for Nameless Tower, had said: "I think of Jeff as a climber and what that used to mean. You used to be able to trust climbers. But Jeff'll say one thing and do another. I just think he's disturbed. Either he doesn't know he's lying, or ..."
Janie Lowe thought Jeff's problems had been compounded by his pride. "He can't say he's sorry," she told me. "'Hey, I really fucked up.' Just a few sentences would resolve his debt with his friends."
One voice in Lowe's defense, however, was that of Jeff Long, who insisted: "These people want Jeff's professional corpse swinging in the wind. I think what they did in investing in Jeff was to invest in his vision. What collapsed, they thought, was a whole vision they shared. The brotherhood of the rope. But what was going on was really just business."
For all her sorrow, in any case, Janie was determined to keep the channels open. "We'll always be parents," she said. "We have a wonderful little daughter. For Sonja's sake, I hope we can keep our own bullshit in the background."
One night in the hotel, Lowe had watched the three-year-old daughter of a guest carrying her plate heaped with food from the salad bar. The sight had brought tears to his eyes. "Yeah, I really miss my daughter," he admitted.
As Janie had pointed out, though: "Yes, he totally loves Sonja. But you know what? He doesn't love her enough to be with her."
In his own way, Lowe acknowledged that stricture. "I think I know now," he said in a reflective moment, "that you can't do this sort of climbing and have a domestic side. You're not a practicing father if you're not there. You're maybe a visiting father."
There had been a snowstorm on the morning of Lowe's descent, but by the following day the precipitation had ceased and the weather had stabilized. The temperatures were strangely warm, however – well above freezing at the 6,000-foot elevation of the hotel. That was better than brutal cold, except it meant bad avalanche conditions. In the weekend prior to his start on the Nordwand, 31 people had died in avalanches across the Alps.
There were, in short, plenty of reasons to give up the climb, excuses lying ready to be seized. But Lowe spent the evening in room 88, sorting his gear in his slow, fastidious fashion. Early in the next morning he returned to the foot of the wall, and by noon he was back at his bivouac cave, at the lower end of the ropes he had left in place. By the time the evening fell, he had reascended the ropes and wrestled his 100 pounds of gear up to his previous high point.
Then, boldly, he led on into the dusk. It was not until three hours after dark that he suspended a hanging tent from a pair of ice screws and crawled into his sleeping bag. He was halfway up the Nordwand.
"Good morning, Vietnam," he radioed us in the morning. "I just woke up from one of the best sleeps I've had in a long time." When he started climbing again, his route coincided for a few hundred feet with the classic 1938 line. This section of the route, known as the Ice Hose, had been a formidable test to most of the expert climbers who had attempted the Nordwand over the years. For Lowe, with his impeccable ice technique, it was almost like hiking. He raced up the Ice Hose and across the Second Icefield and at day's end was bivouacked at the base of the summit head wall.
Only a little more than 200 feet of climbing remained, but it promised to be severe and unrelenting. And as he inched his way up into the dark, concave head wall, it would be increasingly difficult to retreat. Somewhere on that precipice, he would reach a point of no return, after which descent might well be impossible, and the only escape would be up and over the summit.
It was Monday, February 25th. The forecast from Zurich was for continued good weather though Wednesday; then a warm front bearing heavy snow was predicted to move into the area. A fiendish scenario began to propose itself. With two days' steady climbing, Lowe might well find himself near or at that point of no return, only to get hammered by a major snowstorm.