Monday dawned luminous and clear, a perfect day, of which he would need every minute. Good weather had been forecast to last through the evening, but a major storm was due on the morrow. We called REGA, the government run rescue service, and alerted it to a possible need for summit pickup. Then we watched Lowe climb. At 9:15, he turned a corner and disappeared into a couloir we could not see. Two hours later, there was still no sign of him, no murmur over the radio. Though we did not admit it to each other at the time, Krakauer and I each separately trained the telescope on the base of the wall, where we swept the lower slopes. In just such a way over the decades, the fate of several Eiger victims had been discovered.
Lowe had hoped that once he was above the Fly the going would get easier. But in icy chimneys broken by bands of brittle rock, he was forced to perform some of the hardest climbing yet. Normally he never let himself be rushed on a climb: It was one of the secrets of his sangfroid and his safety. Now, however, he kept looking at his watch, and his brain hectored, Oh, no, hurry! Ever so slightly, his technique lost some of its famous precision. He felt less weak than he had the day before, but the sense of struggling to meet a terrible deadline oppressed his efforts.
It was hard to place good protection anywhere. Lowe found himself hooking with front points and ax picks on rounded rock wrinkles that he had to stab blindly through the snow to locate. His balance was precarious, and then, just before it happened, he knew he was going to fall.
The picks scraped loose: He was in midair, turning. Twenty-five feet lower, he crashed back into the rock. The self-belay had held, but he was hurt. He felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat and slammed it into his kidneys.
Oddly, instead of panicking him, the long fall calmed him down. Okay, he said to himself, you've done that. Don't do it again.
He pulled himself together, starting up again and found a way through the dicey hooking sequences despite the pain pounding in his back. At last he surmounted the buttress and reached a good ledge, only 400 feet below the summit.
But here he faced a problem. The warm sun has loosened the summit snowfields. Every chute and depression became an avalanche track. One swept right over Lowe, filing his goggles with powder snow, buffeting his body as it tried to knock him from the wall.
He was moving faster now, as slides shot down all around him. For two hours he climbed doggedly on. During that time, three more avalanches engulfed him. One of them knocked his feet loose, but he managed to hang on with his axes. At 3:20 he called.
"God, Jeff, those avalanches looked bad," I said.
"Yeah, they were pretty horrendous." His voice was ragged with strain. "I got really douched. I'm totally wet. Am I about a pitch from the west ridge?"
"A pitch and a half, maybe."
"I'm going to call for a pickup. I just want to get up this thing."
We signed off and called REGA. They were waiting in Grindelwald, ready to fly the moment Lowe emerged from the west ridge, a few feet below the top. But a stiff wind had begun to blow a steady plume off the summit. The wind could prevent the helicopter from approaching close enough to execute a pickup or even cause it to crash.
To our dismay, Lowe disappeared once more into a couloir. The minutes ticked by. At 4:15 he emerged, fighting his way through out of the top of the gully, spindrift hosing him at every step. He was only 40 feet below the crest of the ridge.
We prepared to call REGA, then watched in distress as Lowe stopped at a mottled band of rock and snow, only 20 feet below the ridge. For 10 minutes he thrashed in place; we saw him grabbing chunks of black limestone and tossing them into the void below.
In the hidden couloir, Lowe had found it impossible to get in any protection. He had dashed upward, aiming at the mottled band, but when he got there, he found only a skin of ice holding together rocks that were as loose as a pile of children's blocks. When he flung stones aside and dug beneath, he found only more of the same. He could engineer no kind of anchor – neither piton, nut nor ice screw would hold.
Only 20 feet short of safety, he had run out of rope. His own anchor, 300 feet below, was imprisoning him. In despair, he realized he would have to climb down at least 40 feet to the previous rock band, try to get some kind of anchor there, rappel for his gear and jumar back up. He was not sure he could make that down-climb without falling. What was more, he was running out of daylight.
Lowe got on the radio. Krakauer said what we were both thinking.
"Jeff, if you just dropped your rope and went for it, could you free solo the last 20 feet?"
"No problem," said Lowe. "But are you sure the helicopter can get me?"
If we urged Lowe to abandon his gear and the helicopter failed, he would be stranded near the summit without ropes, sleeping bag, food, stove, or even his parka. He was soaked to the skin. The wind was whipping hard, and the sky had grayed to the color of lead. Tuesday's storm was arriving early.
Krakauer said, "I'm almost positive they can pick you up."
"Let's do it," said Lowe.
He untied his rope and draped the end over a loose rock. He was abandoning all the gear that he had fought for nine days to haul up to the 6,000-foot precipice and, with it, deserting his own last refuge.
We called REGA, and the helicopter took off from Grindelwald. To be picked up on the summit of the mountain was not a true rescue; more than one previous Eiger climbers had resorted to flying from the top when he was far less strung out than Lowe was. It would, however, be a kind of asterisk attached to his great deed. It would not be the best style, and that would bother Lowe. But it was survival.
He sprinted up the last 20 feet. All at once, Lowe had escaped the north face. He stood on a broad shelf of snow on the west ridge, just below the summit. The helicopter spiraled upward toward him.
Still talking to us on the radio, Lowe couldn't keep the shivering out of his voice. Krakauer instructed him: The helicopter would lower a cable, which he was to clip on to his waist harness.
Now the chopper was just above him, hovering in the stiff wind. Suddenly it peeled off and flew away toward the Jungfraujoch. For the first time, Lowe seemed to lose it. He wailed, "What the hell's going on?" Nervous about the strong winds, the helicopter pilot, we later learned, decided to drop off a doctor and a copilot who had been on board, so he could fly as light as possible when he made the pickup.
The helicopter reappeared and hovered above the summit, its rotors straining against the wind. The steel cable dangled from its belly. We saw Lowe swipe for its lower end, miss once, then seize it. He clipped in, and the helicopter swept him into the sky. Down at the hotel, the guests and skiers cheered wildly all around us. Lowe was off the Eiger.
The cable wound upward as he rode it toward the open door. The winch man reached out his hand. Lowe climbed through the door and crawled back into the conundrum of his life.