Title: The White Spider | Author: Heinrich Harrer
“Why do they climb, what is the purpose?”
“A climber would never ask such a question, and a non climber would never understand the answer.”
The extreme school of climbing is often called breeding ground of crazy personalities. ‘Suicidal Earthworms‘ is what they have been called time and again. However, its only these earthworms who have taken the sport of mountaineering and climbing to great heights. And Heinrich Harrer leads from the front. The world of these crazy climbers was never before explained in a manner as subtle as Harrer’s.
The North Face of the Eiger (13024 feet) was the supreme Alpine problem and the last one too, during the early 1900s. Team Heinrich Harrer solved this problem in the year 1938. Eight people had already died when they started their expedition. And countless had failed previously. And that’s the beauty of students of the ‘extreme school of mountaineering’; they want every climbing problem to be solved. Even if it brings ridicule or, in certain cases, death.
During this expedition, every stroke of an axe, every bivouac, every tug on a rope was being watched. The armchair climbers wanted them to fail or just abort the expedition. They were even called earthworms. But the earthworms won in the end. The problem was solved. The White Spider was no more called unclimbable.
Heinrich wrote The White Spider as a prequel to ‘Seven Years in Tibet’. The book was first published in the year 1959. And till date, The White Spider continues to inspire young mountaineers across the globe. Joe Simpson is one of them, author of the bestselling book ‘Touching the Void’. (Joe failed six times climbing the North Face. Failing Trying for six times is an achievement in itself.)
This book is just not about the Eiger or the North Face or the Alps. It is an insight into the world of extreme mountaineering where you realize that these heroes too are humans. They too fail and fail and fail again. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t, but climbing remains the ultimate goal, always.
Eiger is a 13, 024 feet High Mountain in the Alps. Grade 6. And the White Spider, the North Face – Nordwand as it is popularly called is a 5900 feet high vertical wall of falling stones, waterfalls, and avalanches. It looks like a spider with its predatory arms outstretched in all directions waiting for the climber. And escaping the Spider was considered humanely impossible.
“The Spider keeps the best for itself”, this was the popular sentiment when the first ascent had not been made.
That was the year when a determined Harrer, Kasparek, Heckmair, and Vorg made it to the top of the Eiger over its North Face. At 3:30 P.M., July 1938, the White Spider was won over. A whole new world of possibilities was thrown wide open by Harrer and his team.
Harrer talks at length about those who lost their lives enroute the Spider but made it possible for people like him to take on it. Hinterstoisser, Sedlmayer, Ludwig, and everybody else who lost his life to the Spider is remembered. Because without them, the climb would never have been possible.
Harrer also talks about the brave rescuers who rarely get any mentions. Probably it was Harrer, and the White Spider that made the world realize the mistake they were doing. The mistake of ignoring the importance of selfless rescuers who during the many North Face climbs, dived into the snow storms of the Eiger, just to protect the members of the climbing fraternity. Despite a strict ruling by the administration against indulging in any rescue activity with regard to the North Face.
You will come across many technical terms like crampons, pitons, ice-axe, snap-links, belaying ropes and what not. Just ignore them all. Harrer’s storytelling of the first ascent of the Spider and its climbing history will definitely make you curious about their meanings. Such is the writing prowess of this great climber who writes as calmly as he climbs.
Because the face is visible from the greener pastures of the valley, the author describes technicalities of mountain climbing in a simplified manner so as to help even an armchair climber visualize the activities going on the face. Harrer has used nine photographs in the book, all black and white. But even those black and white frames say a lot about the difficulties they would have faced at the Spider. And then the year was 1938. The climbing was not powered by technology and gadgets.
Paper maps and sheer guts, that’s how the Spider was defeated by these determined men. In the end of the book, the author has given the time history of the climb of the North Face till 1981. That too makes an interesting read.
The book is divided into two parts; the story of the first ascent, and further climbs of the North Face.
The only thing that hurts, other than the lost climbers, is abrupt ending of the book, both parts. The first ascent comes to an end just when you want to know more and more about the climbing world. The second part looks repetitive and an entire chapter dedicated to explain the conspiracy theories behind the 1957 tragedy make it look like a courtroom drama.
In my view, that could have been avoided because a reader would definitely want to know what happened after they came down. Afterall, they were called earthworms coming out to only die at the face by the armchair experts and the intellectuals.
*Harrer shared stage with Hitler after climbing the Eiger. However, he on many occasions expressed deep regret for his affiliation with the Nazis’*