category: culture, category: films and TV shows, category: history, category: travel

Random #PSA (film recommendation time!): “North Face”

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Highly recommend this terrific German film that I’ve watched a few times over the past few years, regarding the 1936 attempt by a German team to climb the Eigernordwand, the notorious north face of the Swiss Alps’ Eiger. Everything from the cinematography, to the screenplay, to the historical aspects (my weakness), to Benno Fürmann’s portrayal of climber Toni Kurz… is outstanding.

(It’s free on Amazon Prime, or you can pay $3 for the rental if you don’t have Amazon Prime, or order the DVD via mail on Netflix).

UPDATE: If you’re interested in this topic, be sure to check out “The Beckoning Silence,” Joe Simpson’s documentary regarding this event. Terrific and best to watch after the film (it will help explain some of the more muddied, technical aspects, particularly the details of the rescue attempt). The documentary is free on YouTube (here).

UPDATE II: Mesmerized by this tale for some time, I spent a few hours today reading various reports and accounts of the 1936 expedition. What are some of aspects the film gets wrong, or some fascinating tidbits?

a) Well, for starters, I doubt this needs telling as it is so obvious but, clearly, there was no love-interest (Louise) in real life. This is a character invented for the film because filmmakers always seem to think there must be some romantic element. It annoys me to no end. I’m always muttering: “OK — speed past the romance — let’s get back to the action sequences/REAL plot!”

b) The Swiss rescue team in the film appears rather lacking in their efforts — earnest and sympathetic but a bit “Eh, I’m union: I ain’t riskin’ my life” in their attitude. The truth is, the volunteer rescue team that tried to save Kurz was extremely brave, venturing out onto the north face in the harsh conditions.

c) Just as with Titanic (where over a dozen coincidences all coincided to create a tragedy), there was an awful coincidence here, too. By now, if you’ve watched the film (SPOILER AHEAD!) you know that Kurz dies because the rescuers cannot reach him. In the film, you hear one of the guides grab the robe they’ve brought and realize: “This isn’t 60 meters!” Well, the 60-meter (long) rope they’d intended to bring… accidentally fell off from the guy who was carrying it, who had carelessly placed the rope between his backpack and his back, rather than inside. At some point, the rope fell off — they were stuck trying to rescue Kurz with two smaller ropes instead (epic fail — see below).

d) So what exactly happened with the rope and the failed rescue attempt? OK, here’s where my reading comes in, as this wasn’t clear in the film.

Kurz’s 3 companions are all dead: his partner fell off (swept away), the Austrian whose head was injured (the reason they were headed down) was slammed against a rock and he died instantly, and the other Austrian died of asphyxiation in 10 minutes, due to the weight of his partner and Kurz hanging on the rope tethered to him (he was unable to move or shift his position). So, Kurz was hanging in mid-air, with one dead body hanging below him on the rope, and another hanging above him. The rescue team was able to call out to him due to the tiny doorway of the tunnel-railroad (which opens out onto the north face), yelling at the top of their lungs over the raging wind. The first time the rescue team had called out to the mountaineers, they were all still alive, making their descent and (bravely, — typical Germans/Austrians!) responding back that they were fine (‘all is well,’ they’d shouted). The second time, it was a different story, with Kurz now shouting that the others were dead.

OK, so why couldn’t the rescue team ultimately save him? Here’s why: first, the conditions were too hazardous at night. So they shouted to him (circa 9 pm, if not earlier?) to wait it out until morning. Imagine that for a minute. You’re dangling on a rope, thousands of feet above the air, almost frozen to death, in complete darkness save for the moon. Your three teammates are dead, two of which are also dangling, lifeless, above and below you. You hear help is coming but then hear them say: “Hang on til morning, buddy!” So you get to dangle there ALL NIGHT, all alone with only the howling wind, hanging against a mountain, in the blistering weather, with ice and rocks occasionally pounding down on you, unable to just give in and go to sleep as your body is aching to do.

The odds of Kurz being alive at sunrise were slim to none — but he somehow held on.

So now it’s daylight and time for the Swiss guides to attempt the rescue. Problem is:  Kurz couldn’t be rescued from above (due to the conditions, the Swiss were unable to climb up and down to reach his location). They had to attempt it from below. But, he’s dangling too far away to reach, so they need Kurz to make his own way down to them.  Mind you, Kurz probably has extreme frostbite in his legs and arms.

First, they yell at him to cut loose his fellow climber below (in order to retrieve/use that amount of rope). He does. (Reportedly, when cut loose, the body did not even come down the mountain, as it was frozen to the wall – just to give you an idea of how cold it was that night/morning). He is then ordered to climb up and cut loose the guy hanging above him. He somehow manages to do so, despite having no use of one hand (frostbite). The aim is to get Kurz as much rope as he can, so that he can make it down the 150 feet to the ledge where the rescue team is standing. Kurz needs enough rope to reach that ledge but the amount he has isn’t enough. So he then uses his single good hand and his teeth (!) (imagine the agony in even moving one’s lips/mouth) to unravel the rope in order to use its strings to make one longer (albeit weaker) rope. This takes him approximately 5 hours (OH. MY. LORD.). Kurz now has a long, thin rope to send down to the rescue team (it’s not enough to sustain his weight and lower him — but it’s enough to lower down in order for the rescue team to tie some necessary materials to it, such as a sturdy, long rope). He lowers it, they receive it, and are able to send up some objects, including the rope they brought. However, having accidentally lost the long (60 meter) rope they intended to use, they are forced to instead send up to Kurz TWO shorter (rather than one long) ropes, each 30 meters, tied together with a knot. Presumably, Kurz is to then descend using this rope. He begins the descent but, only a few feet from his goal, the knot (where the two ropes were tied together) won’t allow the rope to ‘pass through’ his gear and to continue Kurz’s descent. It is at this point that, after a struggle to shift and release the pressure on the knot so that it may pass through the gear and allow him to continue descending, unsuccessfully, Kurz finally, finally surrenders to the inevitable, calmly uttering: Ich kann nicht mehr and passing on. One of the Swiss guides would later say that hearing Kurz calmly utter this phrase, so close to making it after such an ordeal and such a feat of human strength, was the saddest moment of his life. Only a few more feet and Kurz would have made it — if not for that damn knot (imagine what the idiot who left behind the 60 meter rope must have felt like!). Kurz was so close that one guide, sitting on the shoulders of another, was able to almost reach Kurz by extending his arm/axe.

e) What the heck is a traverse? I don’t know and, to keep this blog post as honest as I normally do, I won’t cheat you by looking it up and pretending I do. Apparently, I gather, it’s a broad section of the wall. Kurz’s partner was able to get across it (what others had previously not been able to achieve — and why others had been unsuccessful in finding a way to climb the north face) but, not realizing that they might need to come back down the north face (i.e., come back the way they came), pulled the rope once they’d gotten across. (The traverse is now named after him.) You may also notice this portion of the film, in which Kurz seems uncomfortable at the idea of not leaving the rope in place (of course, this is creative liberty — we have no way of knowing if Kurz minded or protested). In any event, they were unable to go back that way because there was no rope in place and, due to the hazardous conditions, there was no way Andreas could hook a route back across the traverse, despite his valiant, repeated attempts (lasting not just a few minutes, as shown in the film, but several hours) so they had to descend straight down the wall (which at some points, is worse than even ‘180 degrees vertical’)..

f) “No good deed goes unpunished…”? In the film, Kurz and his teammate decide to give up the trek, despite being over halfway to their destination and record-setting fame, because the Austrian fellow is injured and, if he does not receive a doctor’s care, will surely die.

g) Random travel tip: If you think the hotel in the film looks as amazing as I do (that terrace! the scenery! the view! How cool to sleep at the base of the Eiger and wake up to a view of the north face! Imagine standing on the same terrace folks did in the 30’s as they watched mountaineers attempt to scale the unthinkable!), it’s still around, largely similar, and you can stay in it for a relatively low cost. Here is the website. Take me with you! 😉 I am good company, promise to have great historical anecdotes about the area’s history, and slim — will fit in a medium-to-large suitcase.

(photo via screen grab of hotel's website)

(photo via screen grab of hotel’s website)

So there you go: some interesting historical information on an event that really hammers home the ideals of the human spirit’s perseverance and strength. For some stunning photos of the Eiger, I found this terrific collection by a gent named Alex Sands on Flickr. If you need some scale, the Empire State Building is about 1,250 feet. The North Face of Eiger is 6,000 feet (the overall mountain’s top height, at its peak, is 13,000!). Six thousand feet is roughly the equivalent of a building 600 stories tall. We’re talking Tower of Babel height here. So consider that comparison when you’re glancing through the photos. Kurz and his fellow mountaineers were past the 3,000 feet mark when they had to turn back. Incredible.

OK, I’m off to explore rock climbing classes. (Who are we kidding? I’ll give in and call it a day when I’m at 20 feet. No Kurz here — I’ll be chillin’ with a hot sho’-co-laaah on the Des Alpes’s terrace watching others attempt such shenanigans, thank you very much!)

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