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Ueli Steck on the Eiger. In late February, Steck shattered the speed record for an ascent of the Eiger via the Classic 1938 route (ED2, 1800m, Harrer-Heckmair-Kasparek-Vorg) on its north face, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. His winter ascent took 3:54, nearly an hour less than Christoph Hainz, who held the record with a 4:40 ascent in March of 2003. [Photo] Robert Boesch

The talented Swiss alpinist, Ueli Steck has just lopped nearly an hour off the previously fastest time for an ascent of the Classic 1938 route on the north face of the Eiger (ED2, 1,800m, Harrer-Heckmair- Kasparek-Vorg, 1938), Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. Steck first climbed the 1938 Route when he was 18 and in 2004 made a 10-hour solo. He was on the climb again over the recent weekend of February 17-18, when he made a roped ascent with a female partner. Finding conditions to be more or less perfect, it didn’t take much to tempt him back three days later–this time alone.

In an amazing burst of speed it took the Swiss only one hour and 48 minutes from the foot of the wall to Death Bivouac. Above, he was able to climb most of the Ramp without gloves due to the extremely mild winter temperatures and took no more than seven minutes to negotiate the Waterfall Pitch, which was dry rock. He carried a light 30m rope and self belayed several pitches, notably the Quartz Crack above the Spider, a section that Steck always finds the most delicate. He reached the summit in just three hours and 54 minutes, and given that this route involves nearly 4,000m of climbing, the elapsed time would mean moving at an average speed of almost 17 metres per minute. Phew!

The Eiger has always been something of a theatre for Alpine showmanship and records for the 1938 Route are well-documented. The little-known first one-day ascent was made as early as 1950, when Austrians, Leo Forstenlechner and Erich Wascak climbed the route in 18 hours, overtaking a party of Swiss who had already made three bivouacs on the face. The highly coveted first solo finally fell to the Valais guide, Michel Darbellay, in 1963 and in 1969 Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner turned the world of alpinism up-side-down by completing the ascent in an astonishing 10 hours. That this ascent was well-ahead of its time (10 hours still appears to be the record for a roped party) was proven when it took another 12 years for the time to be bettered. On August 25, 1981 the Swiss guide, Ueli Buhler, soloed the route in a mere eight-and-a-half hours. However, this record was beaten only a year later, when the legendary Slovenian climber, Franci Knez, scampered up the face in six hours. Knez’s ascent may have seemed unbeatable at the time but only a year later, on July 27, 1983, the same time as Rene Ghilini and Michel Piola were two days into the first ascent of their Eiger Directissima, a young and largely unknown Austrian, Thomas Bubendorfer, raced to the top in just four hours and 50 minutes.

Bubendorfer was immediately criticized for being reckless and too lightly equipped (he carried a rope but no rucksack and climbed in a shirt and tracksuit). At the time critics were unaware that just four days previously Bubendorfer had climbed the route with Peter Rohrmoser in the same time as Habeler and Messner. Both Bubendorfer and Rohrmoser then returned to Austria as the latter had come to the end of his holiday but Bubendorfer quickly decided to return to Kleine Scheidegg… “when I arrived the waitress was still there. She smiled at me, and I knew I wasn’t completely alone”. Bubendorfer capitalized on his Eiger success and went on to be something of a media star, making fast solos and linked ascents, which were only overshadowed by those of the great French alpinists of the era, such as Boivin and Profit. Not long after Bubendofer’s ascent, an Italian, Reinhard Patscheider, soloed the route in five hours: understandably, his achievement passed almost unnoticed.

In the next 20 years no one came close to matching Bubendorfer’s record, even during the relatively “summer-like” winters that began to evolve in the early 1990s. In January 1992 Michal Pitelka (a naturalized Swiss originally from the Czech Republic) climbed the route, solo, in eight-and-a-half hours, possibly the fastest true winter ascent until this year. Just a couple of months later the well-known Catherine Destivelle spent 17 hours making the first female solo winter ascent.

It took until March 24, 2003 before Bubendorfer’s time was bettered. At 8:50 a.m. on that day the Italian Christoph Hainz started up the wall alone. He took only a bivouac bag, a liter of water, 40m of light rope, two carabiners and a telephone. He climbed unroped except for the Difficult Crack, which was icy. He benefited from the tracks of other parties on the face, overtaking a group of climbers above the Hinterstoisser and a second team on the Third Icefield. He reached the top of the face at 1:20 p.m. and 10 minutes later was on the summit for a record time of four hours and 40 minutes. After this he descended the South Ridge and was able to catch the last train down to the valley.