Pinch all you want. This is real.
There’s a hole in the north face of the Eiger.
If you’re not familiar, the Eiger is a mountain in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland, standing 3967 metres tall. It’s a pyramid of rock and ice and snow that has been a test-piece of alpine climbing for more than 100 years, and may have as many stories to tell as Everest.
I had heard about this hole, from Kurt, but it was kind of hard to imagine. Right smack dab in the face. Six hundred metres up in the air, with another 1200 metres of face above it.
You access it by train tunnel. The train is the whole reason it’s there.
Building the seven-kilometre tunnel up to the Jungfraujoch meant excavating a LOT of dirt and rock, and having somewhere to put it. They busted a hole right through the side of the mountain to help with the job.
It’s called the stollenloch: literally, ‘tunnel hole’.
After the tunnel construction was finished, the stollenloch stayed. This is the door that connects inside to outside.
Like a secret garden door, if the garden was something you can fall to your death from.
Kurt guides groups to this place by special request.
It’s not somewhere you can just roll up to on your own, open the door and find out if your fear of heights is still alive and well.
On a lucky day in September, Kurt and fellow guide Beat offered to show us around.
The train made a brief stop so we could jump out.
We went from the bright environment of the train cab to the cool, drippy darkness of the tunnel. Coarse gravel crunched underfoot as we watched the lights on the rear of the train as it slid around the bend up ahead.
To the left. Up a few ancient-looking steps cut into the rock, there it was. A door.
We stood off to the side to gear up – helmet, harness, vest, gloves – and got a run-down of how we’d be secured to the wall and how to move around safely.
Because just outside the door is a ledge. For a seasoned climber, the ledge would feel generous. Spacious. Big enough to raise a family on. Big enough to enjoy a leisurely rest when every other rest point is going to be no deeper than your foot.
Still, over that edge is hundreds and hundreds of metres of DOWN.
When the door to the sky swung open, and we stepped out to be clipped in, I would say the ledge felt like enough, but just.
With my back to the wall, the view out into space was immense. The vast shadow of the north face on the landscape below was a clear reminder of the sheer size of the thing on which I stood.
Facing the wall, looking up, my view was where the really difficult sections of climbing began. Another 1200 metres to go to the summit. A face that once was thought unclimbable.
Beat said “so, do you want to climb down a little?”
That was the easiest, safest way to leave the ledge, since I’d be on belay, hanging from the rope attached to my harness, as opposed to climbing up first and hoping not to slip.
Once tied in, I backed to the edge, took a deep breath, and leaned back into space.
Beat lowered me slowly down, about 30 metres, my boots picking out a descent over the steep scree.
(All I could think was thank god for this rope right now, and the man holding the other end of it. Also, no, I didn’t have the presence of mind, nor possibly the coordination, for a selfie.)
And with hands a feet dug into this mountain, looking up at one of the most famous north faces on Earth, I couldn’t quite believe where I was.
This was not a place I ever could have dreamed I’d be.
This is real?
I kept blinking (and sweating). Yep, still here. Still real.
I really believe that knowing something with your brain, at a distance, versus knowing it with your eyes (or your feet) in real time, are two very different things.
When we saw the midnight sun in Norway, floated beside a sea turtle snorkelling in Hawaii, or first sat down to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in New Zealand.
When I have to spend a few moments trying to catch up to reality, blinking hard, senses flooded, struck with awe, that’s when I know I’m really alive.
I’m hooked on that feeling. I will never, ever get tired of saying the word ‘wowwwww’.
We went to a restaurant for dinner last week, and I think I actually clapped my hands together like a little kid when our food arrived.
Really? For real? We can do this again?
I hope that an upside to the Covid Era (will it be an ‘era’? Hasn’t it already been one?) will be how delightful mundane experiences will be again. Even if only briefly.
Then, you wonder, how are the decidedly not-mundane experiences going to feel?
Will we be able to handle that?
Oh yes. But you better go warm up at a restaurant first.
I have stood beside many a heli-skier who is having a hard-blinking, speechless moment. All you can say is ‘Yes, this is real’.
One small group at a time, with a private helicopter, in 2000 square kilometres of empty backcountry, we’re gonna be ready to show you what reality is capable of.
Meet you there.
Every day in the mountains is spectacular, and different from the day before. What decides what kind of terrain we ski? Check out the answer here.
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