The Eiger has a reputation second to none for not only its great beauty but also its fearsome reputation. The North Face of the Eiger was first climbed in 1938 and since that time more than 64 climbers have met their deaths attempting to conquer it. So it was with disbelief that early in 2010 I listened to my friend Shpend Gerguri trying to persuade me that we should enter the Eiger Challenge – a mountain bike race up ‘Murder Mountain’.
Shpend and I had done many races and events together and we were always looking for the next big challenge, one that none of our friends had done. But the Eiger? surely this was going a bit far I thought. Eventually we talked each other into it and gradually we realised that normal training was not going to be enough. I put myself through hell for the six months leading up to the race including 3 x 80 -100 mile rides, and a 142km Enduro, Shpend did the same, but each night when I went to sleep I would lie awake wondering if this would be enough?
The race was in early August so the weather promised to be good. We both took a week off work and made our way down to Dover where we caught the ferry across, then taking it in turns to drive, we made our way through Belgium, Germany and finally into Switzerland, it was a 12 hour trip and exhausting. We had booked ourselves into a small hotel on the outskirts of Grindelwald (a small town at the foot of the Eiger), we awoke the morning after our journey to the most spectacular views and couldn’t wait to assemble our bikes and ride off toward the town to familiarise ourselves.
As we came into Grindelwald we got our first sight of the Eiger. It was silent, beautiful and intimidating, I couldn’t help as I gazed at the snow capped peak to think about all the men who had died trying to climb it. The Graveyard in the town bore witness to the violent history of the mountain with rows and rows of graves dedicated to the brave men who had risked their lives for glory, it bought a lump to my throat.
The time came for us to register for the race at the local Sports Centre, there were 3 distances available 22k, 55k and 88k, naturally we went for the 88k, we couldn’t seriously come all the way here and not do the toughest race available could we? At this point we were both quite confident, until one of the German officials gave us a look of disbelief that we were doing the 88k, he asked us if we were good at carrying zee bikes with a sarcastic smile on his face. I remember thinking, he doesn’t know me, or what I’ve done, and no mountain is going to get the better of me!!
The next morning we woke early about 6 am I think, to see that outside it was dark, cold, windy and pouring with rain. Somehow this didn’t really fit with my vision of riding through beautiful alpine fields with the sun on my back, but we kept telling ourselves it would brighten up, and made our way to the start at the bottom of the mountain.
We were both nervous but trying not to show it, the 88k course wasn’t just up the Eiger, it was round it, down it, up the next mountain, and the next and included a total of 13500 ft of climbing (off road). Soon after we left the start I lost sight of Shpend who was out in front of me, I stopped worrying about whether I was going to beat him and focused on climbing the mountain. I knew it was going to be a long hard ride and tried to conserve my energy as much as possible. As we wound our way up the mountain through the little villages, many of the locals had come out to cheer us on, and rattle their cow bells, this I found helped me in my battle against gravity. Whilst training in England I had rarely if ever got out of the middle ring on climbs and certainly hardly ever went into the ‘Granny’, I was convinced I would be able to ride the Eiger without going into the ‘Granny’.
How wrong I was! After an hour of climbing I was already in the smallest gear I had. My legs were hurting, my back was hurting, it was pouring with rain and we’d only just started. I could see above me riders going up and up and up, after another hour of climbing with no break and with the summit still nowhere to be seen, many riders around me were walking, I resisted as long as I could but there comes a point when you are moving so slowly because of the gradient that you lose your balance.
So after 2 hrs of climbing I found myself alone in the mist, with just my thoughts to keep me company. Just a few years earlier I had suffered from a Spontaneous Pneumothorax (Collapsed lung), I knew that there was a chance that it could collapse again especially at altitude, but had chosen to take that risk. My lungs felt like they were burning and the pain got more and more intense, I wondered if the lung was collapsing, what would I do? there was no medical support where I was, I could die! What would happen if I died here? What would people think of me? Would my Girlfriend and the people I loved ever come to this place? I sat down and cried.
Psychologically the Eiger had beaten me, I was in the lowest place mentally I had ever been in my life, I had been climbing for 2 hrs and yet still I could see no end to the ascent. I began to think of all the brave ancestors I had and how they would be ashamed if they could see me feeling sorry for myself on this mountain.
I got up and continued my climb on foot, the pain in my chest was still there and I wondered if maybe I was having a heart attack (I was 42). I watched my heart rate monitor and tried to keep it to under 160 bpm which seemed to help.
Finally I could see riders coming down the ski slope in front of me, the top must be near! After 2 1/2 hrs of climbing I finally reached the top and carefully made my way down. The race was far from over with more peaks to climb and sketchy descents to be made. After 5 1/2 hrs in the saddle I was coming back into Grindalwald knowing that I still had another massive mountain to climb before the finish. It was with relief that I was stopped from making this ascent as I’d exceeded the time limit. I rode into the finish to a sea of cheering faces, but not with happiness, with relief that the race for me was over.
My friend Shpend Gerguri beat the time limit and continued to the final summit, finishing his ride of 88km in about 9 hrs. Shpend told me he’d had the same feelings and also found himself in tears and thinking about his unborn child and wife back home in England.
Nearing the top of that mountain in such self doubt and pain was a humbling experience and one which has taught me a lot about myself and made me not only a stronger rider but a stronger person. It was an experience I will never forget and any riders out there who want to test themselves you won’t get much more of a test than the Eiger Challenge, I look forward to reading your story.
This 6 minute video of one of the other competitors gives you an idea of the determination required