Roger Cox: A rocky time climbing the Paciencia

Robbie Phillips, hanging around in the Alps
Robbie Phillips, hanging around in the Alps
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REMEMBER the boulder scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark? The one in which Indy is pursued along a dark, narrow tunnel by a gigantic concrete basketball?

Check it out on YouTube if you’ve never seen it, because it will give you a good idea of how close Edinburgh climber Robbie Phillips, 25, and his Glasgow-based partner Willis Morris, 20, came to meeting their maker this past summer, while attempting the super-tough La Paciencia route on the North Face of the Eiger.

Having said that, compared to Phillips and Morris, Indy had it easy. The boulder menacing the two climbers in early August was moving much faster than the one in the movie – plus, our two young heroes didn’t have the luxury of being able to run away from it, clinging as they were to the almost-sheer side of a big, gnarly mountain.

“We were doing pretty well,” Phillips says of their first attempt on the heart-in-mouth route known as Paciencia, which has only been completed by a handful of people since Swiss superstar climber Ueli Steck made the first ascent in 2008. “The weather was good and we were about half way up the wall when suddenly, out of the blue, the weather changed.

“I was through the crux pitch, so we were through the hardest section of the climb, and we had realised that there was nothing desperately hard between us and the top and we’d get there as long as everything kept on going the way it was.

“But then these drips started hitting me on the head as I was climbing one of the pitches after the crux. I thought it was just ice melt, but then it got worse and I could see that Willis was also getting really wet.

“It got worse and worse until it was literally like a waterfall coming down and I just knew that we had to get right off there.”

The Eiger is famously unstable at the best of times – back in July 2006, a piece of rock the size of a medium-sized skyscraper detached itself from the mountain’s eastern flank and went crashing into the valley below, blocking a well-known hiking trail and causing an elderly lady in the nearby village of Grindelwald to choke on her fondue. In heavy rain, though, the danger level goes through the roof, as the mountain’s brittle limestone facade begins to disintegrate as water cascades over it.

“There’s a lot of rubbish rock up there and a lot of scree slopes at various points,” says Phillips. “Ice is holding everything together, so it’s just really loose, so the water was dragging it all off.”

To begin with, the rock fragments whistling past the duo were relatively modest in size, but then things took a turn for the serious.

“At one point a boulder the size of a mini flew past us, just metres away,” Phillips remembers. “We were just setting up to do an abseil, and there were big waterfalls all around us sending loads of stuff off. Then Willis just said ‘look at that’ and you could just see this huge thing coming down – not actually tumbling, just... giving way. It floated off the side of a cliff and then smashed into bits.”

Fortunately, Phillips and Morris were able to down-climb to the safety of the Stollenloch – a window giving access to the train tunnel inside the Eiger, which forms part of the Jungfrau Railway – so shortly after dodging falling boulders on one of the most dangerous climbing routes in the world, they found themselves sitting on a train, looking like a couple of spectacularly overdressed commuters.

“It was a surreal situation,” says Phillips, “one minute we were on the North Face of the Eiger almost getting killed, the next minute we were on a train with all these Japanese tourists staring at us.”

Relieved at having escaped with their lives, the pair were also bitterly disappointed at not having achieved their goal. Thanks to an anonymous donor, however, they were able to return to the Eiger in late August for a second attempt and this time they had better luck – in fact, things could hardly have gone more smoothly.

“I went to pick Willis up at Geneva airport and from there we drove straight to Grindelwald,” says Phillips. “We got there early evening, got all our kit out and then the next morning walked up to the Eiger and set off up to the Stollenloch. The weather had just come good and there was a window so we took it – it just seemed like fate.” n

• Robbie Phillips will talk about his Paciencia climb at the EICA, Ratho on 26 November; Transition Extreme, Aberdeen, 12 December and the Glasgow Climbing Centre, date tbc.