The six great North Faces of the Alps

(Servus TV, 2012/13)

While still on the Everest expedition in 2010, director Gerald Salmina and cameraman Günther Göberl told me of the “Bergwelten” series by Austrian Servus TV, for which they regularly produced features. They asked me if I, as author and climbing writer, had additional stories for them. The request led to a concept for a six-part series about the great North Faces of the Alps. As I was on another expedition to Everest in 2011, my colleague Tom Dauer reinforced the team as director and author.

The framework of each part of the series was a climb of one of the North Faces by contemporary top-range alpinists. Besides retrospectives on the history, each part also features a general theme.

All six parts were later screened by German public-service broadcaster ZDF under the title, “Die dunkle Seite der Alpen” (The Dark Side of the Alps). In 2016, Gerald Salmina and I also produced and directed a condensed “best of” from the six parts, “Die großen Nordwände” (The Great North Faces), which focussed even more on the climbers and their stories.


E01: Eiger-Nordwand – Die Wand der Wände

(Eiger North Face – Wall of Walls)

Underlying theme of this episode is the challenge of a winter ascent of one of the great North Faces, told against the background of the first free ascent of the Eiger Winter Direct (aka John Harlin Climb) by Robert Jasper (D) and Roger Schäli (CH).

Among spectacular climbing in the central part of the Harlin route the film shows retrospectives of the tragedies during the first attempts in the 1930s and of the first successful ascent by Anderl Heckmair et al. In 1938, with commentaries by renowned Eiger historian Reiner Rettner. For the first time the film includes the entire 16 mm b/w movie of the first winter ascent in 1961, filmed by Toni Hiebeler. Walter Almberger (A) and Anderl Mannhardt (D), the two surviving members of the winter ascent, recount their experiences, as do two members of the first ascent of the Winter Direct in 1966, Sir Chris Bonington (GB) and Roland Votteler (D). The dramatic highpoint of the 1966 story is the recreation (with a parachutist) of John Harlin’s fatal fall from the face by British mountain filmmaker Leo Dickinson and the little-known original film footage by Peter Haag, leader of the German climbing team.

E02: Der zerfallene Berg – Die Petit-Dru-Nordwand

Petit Dru North Face – The Disintegrating Mountain

Awarded “Kamera Alpin in Gold”, Berg + Abenteuer Filmfestival Graz 2012

Mountains are often regarded as symbols for stability, unchangeability, eternity. But mountains are changing and are subjected to the dynamics of creation and destruction.

The Petit Dru in the Mont Blanc range is a changing mountain. Its North Face counts among the six classic North Faces of the Alps, while the adjacent West Face has become an Eldorado of extreme climbing since the 1950s. Over the past three decades, both faces were repeated scenes of massive rock falls, which changed or obliterated large parts of existing routes.

The film’s main protagonists are Chamonix-based Briton Andy Parkin and American Steve House, who join in a climb of the North Face. Parkin was severely injured in a climbing accident in 1984, after which he started a new career as artist before returning to extreme climbing four years later.
Steve House had pushed the limits of alpine-style climbing in the Himalayas at the beginning of the 21st century, before he also suffered a life-changing accident in the mountains. While Andy Parkin found a different way of expressing himself through his art, House changed his inner life and turned from a self-centered individualist to a mentor for young alpinists.

Historical footage and re-enactments highlight landmarks of the Dru’s history, like the first ascent of the North Face by Pierre Allain and Raymond Leininger in 1935 or the spectacular first ascent of the Southwest Pillar by the Italian soloist Walter Bonatti in 1955.

E03: Zwischen Licht und Schatten – Piz Badile-Nordostwand

Between Light and Shadow – Piz Badile Northeast Face

This episode pays homage to the exceptional Austrian climber Hermann Buhl (first ascent of Nanga Parbat 1953), who made the first solo ascent of the Badile Northeast Face in 1952 – which included cycling from Landeck in Austria to the mountain and back (resulting in an involuntary bath in the Inn river, when he fell asleep on his bike …). For the film, Austrian ace climber Hansjörg Auer retraces the footsteps of his idol by also cycling on his mountain bike to the Piz Badile and soloing the Northeast Face.

Mountaineering writer Marco Volken recounts the pioneering feat of another soloist on the Badile, Swiss mountain guide Christian Klucker. A re-enactment recreates the dramatic and tragic first ascent of the Northeast Face by Italian Riccardo Cassin (played by Austrian Markus Pucher, famous for his solo exploits in Patagonia) and companions in 1937.

The story of Hermann Buhl’s life and of his death on Chogolisa in the Karakoram 1957 is told by his climbing partner Kurt Diemberger, his widow Eugenie (“Generl”), and his daughter Kriemhild. Buhl’s relationship with his daughters and the consequences of his death for his family highlights how narrow the border between light and shadow can be in the life of an extreme alpinist.

E04: Drei Zinnen – Grenzen der Felskletterei

Tre Cime – The Limits of Rock Climbing

The Tre Cime in the Italian Dolomites count among the most prominent peaks of the Alps or even worldwide. On their vertical walls is written the evolution of rock climbing over the past 150 years.

Nain protagonist of this episode is Bavarian rock climber Alexander Huber, who wrote climbing history twice on the North Faces of the Cima Grande and Cima Ovest: with a free-solo of the Hasse-Brandler Direct in 2002, and with the first ascent of “Panaroma” in 2007, which had been the hardest alpine sport climb (8c) at the time.

The incredible footage of Huber’s achievements forms the framework for the history of rock climbing on the Tre Cime, in which existing limits have repeatedly been broken: from the first ascent of the Cima Piccola by Michel and Johann Innerkofler 1881 to the first ascent of the North Face of Cima Grande by Emilio Comici and companions 1933 and the first ascent of the Direttissima, recounted by the two leading members, Dietrich Hasse and Lothar Brandler (died 2016). Further advances, like the Super Direct of 1963 or the 150-foot roof on the Cima Ovest, showed that artificial climbing was leading into a dead end, as bolting made it possible to scale virtually any wall. Two of the participants in these climbs, Reiner Kauschke and Gerhard Baur, tell of their experience, illustrated by rare original footage. Legendary free-climbing pioneer Kurt Albert was among the first to “free” some of the old aid routes – on the Swiss Route on the roof of the Cima Ovest impressively captured on film by Gerhard Baur himself. Ascents like this opened the door for Alexander Huber’s ground-breaking sport climbs, which mark a highpoint, yet not the end of the evolution of rock climbing on the Tre Cime.

E05: Das letzte Wort hat der Berg – Matterhorn-Nordwand

The Mountain has the last Word – Matterhorn North Face

In every field, pioneering feats mean a confrontation with the unknown and with uncertainty. And it always includes the possibility of failure.

The history of the Matterhorn, arguably the world’s most famous mountain, and of his North Face is rich in pioneering feats, heroic attempts and tragedies – to this day. One of the modern-day pioneers on the Matterhorn is Swiss mountain guide Michi Lerjen. The film accompanies him and his climbing partner, Argentinean Jorge Ackermann during their attempt to make a one-day ascent of the “Gogna-Cerruti”, leading through the steepest and most forbidding part of the North Face (the “Zmutt Nose”). For the first time in this series, the film crew documents their own daring work on and above the mountain’s vertiginous walls. Besides the flying expertise of the Air Zermatt pilots, the film portraits the work of cameramen Günther Göberl and Franz Hinterbrandner, as well as the security work by mountain guides Heli Putz, Martin Unterberger and Urs Lerjen.

Historical retrospectives include the famous first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, which ended in an equally famous catastrophe; the first attempts and ascent of the North Face in the early 1930s, to the winter solo of a new route by legendary Italian mountaineer Walter Bonatti and the first climb of the Zmutt Nose in 1969, which is recounted by Alessandro Gogna himself. Other prominent soloists are also featured and include Frenchwoman Catherine Destivelle (1. solo repetition of the “Bonatti”) as well as Swiss climber Ueli Steck (speed record on the classic North Face).

At the end climbers and film crew are faced with one irrefutable verdict: The mountain has the last word

E06: Selig, wer in Träumen stirbt – Grandes Jorasses-Nordwand

Blessed who dies in Dreams – Grandes Jorasses North Face)

In 1997, German climber Robert Steiner suffered a serious accident on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses that left him stranded on the wall “between life and death” for two days before he was rescued. The film accompanies him and climbing partner Felix Berg in their attempt to complete the “Colton-MacIntyre”, where Steiner had his accident less that 200 meters from the top.

Steiner’s story is complemented by the fate of two other climbers who narrowly escaped death on the North Face and later returned to complete the climb: Rudi Peters, who in 1934 lost his partner Rudi Haringer during a retreat from high on the wall. One year later Peters came back and, with Martin Meier, made the first ascent of the Grandes Jorasses North Face by the “Croz Pillar”. Frenchmen René Desmaison and Serge Gousseault tried a new route on the left side of the Walker Pillar in 1971. After 12 days on the face, Gousseault died of exhaustion; Desmaison was rescued three days later, more dead than alive. Two years later he finished the route with Giorgio Bertone and Michel Claret.

Apparently Robert Steiner will also close the circle on the Grandes Joralles North Face. But just a few feet from the summit, a boulder dislodges beneath his feet, bringing a dramatic turn to the story and the film…