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LessWrong Curated Podcast

Aug 23, 2022

Content warning: death

I've been on a YouTube binge lately. My current favorite genre is disaster stories about mountain climbing. The death statistics for some of these mountains, especially ones in the Himalayas are truly insane.

To give an example, let me tell you about a mountain most people have never heard of: Nanga Parbat. It's a 8,126 meter "wall of ice and rock", sporting the tallest mountain face and the fastest change in elevation in the entire world: the Rupal Face.

I've posted a picture above, but these really don't do justice to just how gigantic this wall is. This single face is as tall as the largest mountain in the Alps. It is the size of ten empire state buildings stacked on top of one another. If you could somehow walk straight up starting from the bottom, it would take you an entire HOUR to reach the summit.

31 people died trying to climb this mountain before its first successful ascent. Imagine being climber number 32 and thinking "Well I know no one has ascended this mountain and thirty one people have died trying, but why not, let's give it a go!"

The stories of deaths on these mountains (and even much shorter peaks in the Alps or in North America) sound like they are out of a novel. Stories of one mountain in particular have stuck with me: the first attempts to climb tallest mountain face in the alps: The Eigerwand.

The Eigerwand: First Attempt

The Eigerwand is the North face of a 14,000 foot peak named "The Eiger". After three generations of Europeans had conquered every peak in the Alps, few great challenges remained in the area. The Eigerwand was one of these: widely considered to be the greatest unclimbed route in the Alps.

The peak had already been reached in the 1850s, during the golden age of Alpine exploration. But the north face of the mountain remained unclimbed.

Many things can make a climb challenging: steep slopes, avalanches, long ascents, no easy resting spots and more. The Eigerwand had all of those, but one hazard in particular stood out: loose rock and snow.

In the summer months (usually considered the best time for climbing), the mountain crumbles. Fist-sized boulders routinely tumble down the mountain. Huge avalanaches sweep down its 70-degree slopes at incredible speed. And the huge, concave face is perpetually in shadow. It is extremely cold and windy, and the concave face seems to cause local weather patterns that can be completely different from the pass below. The face is deadly.

Before 1935, no team had made a serious attempt at the face. But that year, two young German climbers from Bavaria, both extremely experienced but relatively unknown outside the climbing community, decided they would make the first serious attempt.