Author Interview: Peter Gillman, Eiger Direct
- Tuesday 25th February 2020
Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston's Eiger Direct was first published in 1966. It relates the dramatic events which unfolded on the North Face of the Eiger in that year, when two teams – one British-American, the other German – set out to attempt the notorious face via a new direct route. Astonishingly, the two teams knew nothing of the other's plans until they arrived at the foot of the face. What followed was a race to the top full of risk, resilience and tragedy.
Author Peter Gillman, then twenty-four, worked with climber Dougal Haston and photographer Chris Bonington to produce a book which quickly received critical acclaim. Our edition features a new introduction from Gillman reflecting on that remarkable ascent more than fifty years on. We talked to him about his memories of the ascent and how it influenced the development of modern climbing.
Eiger Direct was first published more than fifty years ago. How strong are your memories of that remarkable ascent and how have they changed?
The North Face of the Eiger was one of the iconic locations of mountaineering, and I remember being awe-struck when I first saw it. The climbers were pitted against a mile-high wall of rock and ice, swept by ferocious winter storms. Their efforts strike me now, even more than then, as testifying to almost limitless human aspirations in the face of daunting odds. For a writer, it was also an immensely powerful story, with drama, heroism, life and death struggles, and an extraordinary climax and resolution. I can see that with great clarity now and am glad that the book embodies those narrative values
The book tells the story of one of the epic ascents of alpine mountaineering. Did the attempt feel as significant at the time?
This was the great mountaineering challenge of its day, a new direct route up the most notorious face in the Alps. The climbers on both teams – British-American and German – believed they could meet it, but the climb took far longer and was far more demanding than they had reckoned. So yes, it did feel immensely significant, the more so as the true difficulties became all too evident.
The name of John Harlin, leader of the British-American team, was enshrined in the name of the ascent as the John Harlin Route. Harlin took a very positive view of climbing ‘as a means to internationalism, because of the opportunities it gave people from different countries to work together in harmony.’ What do you make of that view?
John was a larger than life character who was given to grandiose statements such as that. He was a controversial figure who aroused conflicting views. Some saw him as a self-publicist, others as an inspirational leader. He had made numerous previous attempts on the direct route and had a possessive attitude towards it. He was an internationalist who loved Europe and climbed with European partners. But on the ascent itself, he saw the competing German team as rivals and for a long time was determined to get to the summit first. In view of that, the way events unfolded was both ironic and even more dramatic than one could have predicted.
Since publication, the North Face of the Eiger has seen many attempts, including the first alpine-style ascent of the John Harlin Route by Alex MacIntyre and Tobin Sorenson in 1977. What perspective do you believe the book offers on today’s mountaineering?
There has been a proliferation of routes on the face, more than thirty at the last count. An alpine-style ascent of the Harlin Route was bound to come and MacIntyre and Sorensen were brilliant protagonists. The numerous new routes testify to the remarkable levels of technique and audacity of successive generations of climbers. They also allow us to reflect on the primitive, inadequate and inappropriate equipment and clothing of the 1966 climbers who overcame remarkable odds in completing the ascent.
You state that you delivered the original manuscript of Eiger Direct in around four weeks, an astonishingly quick timeframe. What are your memories of writing the book, and your experience collaborating with Dougal Haston and Chris Bonington?
One of my principal memories is that both Dougal and Chris were being treated for frostbite at the time. They spent hours in a hyperbaric oxygen cylinder at the London Hospital under the care of Dr Mike Ward, who was the doctor on the 1953 Everest expedition – although that treatment is now no longer considered effective. I particularly remember Dougal’s stiff and blackened fingers. Although I had been a professional writer for less than two years, I was confident of meeting the publisher’s very tight deadline. I also remember buying one of the very first electric typewriters to help me do so! It was considered an immense advance on the old manual typewriters. These days of course the mechanics of writing are far easier.
In the new introduction you state, ‘Looking back from the perspective of a lifetime, it is striking to consider how naïve we must appear’. How do you think this impacted the book, and how do you look back on yourself as a writer now?
I wrote that we might have appeared naïve, and then went on to consider whether we were. It was a way of reflecting on the events of 1966 from a perspective more than fifty years on. I think the climbers were performing at the very limit of contemporary techniques and equipment – but see my remarks above. Looking back on my writing, I think it is fresh and direct, reflecting my views on how writing best succeeds. I would write it differently today, and in fact have brought the story up to date with a new book called Extreme Eiger – but today is today and that was then.
You include a glossary at the end of the book of technical terms to aid non-climbers. How important do you think it is that the book is read by climbers and non-climbers alike?
I think the narrative values of the story are strong enough to appeal to both climbers and non-climbers. I think it is important to make the technical and specialist aspects of a subject like this accessible to those outside the particular world it describes, and I feel that the writing succeeds in that.
And finally, what do you hope today’s readers will gain from the book’s republication?
Numerous people over the years have told me it was one of the definitive climbing books of their early lives. Many have also told me how much they regretted it was out of print, so I am immensely pleased that Vertebrate has decided to republish it.