An Instant of Joy

An Instant of Joy2023

Legendary South African climber and mountaineer, Andy de Klerk, relates his account of his solo ascent of the Eiger’s infamous North Wall.

I took a deep breath as I passed the bronze plaques bolted to the wall just above the bergschrund. Dawn had just broken a thin crack of red on the horizon, and there was just enough murky light to look up at the five thousand feet of shattered limestone hanging above me. The enormity of what I was about to do flickered briefly on the edge of a panic, but I shut it out quickly and looked up at the route just ahead as I picked out the route through the first rock bands. “One step at a time buddy,” I told myself. “This is it. Here we go…”
It took six long years to complete this challenge that I had set myself, but I am a patient man, and in the end it didn’t seem like a very long time. I wanted to solo the three classic north faces of the Alps: the Eiger, Matterhorn, and Grandes Jorasses, those towering, inspiring and intimidating objects of every Alpine climbers’ desire. I had climbed them all previously with various partners over the course of two very intense Alpine summers, and it may have been enough at that. So why go back and solo them? The easy answer would be: “To see if I can”, but nothing is ever obvious when it comes to the complexity of our drives and motivations.
There is a subtle paradox in soloing: Is it something you do for yourself only, or are there elements of doing it for yourself once reflected off the admiration of others afterwards? This paradox is boldly drawn while you’re climbing: soloing contains an intimacy, a sublime beauty in fluid movement, and an intense self-reliance, all of which are contrasted sharply with the very real consequence of your own death. The question cuts directly to the core of why we climb, and after many attempts and many years of trying to complete this goal, my answer, finally, would be: “Because I had to.” Part of the beauty in mountaineering that has been laid out in so many epic tales is that we set ourselves challenges we don’t know whether we will be able to meet. Then, despite ourselves and against all odds, we go out into these wild places and try anyway. Success and failure are clear. It’s about the human quest: about adventure; about setting out and not knowing the outcome.
Two years previously I had started up the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses at 10 pm, reaching the top at dawn. I had climbed the entire route at night by headlight, partly to avoid the crowds, but mostly to avoid rockfall from people above me. On the summit I watched Monte Rosa glow pink for a minute as the sun rose, and looked down at the Shroud and the Petits Jorasses, picking out the line of Anouk, a route we had done a few days before. I remembered Michel Piola at the Maison des Montagnes. Veins bulging as he returned the Hilti, eyes shining as he described the route and drew us a topo, and rockdust, fresh from the bolts that we clipped, dribbling out of the holes like geological spittle. The Alpine rock rage had just begun to take hold, but the lure of the big, cold north walls was stronger, the uncertainty higher, the risks very much sharper…

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