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Project Connoisseur
Nowadays almost all alpinists go to the same valleys, huts, walls and routes. In the current age of social media, it seems as if the routes must first be climbed with a spectacular post before one attempts to climb the route itself. What's wrong with adventure and the unknown? Taking the uncertain path in remote, rugged and desolate routes. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't. Now that's adventure.
In this series of articles we climb routes that are little or not known or that have been forgotten. There is also plenty of adventure to be found in the famous mountain massifs of the Alps, adventure for real gourmets.
Late in the afternoon Boris and I take one of the last lifts up. We walk through the ultra-modern terminal to the ticket counter. Shiny silver and gold-colored down jackets with voluminous fur collars, children wearing Mickey Mouse sweaters and coffee-to-go or energy drink-guzzling short-pants wearers pass us in the large departure hall. While Boris pays for the tickets, I look at the large flat screen above me. 'Now to Jungfraujoch – the TOP OF EUROPE – 47 minutes faster than before'. Then, amid swelling electronic music, a panorama of a snow-covered north face of the Eiger appears on screen, with the ultra-modern and brand new cable car, the Eiger Express, in the foreground. To get from Grindelwald to the Eigergletscher station in fifteen minutes, Switzerland only had to make a small concession. Since December 2020, the panorama of the most famous north face in the world has been supplemented with a cable car with 44 gondolas and even one VIP gondola with champagne bar. Drink the champagne quickly though!
After a quick transfer to the train at Eigergletscher station, we get off at Eismeer station not much later. This underground station is located at an altitude of 3160 meters and is no more than a viewpoint for most tourists. For alpinists it is the passage to the southeastern flank of the Eiger. Our plan is to camp here tonight and then climb the 850 meter long rock route on the southeast face tomorrow. Today we want to explore the approach and beginning of the route. We grab our picks and crampons and walk to the large steel door with yellow and red hazard signs: 'ACHTUNG Alpine Gefahr'. To open the door, Boris and I have to push against it with our full weight. Due to the pressure difference between the train tunnel and this tunnel, the door is, as it were, sucked in. The scene brings back memories of the fantasy books I read in my youth. Two friends who open a portal to another dimension. The door slams shut behind us and the door handle falls to the floor. I quickly push the door handle back into the lock before following Boris into the tunnel.
To get to the glacier at the foot of the south face, we first have to descend through the tunnel. Water drips from the limestone in several places. On either side of the tunnel are old planks, iron bars and pickaxes, as if the tunnel had been cut out by hand last week. The relics are a reminder of the time when the Jungfraubahn was built. The progressive project was started at the end of the nineteenth century, which involved looking for a way up through the mountain using explosives. In 1905, Eismeer station was put into use and equipped as a tourist center. And in 1912, the seven kilometer long tunnel through the Eiger and the Mönch to the Jungfraujoch was a fact. To this day, Jungfraujoch station is the highest railway station in Europe. Fortunately, the original plan, a route to the top of the Jungfrau, was abandoned. How many minutes would a trip to the champagne bar have taken there?
After the tunnel and an easy climb we are on the glacier. The snow level is remarkably high for the end of August, so we don't have to cross difficult edge crevices. We follow the deeply trodden track through the snow towards the Mittellegihütte. Everyone who has walked here in recent days or even weeks had this hut as their destination.
After half an hour of walking we leave the deep track and turn to the foot of the south wall. Now we have to track ourselves. Every now and then we stop to discuss and untangle the route in the sea of limestone towering above us. The closer we get to the wall, the more confusing it becomes. It's nice that we can figure this out in daylight and in peace. A little later we see the first bolt, with mossy string, in the wall. “It looks quite difficult, doesn't it, Boris?”

The next morning we are back at the start of the route at early dawn. Our tactic is to climb the route to the ridge in one long day and then immediately descend again along the route. So we consciously choose not to climb to the top of the Eiger. The big advantage of this is that we do not have to take mountain boots, crampons and pickles with us through the route. So light and fast.
Boris is responsible for the first length. It is one of the four more difficult lengths in the route. Boris deftly climbs through the length, which sets the tone of the entire route: technical steps with an inventive route progression and very sparse bolting. Never really dangerous provided you place protection in between the bolts. It is immediately clear that the route is opened ground-up, or from the ground. Ethically the most beautiful style, but not the easiest to climb. Bolts are usually not where you need them most, but just before or just after the crux passages. In addition, the first climbers placed all the bolts by hand. Where you can reasonably stand there is a bolt, where it is difficult you have to climb.

Marble track
After the first three lengths, the terrain calms down and we get a view of the further route. When I look up, I see a complex wall with a coherent structure, but no clear line at all. Fortunately, the topo of the first climbers is accurate and shows us the way flawlessly. A little later I climb up through the so-called Wasserrillen: a bizarre structure of parallel channels, formed by the meltwater that has been flowing down over the slabs here for hundreds of thousands of years. One trench as wide as my fist and the other narrower than my pinky finger. Some channels even form a kind of tunnel. Meltwater and small stones can race down here unrestrained, as if through a bobsleigh track. I continue to find it special how the limestone that was formed in the depths of the ocean is now being dissolved, eventually finding its way back to the same ocean with the meltwater. No wonder the first climbers named the route after these structures. In good Bern German, a Märmelibahn is a marble track.


Unto the ridge
There is a cave exactly halfway along the route. Here we decide to leave a large part of our water behind. Due to the scorching heat in the valley, we were prepared for the worst. Fortunately, a light breeze provides pleasant conditions. We continue climbing quickly, because to climb the 22 rope lengths in one day we have to keep moving. The second part of the route is steeper and more sustained than the first part. As is often the case with climbing in limestone, we don't get much as a gift. Each length requires a good dose of concentration and resolving power. We slowly make our way up through the sea of limestone. I have been amazed several times by the excellent quality of the rock.
Late in the afternoon the light gray, steep limestone makes way for the black-gray limestone as we know it from the Mittellegigrat and the infamous north face. I balance upwards over a disorderly carpet of loose blocks. A little later Boris climbs between large, dark pillars to the top of the ridge. The whole thing has a mystical and almost dark appearance. I quickly climb between the dark columns, following the rope. In the low light of the low sun I stand next to Boris on the ridge. The ridge that is overrun earlier in the day by hordes of climbers with stressed mountain guides. Now we are all alone. Alone on the world famous Eiger. Hopefully mass tourism will stay away from these famous mountain peaks for a while. Although a glass of champagne would be nice right now.

The Märmelibahn route consists of 22 rope lengths up to a maximum of 6c (6b obl.). The route re-bolted the week before Boris and I climbed it (in August 2023). The belays are fully equipped with new inox-bolts. Furthermore, the route only contains bolts where it is really necessary. We placed trad-protection in between.
The topo in this article was made by first acensionist Resu Leibundgut and Sacha Wettstein.
We had the camalots in sizes #.3 to #.5 double and #.75 to #2 single. We also took a set of nuts and twelve (extendable) quickdraws with us. If you want to continue to the top after the Märmelibahn, you will need to bring crampons and ice-tool.
Stay overnight
You can spend the night with bivouac gear at Eismeer station. You can also camp in a beautiful cave exactly halfway along the route.
Project Connoisseur is made possible by Scarpa, Rab, 9C Climbing and BlueIce.

Text & Photos: Niek de Jonge, Boris Textor


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