Toni Kurz, pictured here young and fresh faced was a German mountaineer with an adventurous heart. In 1936 at the young age of 23 he attempted to climb the then unconquered Eiger mountain in Switzerland with his friend Andreas Hinterstoisser. Full of juice and confidence they set about the perilous task in the July of that year. They met two other mountaineers on the Eiger, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer and they all decided to try and reach the summit together. The Eiger was an extremely difficult climb, standing at just over 13,000 feet with its North face wall of rock and ice standing at 5,900 feet. If the sheer wall of the North face wasn’t challenging enough to climb on its own, it was made even more hazardous by the weather systems that could change in the blink of an eye causing avalanches of falling snow and rock. They would have all been well aware of the risk they were taking in trying to tackle this monumental task, undeterred they set off with courage in their hearts and smiles on their faces. Unbeknown to them on the morning of the ascent the events that would unfold over the next few days would bring them all to meet their untimely demise. Out of the four climbers that tragically lost their lives in that fateful July it’s Toni Kurz’s plight in particular stands out as the story of ultimate surrender.
The ascent began, up they went, laughing, joking buzzing, why wouldn’t they be happy? They were gonna be the first mountaineers in the world to reach the summit of the Eiger via its North face. In their minds it was already done. They’d return home to their towns and villages as heroes, as legends. They made good progress but were slowed down by a technical section of climbing now named the Hinterstoisser traverse named after Kurz’s climbing buddy Andreas Hinterstoisser. Hinterstoisser tackled this difficult horizontal section without a climbing rope with his brilliant climbing skills, he pinned a rope across the traverse allowing his mates to follow him. They all crossed safely and pulled out the rope they’d used to cross the traverse and carried on the ascent with now even more of a buzz about them. They were going to do it. Nothing could stop them now, they’d unlocked the mountain by successfully completing one of the most difficult sections of the climb. That said the pulling out of the rope that they’d used to get across the traverse would turn out to be a very costly mistake. Perhaps it was a small error of judgement due to the excitement of reaching the summit, they knew they could do it now, they knew the odds were stacked in their favour but what they didn’t know was that they were now inadvertently trapped on the mountain.
Full of determination the monumental ascent continued, the July sun caused snow to melt thus loosening mountain rocks previously secured by the mountains icy grip, a falling rock pelted Willy Angerer full in the head. A bit of doubt started to creep in, they were so sure they were going to climb to the summit successfully, but knowing now that they had an injured comrade the flame of hope that burned in their hearts now flickered a bit less brightly. Angerer wanted to continue the ascent, he didn’t want to let his mates down, after some discussion they continued upwards, now more slowly with an injured climber. With his condition progressively deteriorating Angerer couldn’t climb any more. They all knew inside that their dream of reaching the top was now shattered. Morale now in bits they decided to make the descent back down to safety. They slowly got down to the now named Hinterstoisser traverse, Hinterstoisser tried to free climb the traverse he’d bravely tackled on the ascent to secure a rope for his mates but he couldn’t do it, it was now covered in ice. He gave it his all, but all his attempts were in vein, their hearts sank like cannon balled ships. They were trapped on the freezing mountain with an injured climber and the unpredictable weather was worsening.
This could seriously go either way now, life or death. Now, all fatigued and being battered by a hellish blizzard they must have known deep down that they might not make it back down alive. Who knows what thoughts were going through their heads, thoughts of happier times, times spent with friends and family, girlfriends, loved ones. Their previous championing mindset was now one of creeping dread. If things were looking bad things were worsened by an avalanche which swept Hinterstoisser off the wall causing him to plummet to his death through the falling snow beneath him. The team of four lion hearted men were now three and one of them was injured. Still, they tried to climb down the mountain to safety. Fate however would deal them another sickening blow, the injured Angerer climbing below Toni Kurz slipped and was pelted into the rock face and killed instantly. Edi Rainer climbing above Kurz was securing the two climbers, Hinterstoisser’s slip pinned Rainer to the mountain side cutting off the freezing cold air to his lungs, he was dead within minutes. Toni Kurz was now alone dangling off a rope in no mans land with the freezing wind and snow howling around him.
The unfolding events were being observed through binoculars from Kleine Scheidegg at the foot of the mountain. A rescue team was alerted and later that day they set out to rescue Kurz in appalling weather conditions. They couldn’t get to him, they had to turn back. Kurz chillingly screamed out ‘No, don’t leave me, don’t leave me’ as the rescuers were forced to leave him overnight. He spent the entire night exhausted, suspended in mid air in a blizzard by his climbing rope, the cold slowly seeping into his body sucking the life out of him. That night up there alone must have felt like an absolute eternity, the thoughts of his now lost lost climbing mates would have echoed around his head, he’d watched his friends perish on the unforgiving mountain, he must have been sure that he’d meet a similar fate but on he fought. He’d lost a glove and was severely frost bitten, to stay alive he had to stay awake and hope to God that the rescue team would get to him the next day.
The following day came around, it was beyond a miracle that Toni Kurz survived the night, but he did. He fought death tooth and nail and beat it. He attempted to abseil down the mountain, in order to do this he had to make the gut wrenching decision to cut the rope that was securing the body of his climbing buddy Willy Angerer below him. Once he’d cut Angerer loose he then had to climb up to Edi Rainer and cut his body free. Kurz was already exhausted, dehydrated, hungry and severely frost bitten, that climb up to Rainer would have took every ounce of strength, will power, grit and determination imaginable, his will to stay alive, to survive was massive, it would be, he was only 23 years old with his whole life ahead of him, perhaps a future wife to meet, a family to raise. Everything human in him must have been horrified at having to cut loose the bodies of his two lost friends, but everything primal in him allowed him to do so in order to survive. To abseil down Kurz had to increase the length of his rope by untwining it and tying the three strands together, due to the severity of his frost eaten hands this feat took him five hours, five more hours in the savagely biting cold, five more hours of living hell, under normal circumstances it would have only took him 15 minutes.
Toni Kurz now almost dead and fighting with everything that he had painfully lowered his makeshift rope down to the now assembled rescue team below him to attach a 60 metre rope to get him down to safety. In order to save time Hans Schlunegger, one of the rescue team had put the rope in-between his back and rucksack instead of in his rucksack, a common practice, it worked loose and was lost to the abyss below them. Quick thinking brought the team to the decision of tieing two shorter ropes together that would hopefully cover the distance needed to get Toni down. Ahead they went, Kurz with hands in terrible pain slowly pulled up the tied rope and fixed himself to it. He was close now, just one more final push and he’d be with the rescuers, he thought he’d done it, he thought his battle against death was won. Kurz painstakingly made the descent only to discover that his carabiner wouldn’t pass over the knot that the rescue team had made in the two ropes, he was stuck. He was too exhausted to go up the rope to take his weight and release the caribiner to get it past the knot, and now, there was no way down.
He was only metres away from the rescue team. He cried out desperately in utter frustration and sheer disbelief at what was happening, but his cries and resistance were futile. He’d fought with every cell in his body to survive, he’d been to hell and back. His quest to live was over, he couldn’t physically or mentally do anymore. Suspended in mid air, tantalisingly out of reach from rescue Toni’s body slumped as he uttered the words “Ich kann nicht mehr” (“I can’t [go on] anymore”). He could no longer fight, he let go. Toni Kurz surrendered to his fate and died.
How does this tie in with my journey………….?
I really feel I’m at a loggerhead of both fighting and letting go, of surrendering. This brings in discordant feelings. Of recent weeks my forays into journalling seem to be taking me to the same place, surrender, the last words of my recent journalling sessions have Benn ‘I can’t do it’. It feels like I’ve been pumping tonnes and tonnes of energy into the spiritual quest, wanting, desiring and yearning. I’ve been pumping tonnes and tonnes of energy into people pleasing, wanting to be perfect and to be accepted, tonnes and tonnes of energy gets pumped into wanting to be loved. It’s exhausting, I can’t do it, I really cant do it. This isn’t from a place of giving up, I couldn’t if I wanted to, the whole thing is too far gone. It’s from a place of letting go, letting go of the quest and all the other bullshit that perpetuates this pathetic fearful existence, letting go of the desire to remain in control and preserve my sanity! Where Toni Kurz had to cut loose the bodies of his dead climbing mates, I have to cut loose the attachments that drain me of energy, there isn’t a practice happening where I’m like ‘Ok, today I’ll cut loose the attachment to people pleasing’ it feels more and more like an emotional drain to carry on people pleasing, and I’m seeing it for what it is. It feels like a massive wheel thats been turning, the wheel is my egoic will and it feels like the wheel had all its motive power pulled out of it, even though the wheels own momentum keeps it going, it feels like it’s slowing down. I’m fucking tired of doing and becoming.
I can’t do it.