Odyssee on Eiger North Face The hardest free-climb in 16 hours

Babsi Zangerl & Jacopo Larcher


This was the hardest day of my life

For anyone who is even just remotely interested in climbing or mountaineering the words Eiger North Face – or the original German version ‘Eiger Nordwand’ bring shivers down their spine. The 3967m Eiger is majestically overlooking the small Swiss town of Grindelwald. The Eiger became and still is one of the most mystical mountains in the world and climbing its terrifying 1800m North Face was once described as "an obsession for the mentally deranged".

If you add a thunderstorm to an extremely crazy and scary route, it will will become terryifing and basically impossible

Even though it has been climbed many times now, it is still regarded as one of the biggest challenges for climbers, exceeding many of the dangers in the Himalayas ranging from severe technical difficulties to hefty weather changes, deathly rock falls, and icey walls.

One of those who has successfully climbed the Eiger North Face is Barbara (“Babsi”) Zangerl – an Austrian climbing professional, who was the first woman to boulder an 8b grade route.

The different lines up the Eiger North Face – Odyssee in yellow (image by Frank Kretschmann)
The different lines up the Eiger North Face – Odyssee in yellow (image by Frank Kretschmann)

Odyssee - the most difficult free-climb of them all

There is not one way only to climb the Eiger North Face and in 2015 Roger Schaeli, Robert Jasper, and Simon Gietl established a new and the so far hardest free-climb route up the North Face, which they called ‘Odyssee’ – a 1400m steep route. Free-climb means that gear will be used, but only as a means of protection, not to assist the climber.

And again, it didn’t take long before Babsi and her partner Jacopo Larcher repeated the climb in 2018, making them the second team to reach the top of the 8a+ Odyssee. It took them four days and several nights which they spend sleeping on the wall.
This achievement was tremendous and covered widely in the climbing community, as they summited Odysee ground-up, meaning they never returned to the base and had to bring all the gear for several days and nights with them.

In August 2020 Babsi and Jacopo returned to Odyssee – only this time they wanted to climb it in one day

They started out at the foot of the Eiger North Face and spent their first days preparing the wall with some static lines for the filming crew who would follow them (see video below). They put some chalk marks on the crux holds before they even wanted to give it a proper go. But for a few days, all they could do was to stay on the wall, waiting out the notoriously bad weather on the Nordwand.
For three days they stayed amongst clouds and fog, climbing on very wet and slippery holds and in freezing cold conditions to finish all preparations. Then finally they got rewarded with the best weather conditions. The wall dried up completely. ‘I have never seen a wall in that perfect climbing condition’, Babsi remembers.
Even though the game changed for them, they wanted to do some more preparation, only to eventually face the worst nightmare. It started to snow on top of the Eiger. It was already late in the season and motivation was at a record low, because they both realized that this likely meant that dry conditions might be gone for the rest of the year.

And when as they have made a third of the wall, and looked down, they realised how difficult even the way back will be, and that’s when one really understands the how serious this wall is and why there is such a myth around it.

After a few days, however, optimism took the better of them and they went. They made it 12 pitches -  about a third of the 33 pitches  (or climbing sections) of the Odyssee. But there was too much snow on the wall and the only option they had was to rappel down again.

Main points along Odyssee (copyright Black Diamond)
Main points along Odyssee (copyright Black Diamond)

They had been waiting now for several days. “I checked the weather forecast and the Eiger webcams at least 100 times a day. There was simply no improvement", Babsi says, just before, finally, the sky cleared up again and they were able to give it another gave it another shot. This was their chance.

On their second try, they climbed fast, and felt strong and confident on even the hardest part of the wall. No fall yet and then they reached the truly spicy part just before the section called the Czech Bivi 2. Then water started to drop on the first pitches, and they knew what they were in for now.

Babsi and Jacopo on the wall (Copyright Paolo Sartori/Babsi Zangerl)
Babsi and Jacopo on the wall (Copyright Paolo Sartori/Babsi Zangerl)

Eiger can be a pretty climb, but things can change and then you experience a serious north face

They had to scramble through four completely wet pitches from ranging 6c+ to 7c. A relentless struggle, where with every grip, with every step they could have slipped off the wall. It took what felt forever to finally get over those challenging pitches. They reached the Czech Bivi 2 – a crucial milestone.

Now they grew more optimistic, and they sped through the upper part of the wall. They could believe it. After 16 hours they were just 3 pitches below the top. A final enthusiastic sprint and they would be on top, holding a world record. The ‘if’ became a ‘when’, and determination spread as it was only a question of an hour or two. And then things turned 180. That is what defines Eiger. Things can change within a single minute – and they did.

Babsi Zangerl on the Eiger North Face (Copyright Paolo Sartori/Babsi Zangerl)
Babsi Zangerl on the Eiger North Face (Copyright Paolo Sartori/Babsi Zangerl)

In this storm, a makeshift anchor was my only way down

A massive storm hit. It wasn’t just windy, but hail shot down from the sky and the immense downpour of rain soaked the two immediately. They were separated by quite a bit and as the temperatures dropped below freezing, the wet rocks turned into ice, making it impossible to reach the next belay or move anywhere at all. The only way to make it down was to build and trust a sketchy makeshift anchor.

We couldn’t be happier.
That was better than any top or any success or summit.
Glad we made it back, doesn‘t matter the fact that we had to bail at the second last pitch.

Jacopo grew worried, as he couldn't see Babsi anymore who was ahead, well up into the storm. But then finally Babsi reached him again, and at least they were now united, having to make a quick decision. They knew, even with only one and half more pitches to go, there was absolutely no way upwards. This mountain is merciless, and it would not forgive them. They had to get down and had to do that fast. They rappelled 31 pitches – all the way down. An absolutely massive feat requiring their entire focus as they basically rappelled through a waterfall the never-ending rain and ice now created. At 22.00 they reached their bivi and crawled into the sleeping bags. They were beyond happy, just having made it back to safety.
They both knew that the mountain dictates what humans can do, and this was just another experience.

Babsi Zangerl in bivi at Eiger North Face climbing Odyssee (Copyright Paolo Sartori/Babsi Zangerl)
Babsi Zangerl in bivi at Eiger North Face climbing Odyssee (Copyright Paolo Sartori/Babsi Zangerl)

“This was probably the most challenging climbing day in my life. Eiger can be a pretty climb, but things can change rapidly and then you experience a serious north face”, Babsi recalls.

If you don’t reach the top, you will never know how close it exactly was

At the bivi, immediately both of them had the same question in mind. It felt that after two failures all their motivation was gone, the mountain had drained their energy. But, was it really time to give up?
“We were happy with our achievement. We made it almost to the top. These were the thoughts and honestly, it couldn’t get any harder. This was the most challenging climbing I ever had in my life.”

They knew they wanted to come back. Even though the last two pitches were considered ‘easy’, a 6a in bad weather can be significantly more difficult and dangerous than the so-called crux of the route. “And if you don’t reach the top, you never will know how close it exactly was.”, Babsi adds.
They didn’t want to come back next year, they were still ready. They had almost climbed it, they had just missed around a hundred meters.

Absolutely tired in their bones they had again 33 pitches ahead of them

After waiting out the thunderstorm for two days, on day three, still tired in their bones they were back in the wall a 1.30 at night, with their torches guiding the way. And again, they had 33 pitches ahead of them. The difficult parts of the route were still wet, but at least there was no more rain from above and they made it through. And they were fast. They reached the Czech Bivi three hours earlier than on their last try and their morale and determination were stronger than ever to keep pushing up that fearful wall. Yet again the Eiger North Face showed them that this is no place to be bold and brave, but only to be humble. At the crux of the route – a steep 7c that leads right into an 8a pitch – Jacopo decided to push on, instead of taking a break after the 7c pitch. He slipped and fell. Thankfully it was only a shock as he was well secured, yet he had to start at the last belay and this time was fully focussed and made it past what is considered to be the technically most demanding part.

It was very dangerous, but not impossible

And then they reached the point where a few days earlier the weather changed and forced them down the mountain. With disbelief, they gazed into the sky to find signs of bad weather, but there weren’t any. They couldn’t believe it when they realized that this could be it. They faced a 6b and Babsi grew nervous. Not because of the difficulty of the pitch itself, but this was the point where she had to bail last time. They had been on the wall for 15h now. With only one and a half pitches to go, they could make it in an hour. But just before they reached the top they felt a thick layer of ice that was still covering this last section. It was challenging and absolutely dangerous to make through the icy pitches, but not impossible. They went slow, really slow, making sure to not fall, to not fail in the last minutes of the massive endeavor. And then after one more grip, they looked at their watches.

Babsi Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher on top of Odyssee at Eiger North Face (Copyright Paolo Sartori/Babsi Zangerl)
Babsi Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher on top of Odyssee at Eiger North Face (Copyright Paolo Sartori/Babsi Zangerl)

It was 17.30 and they had been climbing non-stop for 16 hours. But now they didn’t have to go on. They fell into each other’s arms as they reached the top of Odyssee the hardest route, on one of the hardest north faces in the world and 8 hours faster than they had planned. By never giving up and working seamlessly synchronized as a team they reached a milestone, not only for themselves but one that will go down in climbing history.

Just a few weeks before the two reached the top of Odyssee a Belgium team (Nico Favresse and Seb Berthe) made the route taking them 18h.

Black diamond and a film team followed Babsi and Jacopo on their amazing climb

About Babsi & Jacopo

Jacopo Larcher and Babsi Zangerl

Barbara Zangerl from Strengen in Austria and Jacopo Larcher from South Tyrol, Italy, are established members of the world climbing elite. For many years they are not only strong climbing partners, scaling the hardest mountains in the world, but also share a life together.

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