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The Eiger Playground: An Interview

The Eiger Playground: An Interview

Jöttnar
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Interview with TIM HOWELL

Climber, alpinist, skier, BASE jumper. Tim Howell belongs to the Jöttnar Pro Team and has climbed, jumped and skied on the world’s most notorious mountain.  


Our recently launched film, The Eiger Playground, sees him in action on all of the mountain's faces and flanks and probes the psyche of someone operating amidst such notorious objective danger. 

Describe the Eiger in general. What does it mean to you?


It’s a mountain almost everyone has heard of, steeped in bleak history, and was a turning point in my climbing aspirations. It had always been a goal of mine to climb the 1938 route and until I was actually on the route, fully committed, I wouldn’t have believed I was ever going to do it. I learned some early lessons there about commitment, comfort zones and goal achievement.


For me, one Eiger ambition leads to another and another. I still have plenty more goals for it. It’s a never ending playground.

You say you pay attention to your instincts more on the Eiger than anywhere else. How have your instincts evolved over the course of your alpine career?


I listen to my instincts increasingly more and more. I hope I’ve overcome the early naivety and ignorance, replaced instead with reliable judgement. And this does often mean that I turn around now. At the end of the day, if you’re able to get off the mountain in one piece then it’s been successful, whether you’ve climbed your route or not. 

"For me, one Eiger ambition leads to another and another. I still have plenty more goals for it. It’s a never ending playground. " 
"For me, one Eiger ambition leads to another and another. I still have plenty more goals for it. It’s a never ending playground. " 

You mention training hard in order to reduce risk as much as possible. What form does your training take?


I like to “train on the job.” My motivation for physical training in of itself is limited, so I prefer to go as hard as possible when I’m out on the mountain. I push myself, keeping the calves burning and my lungs bursting! I spend enough time on the mountain, so I can keep fit enough in this manner. Training isn’t just physical though – it’s also mental. I try to find enough time at the sharp end, whether that's sport, trad or drytooling to keep myself mentally in control when I’m being pushed. 

Tackling the Brittle Ledges, Eiger North Face.

This idea of the Eiger as a ‘playground’ contrasts with its grim reputation. What is it about the Eiger that makes it so versatile from a climbing, skiing and BASE perspective?


Steep limestone walls, slabby south face, ridgelines, alpine ice, long scenic flights. I’ve even bumped into friends up there, setting up highlines to walk across the north face. It really does have everything to offer. The faces have different gradients, different conditions and the easy accessibility also adds to its versatility. 

In 'Death Bivouac', Eiger North Face.

Alpine blood sacrifice ceremony.

The 1938 route on the Eiger’s North Face is a serious undertaking for any experienced alpinist, yet it was one of your first alpine routes. Why do you think you were able to find success on it at such an early stage, when it’s eluded so many others with significant experience?

Naivety! I really wasn’t ready for it, but you don’t know what you don’t know. My winter climbing gear started with a pair of work boots and fishing trousers, and it wasn’t until someone above me dropped a crampon on my bare head that I decided to get serious and augment my outfit with a skateboard helmet.
I had only previously done one Scottish grade V route, but my climbing partner for the Eiger’s 1938 route was strong. He’d not done any long alpine routes, but I’d spent some time out in Chamonix on the usual classic routes. Together, our skillset and experience complemented each other. I had also made a point of not reading The White Spider before doing the climb!

The Eiger’s South Face doesn’t have the notoriety that the North Face does, but none of the routes on it are easy. What was your experience of it when you climbed it earlier this summer?


It definitely tested me. Heavy packs and very run out. We only brought half a rack after reading the description “alpine sport” in the guide book. What we actually encountered was bolted belays and maybe one bolt per pitch, if we were lucky. So the whole experience was pretty intimidating. The bivvy cave at half height was amazing, though, and almost perfectly located. It was well protected from the elements and even stocked with provisions. We watched the sun rise in the morning and decided to come back with a larger rack and better tactics.  

Of all your climbs, ski descents and BASE jumps, which feels the most memorable and satisfying?


One of my most memorable jumps was in Greenland where I flew over a pair of breaching whales. When something so unexpected happens, it becomes so special. 

My most memorable climb, partly because it is so fresh in my mind, was a recent ascent of the North Face of the Dru. The situation we found ourselves in was bleak, and I only look back at it with fond memories because of the company I had from my partner during the storms. 


My most satisfying ski descent would have the be the Eiger, not because of the quality of the snow or anything like that, but again because of how unexpected it was. My friend had been asking why I had my skis in my car in the middle of June, and that night I met some guys in the pub who were planning on skiing the West Flank. Perfect! I slept in my car that night. Three years after waking up on the summit watching two guys about to ski down, I was about to achieve another Eiger goal. 

The 1938 route on the Eiger’s North Face is a serious undertaking for any experienced alpinist, yet it was one of your first alpine routes. Why do you think you were able to find success on it at such an early stage, when it’s eluded so many others with significant experience?
Naivety! I really wasn’t ready for it, but you don’t know what you don’t know. My winter climbing gear started with a pair of work boots and fishing trousers, and it wasn’t until someone above me dropped a crampon on my bare head that I decided to get serious and augment my outfit with a skateboard helmet.

I had only previously done one Scottish grade V route, but my climbing partner for the Eiger’s 1938 route was strong. He’d not done any long alpine routes, but I’d spent some time out in Chamonix on the usual classic routes. Together, our skillset and experience complemented each other. I had also made a point of not reading The White Spider before doing the climb!

The Eiger’s South Face doesn’t have the notoriety that the North Face does, but none of the routes on it are easy. What was your experience of it when you climbed it earlier this summer?


It definitely tested me. Heavy packs and very run out. We only brought half a rack after reading the description “alpine sport” in the guide book. What we actually encountered was bolted belays and maybe one bolt per pitch, if we were lucky. So the whole experience was pretty intimidating. The bivvy cave at half height was amazing, though, and almost perfectly located. It was well protected from the elements and even stocked with provisions. We watched the sun rise in the morning and decided to come back with a larger rack and better tactics.  

Of all your climbs, ski descents and BASE jumps, which feels the most memorable and satisfying?


One of my most memorable jumps was in Greenland where I flew over a pair of breaching whales. When something so unexpected happens, it becomes so special. 

My most memorable climb, partly because it is so fresh in my mind, was a recent ascent of the North Face of the Dru. The situation we found ourselves in was bleak, and I only look back at it with fond memories because of the company I had from my partner during the storms. 


My most satisfying ski descent would have the be the Eiger, not because of the quality of the snow or anything like that, but again because of how unexpected it was. My friend had been asking why I had my skis in my car in the middle of June, and that night I met some guys in the pub who were planning on skiing the West Flank. Perfect! I slept in my car that night. Three years after waking up on the summit watching two guys about to ski down, I was about to achieve another Eiger goal. 

"I think that time is more precious than money. You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time, and time for me is the most important commodity. "

You used to be in the Royal Marines. Has this background and training given you any kind of advantage in operating at the levels that you do currently?


It didn’t necessarily give me the technical knowledge, but the mental fortitude I gained from it is something I much value. Knowing that discomfort will always end, and knowing how far I can push my limits in terms of survival and endurance is the key part of this. This training has kept me level headed in many testing situations. 

You left the military after seven years, specifically to pursue climbing, skiing, BASE and adventure full-time. How’s that working out?


When pursuing any ambition you have to make sacrifices; if you don’t, is it really worth it? I was concerned about stepping into civilian life, becoming suddenly self-employed with a mortgage to pay, and with an aim of spending as much time in the mountains as possible.

But I think with enough passion, most goals can be accomplished. I also think that time is more precious than money. You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time, and time for me is the most important commodity. I’ve been out for three years now and don’t see my routine or lifestyle changing in the near future.

The wild terrain of Greenland.

The calm of the 'chute-packing room. Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

Describe the making of the film. What was involved, what were the challenges and how did you pull it all together?


The conditions are always a challenge with a shoot like this. I’m very anxious on the weeks and days leading to the shoot when you need such specific weather and ground conditions for the objective. The original goal was to climb the Mittellegi Ridge (the Eiger’s East Ridge) and jump the South Face, but because of conditions this wasn’t possible. It’s all about adapting, improvising and overcoming. Logistically, getting everyone in the right place at the right time can be challenging, especially when it takes me 30 seconds to fly back down while it took hours for the video team to pick their way back down to the valley. It really does help when the whole team is focused and determined; there is a lot of trust in each other's abilities.


But to be able to make a film about a place that has frightened me, challenged me, inspired me, developed me – and which has played such a huge role in my life, feels satisfying and appropriate.

THE EIGER PLAYGROUND

WATCH FILM

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Written By
Jöttnar

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