In 2003, an Avalanche Tower was installed in the lowest part of the Eiger North Face to protect the Wengernalp railway on its way up to the Jungfraujoch. The aim of this measure was to protect a section between Grindelwald and Kleine Scheidegg that had not been protected by snow sheds. Most endangered parts are protected with snowsheds. The reason that the whole line is not protected by snow sheds is that the tourists can enjoy the impressive panorama of the Eiger North Face along the route. The person then in charge of safety Ueli Frutiger, decided to look for a solution that did not obscure the view all along the line. Therefore it had to be a temporary measure, indicating that a remote avalanche control system RACS was needed.
Challenging placement and construction of the anchorage
The world famous Eiger North Face is known by its climbers on one hand for its climbing difficulties and on the other hand for its objective hazards such as for example rapid weather changes, avalanches and rock falls. It was known that Wyssen Avalanche Towers withstand small to medium avalanche forces and could be proven at this location once more. What was not clear at that time was whether the system could withstand rock fall that could reach a brutal impact due to the huge dimension of this wall with a vertical drop of 1’800 m. To avoid rock fall completely by finding a protected location was not entirely possible. At least it was possible to take advantage of a big pillar, which offered a natural protection for most of the rock fall.
Thanks to the concept of the Wyssen Avalanche Tower, the sensitive part can be taken off and stored in a safe place in a station building. Only the mast is remaining in the endangered zone during summer when the rock fall activity is highest during summer. Another type of RACS would have been destroyed after short time already. To install sensitive supply lines or larger equipment would have been not reasonable.
Due to the chosen location beneath the protecting pillar, the area to place the anchorage was rather limited and obviously steep and exposed. The place was also under a small ledge, which meant an extra back anchorage was needed half way up the mast to withstand higher forces coming from rock falls and avalanches. Thus, a special fixture had to be manufactured and installed. The Department for Natural Hazards of the Canton of Berne carried out the construction work. The team around Toni Wyss did this challenging job excellently, way with the needed talent for improvisation and alpine experience.
Solar panels need the sun to do what they are supposed to
The next challenge was to install a power supply, because in the shade of the mighty Eiger North Face the solar panels would not see a single sunbeam for at least three month per year. With the conventional power supply, this was not possible. To bridge over the winter months, additional batteries had to be installed in the deployment box. In addition, the power-saving modus had to be used consistently. This meant that the person responsible for safety in Werner von Gunten’s team had o make contact with the installation prior to a planned blasting during one of these time slots in order to switch it on to standby.
A second Avalanche Tower will be installed in the Eiger North Face in 2016 to protect another short section along the railway from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg which could be reached by an avalanche, although much less frequently. Finding the right position for this new location is much easier than the first one. There is a cliff, located approx. 50 m off the wall, which gives a great place for building an anchorage and appears to be quite safe from rock falls and avalanches.
Climbing the Face as a reward for the inventor
After the first tower was installed at the Eiger in 2003, Sam Wyssen wanted to climb the north face himself. This challenge posed a much greater challenge that what he had previously been climbing, for example the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc. This meant a decent preparation was needed. Most important is a very solid endurance beside the technical skills in rock and ice climbing. Thanks to some experience in those disciplines and the close training possibilities, the missing gap of skills was eliminated within two years. Besides the experience of techniques, another challenge in this complex face is to be able to stay on track of the route. The fact that the height of the wall is 1.8 km but the length of the Heckmair route is over 4 km shows that there are more than enough options to get lost easily in this terrain. This and ensuring that this expedition could be carried out as safely as possible meant finding a guide willing to take this challenge. By chance, Sam met Roger Schäli, a top alpinist with enormous experience in this particular wall. A test climb in the Eiger Face from the bottom the “Difficult Crack” in February 2005 showed that Roger and Sam worked well together as a team and the skills of Sam were sufficient for the whole ascent.
They had to wait for good conditions in the wall and a couple of days with perfect weather forecast. On June 10. 2005, the time was right even though there was still some snow in the wall. They started at five a.m. from Hotel Eigergletscher. Thanks to the snow and the cold temperatures, the rock fall activity was low and Hinterstoisser traverse could be climbed using the ice tools only without the need of the fix rope across. Roger and Sam proceeded well and reached a good place to install the bivouac just before Götterquergang more than two thirds up the wall. Tiredness, awesome pasta, a warm sleeping bag and the most beautiful view out of bed, lowered the level of adrenalin and allowed Sam to sleep for some hours.
The hardest part on the next day had to be taken right after breakfast: Traverse of the Götterquergang. After that, the two were able to proceed well through Weisse Spinne, the exit cracks and the Top Icefield to reach the Peak at around 10 a.m. More than happy, Sam slowly seemed to realize that his dream came true. For the descent, full concentration was needed again because most accidents on this route happened after reaching the peak. When coming back to Kleine Scheidegg, Sam’s level of adrenalin could have lowered while drinking coffee with staff from the Jungfraubahn, but it did not. It took more than a month until the emotions lowered to a level close to normal.
Additional Avalanche Towers in the Jungfrau region
Close to the Top of Europe’s railway station on the Jungfraujoch, another Avalanche Tower is installed to protect the guests from all around the world when they want to enjoy the feeling of standing on a glacier. The system is standing on a small slope just above the exit of the tunnel to the glacier. The tower had to prove its resistance against strong winds and severe weather conditions. The Jungfraujoch is not only a rough place due to its height above sea level, but also due to its location in the range of mountains furthest north in the alps and exposed to the incoming weather systems from north west to north.
There are more Avalanche Towers from Wyssen in the Jungfrau region to protect ski slopes and railways. Another on is standing above Wengen to protect a section of the railway between Lauterbrunnen and Kleine Scheidegg, just beside the finishing area of the famous men’s downhill world cup race Lauberhorn.
Four more Avalanche Towers are installed at the ski resort Grindelwald First to protect ski slopes. Another two are installed above the railway between Grütsch and Mürren on the Bietenhorn east face.
In addition, Peter Bühler protects his ski slopes using Wyssen Avalanche Towers in the neighbouring ski resort Schilthorn.