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Alpinist 41: The Cover (Back)story

Rarely is the choice for the cover photo of an issue of Alpinist unanimously agreed upon among editorial staffers. But when this low-resolution image from the filming of The Eiger Sanction was uncovered, Art Director Mike’s office filled with cacophonous agreement. “Woah!” “Has that been published?” “Mike, can you make a mock-up of that one?” “Who took that photo?” “We must get that photo.”

The first of many sets of back-and-forth emails told us that the photographer was Hamish MacInnes, the 82-year-old Scottish winter climbing pioneer and inventor who had designed the Terrordactyl ice axes. (Coincidentally, it was Hamish’s all-metal, drop-picked Terrors that were the subject of our Tool Users article for the issue.)

While our unanimous approval of the Clint Eastwood photo was a remarkable success (given some of the cover disputes in the past), it was only the first of many battles to be won. A series of attempted email messages lost in the ether left me as the sole contact with Hamish, and Mike as my photo-savvy adviser. Twenty-some emails later and we were still unable to get a cover-quality scan of the image despite Hamish’s late-night rooting around through boxes of slides to scan and send each version of the image he found.

There was little time left before the cover was scheduled to ship. (Because the cover is printed on thicker paper, the designed file is due at the printer at least a week before the rest of the magazine.) After several phone conversations, Hamish explained, in a soft and musical voice, that he would enlist the help of fellow climber and photo-restoration expert Graeme Hunter, who convinced Hamish to snail mail him the slide to scan and re-touch for us.

Deadline day for the cover arrived, and so did Graeme’s scan of the image. We are indebted to both Mr. Hunter and Mr. MacInnes for the hours they spent on the project.

–Gwen Cameron, Managing Editor

To go with the cover, we asked Hamish for the basic who-what-when-where caption information. What we received was a 750-word essay we just couldn’t fit in the allotted space on the feature contents page. Below is the full text.

“Hey guys, is this safe?”

“It’s safe enough,” I yelled down. “But I wouldn’t do it.”

We were on the North Face of the Eiger. Clint Eastwood was dangling free over an ugly overhang with his rope attached to the end of a ladder that was rigged like a diving board. It protruded about 20 feet over the edge of a rock ledge.

It wasn’t exactly a fun group clustered on this panoramic ledge with unrestricted views over the Bernese Oberland. A few days before, one of the climbing crew, Dave Knowles, had been killed nearby by rockfall. The movie had been halted. Back in Scotland, I was recovering from an operation for gas gangrene, which had left a cavity the size of the surgeon’s hand on the side of my leg. There was a phone call from Kleine Scheidegg, at the foot of the Eiger North Face, asking if I could fly out immediately and sort things out. It was an old friend, Norman Dyrenfurth, the Second Unit Director.

“You won’t have to do any climbing, Hamish. We have a couple of Air Zermatt SAR helicopters to winch you down to wherever you need to go.”

“OK Norman, I’ll resurrect myself and see you tomorrow.” Before I left home, I went to the workshop and made a perforated aluminum alloy guard for my wound. That’s how I got involved with The Eiger Sanction….

Clint showed no emotion as we lowered him into position. He was busy directing himself. Our group of expert climbers was unusually silent. This rope-cutting stunt was special, and I’m sure all were relieved that they were not on the end of that rope. Clint was more worried about the Swiss Army Knife that he grasped in his right hand to cut the rope. It had been honed to razor sharpness, and he felt that there was a danger that he wouldn’t immediately drop it the instant he severed the fibers. It illustrated his clarity of mind that he could dismiss the danger of our gallows disintegrating and concentrate on dropping the knife. He was keen to start.

The plan was that Mike Hoover, our climber cameraman, would crawl along the ladder to the top rung, to where Clint’s rope was tied, and point the heavy Panavision camera directly down between the first and second rungs, so that he obtained an eagle-eye view of our director/stuntman.

I should perhaps explain the construction of my “gallows,” for it is obvious that a domestic ladder, borrowed from the hotel 6,000 feet below, would not withstand the loading of two hefty men and the camera–a combined weight of over 400 kilograms (880 pounds). I had another, shorter ladder fixed vertically in the middle of Clint’s “diving board.” From the top of this, two climbing ropes were secured from the end of Clint’s diving board up to the highest point of the vertical ladder and back to bomb-proof anchors along the rock ledge. The theory was that this cantilevered rig wouldn’t collapse like a strip of cardboard.

A wise man once said that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This phenomenon manifested itself when Mike Hoover was catapulted upwards as Clint cut the rope and dropped like a stone. His knife dropped from his hand as planned. Underneath the overhang, we had inserted pegs and expansion bolts to hold him when he fell, and he now swung on these anchors. The last part of this sequence was continued in the next day’s shoot from below, where he cut the rope and was hauled into the icy tunnel by George Kenny. This passageway connects the Eiger North Face to the cog railway that runs up through the mountain tunnel to the Weissfluhjoch–very handy for filmmakers! We also had to drop animated dummy climbers from the overhang to represent some of the film’s fatalities. As the “animated bodies” got slowly smaller and smaller, we realized that, on such a protracted descent, one would have time to contemplate the sudden impact.

Making this film was a real roller coaster, and the dice with the mountain continued until we packed our rucksacks. I had a feeling if we were there much longer, the Eiger was going to win.

–Hamish MacInnes