The north wall of the Eiger Mountain, an awesome and storm-battered crag rising in the Bernese Alps, has long fascinated the world's best mountain climbers. Almost every attempt to conquer it has resulted in defeat or disaster: eighteen men have died in the twenty assaults that have been made on it.

The Eiger's formidable history includes one of the strangest episodes in the annals of mountain climbing -- the 1957 expedition of the Italians, Corti and Longhi, and the Germans, Nothdurft and Mayer. One man alone, Claudio Corti, returned from that expedition, and he did so only with the help of some fifty of Europe's finest climbers, assembled virtually overnight in a spectacular rescue attempt.

Corti and Stefano Longhi were climbers who depended more on strength and endurance than on skill and knowledge. Nothdurft and Mayer were among the best European mountaineers, but they attacked the Eiger north wall almost whimsically, in the midst of a vacation, with inadequate preparation or planning beforehand. Neither team knew the other was making the attempt.

This is the story of that climb, of the meeting of the two teams during the Italians' third day on the mountain, of Longhi's eventual death, swept off the cliff face in a gale after nine incredible days and nights of holding on, and, finally, of Corti's rescue, strapped to the back of a climber, the two suspended at the end of a narrow cable and delicately pulled back up over the cliff by the rescuers on top. This is also the story of the suspicion which clouded the survivor's return -- a mystery solved only recently when the bodies of the two Germans were finally discovered.

Carefully researched and documented, The Climb Up to Hell is a taut, edge-of-the-chair true adventure story.

Jack Olsen is a senior editor of Sports Illustrated and a writer whose work, under his own name and his pseudonym of Jonathan Rhoades, has appeared in a number of magazines and periodicals, including Life, Fortune, This Week, and the Reader's Digest. He is the author of The Mad World of Bridge and, as Jonathan Rhoades, of Over the Fence Is Out.

Born in Indianapolis in 1925, Mr. Olsen grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. He worked on newspapers in Chicago, San Diego, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., before joining the Time, Inc. organization six years ago.

Mr. Olsen lives with his wife and four children in northern Westchester County, New York.

Click here to read an excerpt from this book.


By Karen Irby Belciglio

The New York Times Sunday magazine has given a name to the genre: explornography. Created by the combination of the two words (explore and pornography), it describes the current crop of "true adventure disaster" literature and movies that armchair explorers everywhere are experiencing. I joined the fad innocently enough; I bought a copy of Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" at the pharmacy. I was hooked before my prescription was filled, and drove home reading at the stop signs.

I mentioned the book in a quick e-mail to writer, Jack Olsen, whom I met in a net forum several years ago. Olsen in his reply mentioned his book on a mountain climbing disaster, "The Climb Up to Hell". When I asked for more info, he informed me that the book was published in 1962, and was currently out of print. The chance of obtaining a copy was going to be tough, Olsen predicted.

Well, not too difficult. Fifteen minutes and one net search later, I had purchased "The Climb Up to Hell." When it arrived two days later (dust jacket intact, with a lovely picture of Olsen on the back), I devoured it. Since then, I've also devoured most of the other explornography books out there, and "The Climb Up to Hell" it by far one of the best.

"The Climb Up to Hell" details the deadly climb in 1957 of a four man international team up the North face of Eiger. Eiger, a mountain in the Swiss Alps, has three faces. Two are difficult, but it is the third face, a 6,000 concave slab of unstable rock and ice, that is such a lethal climb. Many climbers consider scaling the North face the apex of their entire career. And so many have died in attempts that the locals there consider those who try to be imbeciles.

The first section of the book covers the geology and history of Eiger. Olsen then gives insight into the local population, the Bernese Oberlanders, and their disdain for climbers who attack Eiger's North face. He also relates stories of previous attempts and their outcome. While this might all sound dry, Olsen is such a great technical writer, he manages to educate while entertaining.

Having laid the groundwork, Olsen launches into a chronological story of the climb, switching points of views between the climbers, the rescuers, the onlookers, and occasionally the families of the climbers. You find yourself experiencing the events in real time. Certain passages in the book resonate with such imagery I had nightmares. (See if you can get Conti's splintered teeth or Longhi's body dangling down the mountain out of your head!)

One aspect of the book that is truly prescience is Olsen's discussion of the Oberlanders reluctance to rescue those who fail in their attempts to climb. As evidenced by the international debate on who pays the cost of rescues, this is an issue that refuses to be resolved. Certainly I found it eerie to read these sections, written 37 years ago. Perhaps the Oberlanders, having witnessed the insanity of those adventurous expeditions for centuries, have something to teach us.

Why do I think this book is one of the best of the "explornography" genre? First, Jack Olsen has the gift of clean, stark language. Like a black and white photograph, the events stand out, clear and richly descriptive. Second, while no author writes without biases, Olsen manages to tell the story without his getting in the way. Since there's no diatribe to filter out, Olsen allows the purity of the story to draw you in. You find yourself in mortal danger without ever leaving your armchair, which is the purpose of the genre.

"The Climb Up to Hell" is due to be reprinted in the near future. I'm hoping Olsen has the time to do a follow-up on the sole survivor and any rescuers still living. Either way, it's a great read. Buy it, read it, and enjoy!