Fergus Bisset: Scaling the heights

After reading a book about the Eiger, Fergus wonders if there are any similarities between death-defying alpinism and golf.

I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book I found in a dusty bookshelf at my grandmother’s old house – Eiger, Wall of Death by Arthur Roth. Published in the 1980s, it charts 50 years of perilous climbing on the Eiger’s North Face - from Sedlmayer and Mehringer’s ultimately fatal effort in 1935 to the “direct” climbs of the late 1970s.

There have been success stories – the first ascent, the first single-day climb, the first winter ascent etc. And there have been numerous heroic rescues where men have risked their lives to save stricken comrades. But, all told, the book chronicles the deaths of 43 men on the face. Courage, tragedy, fear, ambition, hatred, love and death – the story of the North Face of the Eiger captures the human struggle in microcosm, it’s a captivating tale.

After reading the book I began to feel rather inferior as I made mental comparisons between my passion (golf) and that of Heckmair, Haston and Messner (testing the limits of human endurance and risking - sometimes giving - their lives to go where no man has gone before). But on further reflection, there are parallels that can be drawn between the two sports.

1 – Preparation. Alpine extremists have to assemble and pack the necessary kit to deal with a multitude of possible situations. They require, ropes, pitons, crampons etc. They have high-energy foods and temporary shelter should the weather turn. They pack two-way radios to keep in contact with support teams and loved ones.

Sound familiar?... Thought so. For each round of golf I complete very similar preparation – Kit to deal with a multitude of situations: Yes, I have 14 separate items designed to hack, gouge and slap my way out of tight spots. High-energy foods: I always pack some Irn Bru. Temporary shelter should the weather turn: Umbrella. Two-way radios: Mobile phone. Keeping in touch with support teams: Does phoning the bar from the 17th green to pre-order a pint of lager count?

2 – Mental struggle Stuck high on a rock face in freezing conditions knowing there’s no chance of retreat, alpinists need to have full belief in their ability and the mental fortitude to force their way through the pain barrier to reach their goal with their life intact.

Hmm, not dissimilar to a potential situation in the Saturday Medal – You’re four over par through 13 holes and know that only two birdies in the last five will see you make the buffer zone. You have to reach into the depths of your mental reserves and fully believe in yourself if you’re to make it out with your handicap intact.

3 – Risking death. 43 men died scaling the North Face of the Eiger between 1935 and 1980 - frozen to death, thrown thousands of feet to their death, smashed by falling rocks and strangled by ropes. The death toll across all the world’s mountains during that time must be pretty epic.

But, can you imagine how many people died on golf courses during the same period? I couldn’t find any figures, but I’m sure it would run into the tens of thousands. In fact, someone died on a golf course where I was playing just the other week. OK, he was 78 and had health problems, but still…

4 – Achievement and Recognition. Reaching the pinnacle of one of the world’s most dangerous mountains is a monumental achievement and those who do it are, rightly, showered with adulation. The names of many men who scaled the Eiger will live on forever as sections of the face bear their names – The Hinterstoisser Traverse, the Bonnington Ice Gully etc..

Well, at my club, winning the Summer Cup (for instance) is no mean feat and the gallant victor will receive untold amounts of praise – particularly after his fellow members have consumed a few glasses of club red at the annual prizegiving. With regards recognition – I know my name will live on forever because it’s proudly inscribed four times on the St Andrews Christmas Quaich (The Bisset family’s yearly golf contest.)

So it seems high-altitude rock climbing and golf are more similar than I previously thought. When I putt out on the 18th green in this Saturday’s Medal I’m going to feel a good deal more heroic than usual.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?