Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Eiger Sanction: Tragedy on the Eiger – The Death of David Knowles

I have been asked many times in the past about the death of climber David Knowles during the making of The Eiger Sanction in the summer of 1974. Here is a story I found on file. I have also included some nice candid photos I have also had on file for quite some time. Thank you to the people who were kind enough to share these on the web.  

During filming on the face of the Eiger, English Mountaineer and crew member David Knowles was killed by rock fall. Knowles had made an ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 1970. Film maker Mike Hoover was supervising the filming on the Face of the Eiger and is credited on the Film as Climbing Advisor. Hoover told the story of the accident in the August 1975 issue of American Cinematographer.

Mike Hoover on the Eiger
‘Tuesday, August the thirteenth (1974), was cold, clear and beautiful. By 9:30 the chopper had moved all 14 of us up to the West Ridge of the Eiger. Today we would finish one of the most difficult set-ups in the picture. Not bad. By three we had finished on the face and had begun to film up on the flat area above, ascending the ropes back to the top for a sync scene where we establish that the German is a careless fool and that the Frenchman is a damaged careless fool.

Then I remembered that we didn’t get the POV of the falling fake rocks that just miss Eastwood and hit Montaigne. So I had to go back down on the face and Dave Knowles volunteered to go onto the wall with me to help, while everyone else began to fly out in the chopper. So the two of us rappelled down to our position on the wall and clipped into a group of pitons. I think we both were glad to get out onto the peaceful wall and let the others hustle all the junk back down in the chopper.

The shot was rather simple, Martin drops the foam rocks down on us and Dave bats any away that might hit the lens. Perfect, but really scary-looking through the camera as the rocks bomb down, I just can’t keep from flinching. When finished. I suggest to Dave that he go on back up while I coil the ropes, put the camera away and take out the pitons, but he says no and that he’ll stay and help so we joked and began to clean up.

He told me about working with the BBC, I think on the “Old Man of Hoy.” One day he was carrying a very expensive video camera that was turned on and he didn’t know it. So the camera was transmitting back to the control truck while he was stopping on a tiny ledge to pick some exceptionally beautiful wild flowers. The guys back in the control truck were going crazy as he put the camera down on a ledge balanced some three hundred feet above the smashing surf. We were both laughing when we heard the sound of a big rock falling from above. It sounds real close and I instantly cover and crouch into the wall as close as possible. I hide my hands so as not to lose any fingers. Feel pretty good. It smashes into the small of my back and I almost black out as a smaller shower of rocks continues. I feel a weight on top of me. I can’t move my legs, so pinch them, and am so happy to feel the pain.

Dave must be okay - but he’s on top of me—hanging upside-down—dead. He must have looked up right into it. I’m sure he never felt anything and was happy when he passed away—and it was so quick that there was no fear at all. [Producer Robert] Daley and Eastwood talked about stopping production, but what for? We all knew that serious accidents were a real possibility before we started, but on the second day? My pelvis had a small crack and all the surrounding muscles were smashed so I was out of action for about ten days.’ 

In his book, Richard Schickel Said, A wake was held, and Clint considered canceling the production. The climbers, however, urged him to go on. They knew the risks of their trade, ran them habitually and felt that moviemaking added nothing to them. For his part, Clint came around to the view that aborting the production would render Knowles’s death—not to mention all the hard and dangerous work that had preceded it—meaningless.

Above: Clint with Co-star Gregory Walcott 
Below: Clint on the cover of mountaineering magazine Alpinist: Issue 10 & 41 


Unknown said...

that's a pretty sad story.......glad he was doing something he loved.....were these the fake rocks that hit him....or were these real rocks...wasn't sure when I was reading it......great movie from my childhood...never knew about the tragedy...~VF

Clint's archive said...

Thank you Vince, I can only assume these were real rocks considering it was such a tragic event.