The Evolution of Climbing Gear #10 – Winter gear #3

Since Eckenstien’s Crampon and the change to rubber soles and in particular the Vibram which was designed by Vitale Bramani in 1937. Who turned to design a better mountaineering boot sole, after six of his companions lost their lives mountaineering. Part of the contributing factors in the accident was the lack of decent footwear for mixed rock and ice terrain. His design was to use the same process Pirelli employed in manufacturing tires. His ideas lead to a transition from nailed boots to crampons.

A few years prior to this Grivel added a front point to the crampons however they would not drastically alter the game of climbing as they were only good on snow ice, as they were too fragile and flexible for solid ice. Soon enough the Second World War started and all but destroyed innovation in winter equipment.

It was only after the war ended and many more people than before returned to the hills. In particular the working classes started to venture out into the mountains and not only did climbing difficulty started to increase, but these working class climbers knew better than anyone how to manufacture climbing equipment. One of those practically minded climbers was the American Yvon Chouinard. He saw the move towards more vertical ice routes and design a fully rigid crampon that helped deal with front pointing up ice. He was also credited with shortening the axe and giving the pick a curve to allow a climber to front point up using ice axe placement for hand holds rather than cutting steps and hand holds that was still popular at the time.

Crampons have gone onto become monopointed, much lighter and often highly aggressive, although for the hardest of climbs climbers are now using what are sometimes referred to a fruit boots, where the crampon is permanently screwed to the base of the a lightweight rock shoe.

The shortening of the axe and curving of it did occur early and W.H Murray in his classic book ‘Mountaineering in Scotland’ written in prisoner of war camp during the war, sees him reminiscing over his climbs just prior to the war in 1937 and 1938. In which he refers to using a ‘slaters hammer’ with the pick bent over into a curve by a blacksmith. What Murray and his contemporaries had not devised was any other way to climb than cutting steps and handholds, they just used the smaller hammer as a more agile tool.

Chouinard however was to redefine what was possible and show off his new tools for ice climbing in his 1977 book Climbing Ice. He also tweaked the design of ice screw. The adverts at the time said’

The new chouinard tubular ice screw surpasses its competitors by using a thinner wall, larger diameter steel tubeing for superior holding power and less displacement. Four cutting teeth, instead of the tradition two, bite into brittle ice without fracturing it. A sleeve at the tooth end prevents ice from lodging in the hollow core; tap it and it comes out.”

Soon the standard of ice climbing shot up until people were climbing near vertical ice.

With this more equipment issues came up, on vertical ice the climbers knuckles were quite often bruised or even broken and most importantly placing an ice screw took time and effort. Whilst only small problems they did take away some of the fun of climbing and in a way gave the designers somewhere to go with equipment design, by making it easier and more enjoyable to use.

Early Ice Screw2

The ice screw problem was solved by William Belcourt and Charles Brainerd who not only polished the inside and outside of the ice screws so they would meet less resistance, but they also added a small handle to the hanger. In doing so they turned what at times was an extended fight between, gravity, ice axe leashes, gloves, mental terror and a stubborn screw; to an easy few seconds to make yourself safe. Although it is interesting that Paul Petzl lodged a patent a couple of years prior to this, the diagram for which has an ice screw with a handle, it would however be Black Diamond who made the design their own.

In reviewing the story of the refinement of the ice axe I have seen many claims by several different companies. Grivel have claimed the first ‘bent’ ice axe with the Machine, whereas DMM claimed the first ‘curved’ the shafted axe around the same time with the Predator. However way before any of their claims was a patent by Walter Kunberger and Wyatt Ball, that had adapted the shape of the shaft to counteract what Jeff Lowe in his 1979 book The Ice Experience called Terrodactyl Knuckle after what was the most advance ice axe of the same name.

“If you have been practicing what has been preached in the last few paragraphs, you will no doubt already have experienced the initial symptoms of one of these recent additions to the vocabulary of human deformity. The problem stems from the tendency to place the tools with their shafts right against the ice and consequently bash your knuckles. Once you’ve bruised them, you’ll be likely to continue the damage until you give them a rest cure. Better than that, however, is prevention. Unfortunately, total prevention is not possible unless you feel like wearing some sort of steel handguard as you climb. But if that makes you feel too much like a knight in shining armor, there is something you can do: learn to use your tools so that the shaft ends up close to the ice but not hard against it upon completion of the swing. It’s a more subtle skill than one might first imagine and one well worth perfecting.”

Of course today the designs of ice axes are a million miles away from the earliest designs. The advent of competition climbing and continental style mixed climbing means that everyone has gone leashless. The result of this was to rethink the design again to the best and most ergonomic designs of hand grip. In a quest to specialise ice axes, some lost the adze, which for mixed climbing was not an issue but for more tradition alpine and Scottish winter climbing has left some people asking how can I cut a snow/ice bollard without an adze!

What this has meant to winter climbers is that the average winter grades have increased dramatically, in that it is easier than ever to climb routes of a certain grade with the latest ice climbing technology at your disposal and much of those design changes has occurred in the last 20 years.


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