From alpenstock to extreme ice, Stu Ingram takes a tour through the history of ice tools.
How many times have you watched (or seen photos of) a farmer striding across the hills with his crook, or leaning on it whilst chatting to a companion or taking in the view? It has more to do with ice tools than you might think.
The early days
Many people will have heard of the alpenstock, a long wooden pole of around six feet fitted with a spike at the end, used by Alpine herdsmen for balance on the rough ground of the high pastures. There was a commonly used British equivalent – the fell pole – and the great WP Haskett-Smith’s groundbreaking ascent of Napes Needle (considered by many as the first proper rock climb in Britain) was nearly prevented by an epic tussle with his when it became firmly lodged in a crack! We mountaineers have the farming community to thank for much more than just access to some of their land.
Shepherds’ alpenstocks offered thirdleg stability on early ascents of glaciers and snowfields, but mountaineering pioneers needed something more as they began to venture onto more technically demanding terrain. In the second half of the 19th century, somebody had the bright idea of sticking a sharpened blade (the pick) on the alpenstock for purchase on steep ground, opposed by a broader, flattened blade (the adze) on the other side for cutting steps – and thus invented the first true ice axe. This development was without doubt the most important in the history of ice tools as the basic design remains unchanged to this day. It ushered in a new age of ice climbing.
Working it out
Throughout this time mountaineering was rapidly gaining popularity, with pioneers like Whymper, Mummery and Lily Bristow making daring ascents of technically difficult peaks like the Matterhorn, Aig. Du Grepon and the Petit Dru. They rapidly realised that their axes (which were often still four or five feet in length) were impossibly unwieldy on very steep ice or constricted ground such as chimneys and fissures, and the next step forward was taken when climbers began carrying two tools – one standard long axe and one shortened to around two feet – to cope with the more difficult climbing they were now capable of. In this way, what we now think of as two different categories of ice tool were born – the walking or mountaineering axe (long-shafted to facilitate use for balance and chopping of steps) and the technical or climbing axe (short-shafted to allow swinging over the head and use in confined spaces).
Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, this system of shortened axes was embraced as the accepted practice for mountaineering and winter climbing, and a number of impressive and difficult climbs were made in the Alps and greater ranges. Despite this, and a spate of activity by a small hardcore of Scottish climbers from the 1930’s onwards, there were no major technical or design advances until after the Second World War.
WATCH: Winter skills 2.5: how to ice axe arrest
The first true technical tools
Along with Yvon Choinard of the US, Scotland’s own Hamish MacInnes is most credited for producing the first technical ice tool designed purely for steep climbing with the innovative drooped pick and short (~45cm) shaft of his famous Terrordactyl. Until the 1970’s, axe picks had been straight or curved with a radius the same as the arc that the head of the axe made when swung at arms length (an alpine pick - as in a modern walking axe).
Picks of this style could only be used to chop holds for the hands and feet, which were then climbed in a long, laborious and horribly cold process! The new drooped picks allowed the climber to place the tool securely anywhere in the ice and pull directly down on it - thus saving energy and time and making steeper, harder and longer climbs possible. An additional benefit was that the axes now penetrated and could be removed from the ice much more easily than the older designs when used in this overhead fashion.
This breakthrough revolutionised the style of winter climbing then being practised in Scotland and around the world, and also brought about the birth of modern mixed climbing - the drooped pick was much better suited to techniques such as hooking and torquing on rock. This is where the retaining leash often employed on classic axes as a means of not losing the tool if it was dropped really came into it’s own. The leash now formed a major part of the system of attachment of the tool to the climbers’ hand, providing significant support and allowing a much more relaxed “squeeze” grip on the shaft of the axe than would otherwise have been possible.
As a result of the significant technological advances made during and after World War Two, climbers had significantly better materials available from which to fashion their tools. This contributed further to the rise in climbing standards of the era by increasing the longevity of equipment, and reducing the number of breakages in use. Wooden axe shafts of hickory or ash were giving way to hollow steel alloy (or aluminium) shafts, which were much lighter and stronger, whilst the head units were now manufactured from a suitable steel alloy instead of heavy wrought iron!
Chris Bonington climbing the Beinn Udlaidh back in the day. Photo: Bonington Archive
The advent of modular technical tools in the late 70’s with interchangeable components did not make any real impact on the way ice tools looked or were used, but it did give a huge increase in versatility. Climbers could now discard and replace a broken pick rather than a whole tool, fit alpine picks to technical tools (meaning it was not necessary to buy separate walking and climbing axes) and carry out field maintenance on their equipment. Manufacturers embraced this new technology with a brace of specific products - alpine, drooped, banana or tubular picks, hollow or scooped adzes, over-wide or delicately shaped hammerheads – giving climbers numerous options to tailor their tools according to their specific end use.
Nowadays, there are a vast variety of designs on offer in a wide range of materials to suit many different purposes. Development of tools used for walking and scrambling has been largely in the field of materials – they are stronger and lighter than ever whilst retaining the basic classic shape that would still be recognised by climbers of the 1870’s! However, technical tools now exist in many different shapes and forms, and have a myriad of specific features designed for different types of climbing, some of which are listed overleaf.
Ski mountaineers can purchase featherweight axes for ultra- light use, made entirely of lightweight aluminium and weighing as little as 300 grams. Hill walkers can buy specially adapted picks to fit on walking poles for emergency use. And in one of the most recent developments, competitors in recent ice climbing competitions have disposed of the leashes traditionally used on climbing tools, replacing them with radical shaft-grips and thumb bars to allow efficient use by the climber.
So, we are currently experiencing another jump in ice/mixed climbing standards as a direct result of the latest development of the equipment used. Standards are being pushed every season and with ever-accelerating advances in materials technology and the imagination of equipment designers and climbers, the future is certainly looking bright, white, and spiky.
WATCH: Winter skills 3.5: climbing technique on grade I-II climbs
Ice tools - the current cutting edge
Curved shafts make reaching around corners or ice pillars easier, give greater clearance for the climbers knuckles (ouch!!) and allow a more efficient swing radius.
Thin, aggressively toothed picks for pure ice to penetrate better and reduce dinner plating of the ice.
Thicker, mixed picks and specially-shaped hammerheads and adze blades are designed to last longer when subjected to the abnormal stresses and loading that hooking and torquing in rock cracks causes.
Correct weighting of the axe head provides the optimum swing and ice penetration, and reduces the energy needed to place the axe.
Cutting-edge materials like carbon fibre take weight reduction to new levels.
Leashless climbing, freeing your hands from the axe for placing protection and varied styles of climbing, has been a big step in ice and mixed climbing.
In a tight spot? Annual BMC Alpine & Ski insurance is only £160*
This winter, we're giving everyone 15% off Annual European BMC Alpine & Ski travel insurance.
Don't forget, all BMC Travel Insurance comes with £10 million emergency medical cover
*Policy details: Offer valid for policies purchased until 1 March 2020. £160.70 for annual alpine multi-trip (45 day limit for each single trip) European insurance up to age 44, and £168.74 for ages 45 to 69.
Years of experience
We've been insuring adventurers like you for over 30 years. That's why all of our policies come with:
24-hour emergency assistance helpline
£10 million emergency medical cover
£100,000 search, rescue and recovery cover
£10,000 personal accident cover
£5,000 cancellation cover
£2,500 baggage cover
WATCH: BMC Insurance: built for the mountains