An Ice Climbing Primer

A Little History
By Cameron M. Burns

Ice climbing's roots lie in European mountaineering of the 19th century, as one aspect of an entire raft of mountaineering activities. But it wasn't until 1908 that ice climbing's most significant development came about when British climber Oscar Eckenstein designed a type of toothed claw that attached to mountaineering boots. His crampons did away with the need for step-cutting in ice, a practice that made winter climbing and mountaineering a very slow process.

In 1932, Laurent Grivel added "front points" to crampons, two fanglike protrusions sticking out the front of the devices, and shortly thereafter, various European climbers began to weld the entire crampon assembly rigid. This innovation allowed much steeper ice to be climbed.

Modern ice axes, or "tools" as they're known, developed much later, in the 1960s. And unlike most mountaineering equipment developments, they were invented by an American.

In 1966, Yvon Chouinard, now best known as the owner of the Patagonia clothing line, went to Europe to experiment with axes. With the help of a friend, Chouinard convinced the French equipment company Charlet to shorten the then-lengthy mountaineering ice axes to 55 centimeters (about 22 inches) and "reverse" the curve of the pick.

Chouinard's ice ax designs revolutionized ice climbing as much as Eckenstein's crampons, and vertical ice could be climbed relatively easily. The new axes and crampons even allowed ice steeper than vertical to be tackled proficiently.

But while Chouinard was an expert ice climber within his own right, he is mostly remembered for his innovative equipment. It took a handful of hard-core climbers—many based in the United States and Canada—to effect Chouinard's revolution.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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