Friday, 10 May 2013

Constructing an ice axe of the Alpine Golden Age


I am already an active user of the mountaineering technology commonly in use between the 1890s and 1920s. I've climbed many mountains equipped with nailed boots and a long ice axe with a wooden shaft, sometimes taking on quite serious routes (by the standards of that era), notably my ascent of Bidean nam Bian's Central Gully in March 2011. However, I have no practical experience of the climbing equipment used by an even older generation: that of the Golden Age of Alpinism.

A hundred and sixty years ago, increasing Alpine tourism led to a number of wealthy Britons travelling to the Alps each year for the new sport of climbing mountains. In the early 1850s most of the big peaks of the Alps were unclimbed, and for a few years a relatively small group of men (and a few women) carried out a determined campaign of exploration like no other in history. The 4,000m peaks of the Alps were climbed and documented one by one. It was a remarkable era which was brought to an abrupt end by the 1865 Matterhorn disaster.

For a brief exploration of mountaineering technology used during this era, focusing on the alpenstock, please see Climbing with an Alpenstock.

The changing design of the ice axe

Edward Whymper ice axe
The Whymper ice axe
In the 1850s the ice axe as we know it today, with a horizontal adze, had not yet been invented. This design can be attributed to Edward Whymper, who made a small innovation in the 1860s that was to set the design of the ice axe in stone for the next hundred years. A horizontal adze allows easier cutting steps downhill and therefore gives a climber more flexibility in planning his route.

The vast majority of climbers during the Golden Age of Alpinism used either the old combination of hatchet and alpenstock, or they used the "Chamouniard axe." The guides of Chamouni / Chamonix used ice axes with a vertical cutting blade, sometimes with an opposing pick which was used as an anchor or for chipping steps in solid ice. Vertical axes were very efficient for cutting steps uphill but very poor for cutting downhill - meaning that the party usually had to descend the mountain the same way they came up.

Here's what Murray's The Art of Travel (1872) had to say on the matter:
In the first place it is absolutely necessary that one of the cutters should be made in the form of a pick, as this is by far the best instrument for hacking into hard ice, and is also extremely convenient for holding on to a snow-slope, or hooking into crannies, or on to ledges of rock. 
For the other cutter we recommend an adze-shaped blade, and we are convinced that this is the form which will be found most generally useful, as being best suited for all the varieties of step-cutting. The hatchet-shaped blade used by the Chamouni guides is no doubt a better implement for making a staircase diagonally up a slope, but on the other hand it is exceedingly difficult to cut steps downwards with a blade set on in this manner; and as mountaineers rarely come down the way by which they went up, if they can help it, it is obvious that this objection to the Chamouni form of axe is conclusive.
Thus we see that by the early 1870s Whymper's design had begun to phase out the Chamouniard vertical axe.

Constructing a Chamouniard axe

I have decided to build myself one of these axes and try it out for myself to see how the technologies compare on the hill.

Firstly I need a head unit! I managed to find an old boarding axe / fireman's hatchet on Ebay with the right configuration of pick and axe blade:


As you can see, it was in fairly bad nick and my first job was to get rid of the (rotten) wooden handle, a job easily done with judicious use of fire and a chisel!


I then removed the rivets by sawing them in half and punching them through. I'm currently carrying out a cleanup operation on the steelwork, rubbing it down with glasspaper and steel wool and filing the pick to a square-cut point.

The next stage will be to select a suitable shaft for the axe. I'm going to look for a piece of ash between 4 and 5 feet in length. Watch this space for future updates!
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