The Modern Era of Mountaineering 1786

Mechanical Advantage #3

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Part 1 Subtle Means of Ascent (vs. un-subtle cannons)

Part 2 Two Prehistoric Tools

Part 3: The “Modern Era” (to 1700-1800’s):

Following the 1492 ascent of Mont Aiguille, technological ascents in the mountains passed into obscurity for hundreds of years, only to re-appear in the 1700’s. Often called the start of the “Modern Era” of mountaineering, unclimbed mountains became ends in themselves as people began venturing higher into the Alps. Collective knowledge of safe travel in the mountains expanded.

The state-of-the-art mountaineering tools of the 1700’s were a long sturdy Alpenstock used for bridging precipices and testing crevasses (a tool used by shepherds since the Middle Ages), mid-sole spikes (an early form of the instep crampon around since the 5th century BC), and a modified wood axe for chopping steps.

The first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, the highest peak in the Alps at 4808m, required hundreds of chopped steps. Ascents of the high peaks in the Alps were generally made with a local mountain guide who would painstakingly chop each step in hard ice with an axe, creating a staircase of sorts for the following team.

Guiding mountains became a local profession, and first ascents of peaks in the Alps were sought after by wealthy patrons travelling from afar. In 1864, the Victorian alpinist Leslie Stephen wrote in the Alpine Journal: "I do not myself ever cut steps (in the Alps) when I can get a guide to do it for me, first because a guide can do it much better, and secondly because he is paid to do it”. It wasn’t until the 1850’s that the first European mountain guide associations were formed, or that the tools of ascent improved significantly so that a more efficient style could develop.

As the easier mountains became more popular as recreational mountain climbing and training for exploration further afield, the desire to first stand on untouched summits grew, so more efficient tools were developed. Around 1840, the first ice axes appeared, combining the alpenstock and the hatchet into a single tool. The early ice axes were long affairs, often over 1.5m in length, with a simple pick and the adze vertically oriented as in a wood axe; by 1860, the horizontal adze for more efficient step cutting became more widespread.

Edward Whymper climbed the Matterhorn in 1865 and many other technical high Alp summits, and was known to carry a clawed grappling hook attached to a short piece of rope. Occasionally a iron eyebolt was hammered into a crack for a hand or foothold. By the end of the 1800’s nearly every high peak in the Alps, and many in North America, had been climbed with these tools and methods: mostly free climbing, with any means possible to overcome short technical sections of ice and rock.

The ropes of the day were stiff and heavy braided hemp, used primarily for creating human chains for safe travel across crevassed glaciers, or as an aid for the “second” following up a bold leader who might have used a shoulder stand to ascend a tricky passage. As in the tragic case on the first ascent of the Matterhorn, the ropes could generally not withstand a fall, when one slipped setting off a cascade effect of the connected climbers, and four climbers perished when the rope broke despite being held fast by the climbers above.

As the highest summits were reached, first in Europe, then North America, and even in some of more remote ranges, climbers then turned their eyes to steeper vertical adventures, and the next level of challenge was exposed like a layer of a peeling onion. The so-called “impossible climbs” beckoned rugged individuals who were willing to push their limits, and ever more difficult routes were forged up steeper terrain. The pioneers reshaped codes of conduct and created new genres of climbing with new and improved tools, often implemented in ways far beyond their original intent. The rise in vertical standards throughout the years is intertwined with the evolution of equipment designed for ascent.

Next chapter: Hearty rock pioneers in the USA, 1800’s.

(Drafts might be first posted on Twitter @JohnMiddendorf4)