Ice Axe - History of The Ice Axe

History of The Ice Axe

The antecedent of the ice axe was the alpenstock, a long wooden pole with an iron spike tip, used by shepherds for travel on snowfields and glaciers in the Alps since the Middle Ages. On August 8, 1786, Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard made the first ascent of Mont Blanc. Balmat, a chamois hunter and crystal collector, had experience with high mountain travel, and Paccard had made previous attempts to climb the peak. Illustrations show Balmat carrying two separate tools that would later be merged into the ice axe – an alpenstock (or baton) and a small axe that could be used to chop steps on icy slopes.

According to the earliest manufacturer of ice axes, Grivel, these two tools were merged to create the first true ice axe around 1840. Early ice axes had a vertical adze, with the cutting edge aligned with the direction of the shaft, as in a conventional axe. This design lasted until at least 1860, but eventually the adze was rotated to the current position, perpendicular to the direction of the shaft. The Italian Alpine Club published a book in 1889 entitled Fiorio e Ratti – The dangers of mountaineering and rules to avoid them, which recommended ice axes as among "the inseparable companions of the mountaineer".

In the late 19th century, the typical ice axe shaft measured 120–130 cm in length. British climber Oscar Eckenstein started the trend toward shorter ice axes with a lighter model measuring 85–86 cm. Initially, this innovation was criticized by well-known climbers of the era, including Martin Conway, a prominent member of the Alpine Club, who was the leader of an early expedition to the Baltoro region near K2 in 1892 of which Eckenstein was a member.

Early ice axes had picks and adzes of about equal lengths. By the beginning of the 20th century, the pick lengthened to about twice the length of the adze. Improvements in crampon design (pioneered by Eckenstein in 1908) and ice climbing technique led to use of shorter, lighter ice axes appropriate to steeper ice climbs in the period between the world wars.

A famous rescue involving an ice axe took place during the Third American Karakoram Expedition to K2 in 1953. One of the climbers, Art Gilkey, was incapacitated by thrombophlebitis. The other climbers attempted to rescue him by lowering him down the mountain by rope, wrapped in a sleeping bag. While crossing a steep ice sheet, a slip caused Gilkey and five other climbers to begin falling down a steep slope. Climber Pete Schoening wedged his ice axe alongside a boulder, and managed to belay the roped climbers, saving their lives. However, Gilkey was swept away by an avalanche and was killed. Schoening's ice axe is now on display at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado.

In 1966, Yvon Chouinard led a dramatic redesign of ice axes, working with a reluctant manufacturer Charlet to develop a 55-cm ice axe with a dramatically curved pick. Chouinard believed that "a curve compatible with the arc of the axe's swing would allow the pick to stay put better in the ice. I had noticed that a standard pick would often pop out when I placed my weight on it." Chouinard's idea worked and began a period of innovation in ice axe design.

In 1978, the Safety Commission of the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (UIAA) established formal standards for ice axe safety and performance. This led to the replacement of the traditional wooden shaft by metal alloy shafts. Ergonomically curved handles became widespread in 1986. Use of modern aluminum alloys have led to a dramatic reduction in the weight of some ice axes. One model now on the market, the C.A.M.P. Corsa, weighs only 205 grams with a 50 cm long shaft. One expert rated this lightweight ice axe as "ideal for low angle glacier travel" but said he "craved the solid and secure heft of a true steel mountain ax" in more demanding steep alpine conditions.

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