Crampons – strap on step in to the future and the Canadian influence!

How crampons have changed winter mountaineering!

As the weather hits the coldest projected day this winter many will be heading out, I am off to the West for a foray its forecast – 4. If we find some roadside ice it will be a simple thing to put on our modern gear and crampons. They used to be the nightmare of many climbers with frozen fingers and at times the odd broken crampon or strap, not funny when half way up a route.  Now with modern crampons they are so quick and easy a quick step in and then a check do up any straps check each other and your off.   It was not always like this and I wrote about my first crampons being heated and bent to fit my boots when I started in 1971. I soon bought my own strap on adjustable crampons well worth the expenditure.

Photo Ian Clough on Observatory ridge step-cutting – a slow process photo mid 50’s. Ray Sefton photo. Ray said it was a long day off the hill at 0100.

I was taught to cut steps still a great idea and made to climb a few gullies without crampons, I found it exhausting and terrifying.  I was told of the great deeds in the past by the early winter climbers.  The new SMC book ” The Early Years” tells this tale superbly, there was little protection ice screws were simple if you had them and falls were serious, many fatal.

From Ken Crocket, author of Mountaineering in Scotland – The Early Years, come the next instalment of Mountaineering history for Scotland. 

The Early Years – This second volume covers the period from 1914 to 1971. It was a period when there were many changes in the equipment and practice of climbing in summer and winter, and there was a significant rise in the general difficulty of routes being climbed. Many new clubs were formed, and the number of participants increased dramatically. The book contains reference to the exploits of many a well known mountaineer such as Murray, Patey, Marshall and Smith, as well as many more, who were responsible for pushing up the standards in Scottish climbing.

In the early days steps were cut in snow and ice, boots had nails and  later on crampons came into being but it took many years especially in Britain to appreciate what they could do on steep snow/ice . For many years it took lots of experimenting to work out the methods we all take for granted of front pointing on steep snow or ice. When you look at the classic winter lines were steps were cut it is incredible the skill and effort by the early climbers. The exploits of so many are well documented in the incredible rise in standards from the 60’s onwards.   

The classic nailed boots that were the choice of most mountaineers at one time.

 

The crampon is a traction device that is attached to footwear to improve mobility on snow and ice.Not only are crampons used during ice climbing, but they are also used for secure travel on snow and ice, such as crossing hard snow Neve glaciers and snowfields.and , ascending snow slopes, and scaling ice-covered rock. There are three main attachment systems for footwear: step-in, hybrid, and strap bindings. The first two require boots with welts as a tension lever attaches the crampon to the heel. The last type (strap bindings) are more versatile and can adapt to virtually any boot or shoe, but often do not fit as precisely as the other two types. Oscar Eckemstein

designed the first 10-point crampon in 1908, dramatically reducing the need for step cutting. This design was then made commercially available by the Italian Henry Grivel.

Photo Mountain Heritage Collection.

“German mountaineer, Herman Huber, created the first commercially produced adjustable crampon, in conjunction with Salewa, in 1961/62. He wanted a pair of crampons that he could easily adjust to fit both his climbing and ski mountaineering boots. Prior to this, crampons needed to be adjusted by heating and bending in a blacksmith’s forge and there was no connection between the front points, which was rather un-nerving as the steeper ice faces began to be conquered.

Salewa were makers of leather goods – their name taken from Sattler und leder Waren (Saddler and Leather Goods), but were quick to see the commercial potential of the adjustable crampon so invested heavily in the metalwork side of things.

Blacks of Greenock and the Graham Tiso outdoor shop in Edinburgh were the first UK importers of the new Salewa adjustable crampon in the 1960’s.

The pair  hereare  in the collection belonged to Mick Tighe’s Mountain Guiding Company, Nevis Guides. Mick well remembers hours of crampon adjusting on the arrival of a new bunch of clients and mountain guides in the 1970’s were part time mechanics since the bar that joined front and back sections of the crampon was forever breaking – usually half way up a climb in the freezing cold.

 

You’ll find much earlier and later versions of crampons elsewhere in our collection, also the toolbox that was used to adjust and repair them in the 1980’s.” From the Mountain Heritage Collection I can agree that the effort needed to fit crampons on boots especially those who had never used them before was hard work. As it says many of the bars broke due to the cold and the old problem of the metal becoming brittle.

The Chouinard rigid crampon was a lovely crampon but very like a needing an engineering degree to put together. They were a great addition from the Salewa adjustable crampon that was well used addition in the late 70’s. They had a slightly curved front point that was pretty effective.

I first saw these when my mate bought a pair of Footfangs for our Canada trip in 1984 and what an incredible piece of gear on steep vertical ice. They were a very rigid platform that gave the foot a great platform on steep ice. They were superb at clearing poor ice on the Canadian waterfalls they are again well described in the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection.

“Looking rather more like a Meccano set rather than a pair of crampons, these Giant Footfangs are a copy of the original versions which were created by American climber, Mike Lowe, in 1976. Quite how Grivel got around the patent laws we are not sure but assume the Grival versions appeared a couple of years after Mike Lowe’s originals. – 1979/80.

At this time climbers were looking to climb ever steeper ice and needed rigid crampons to compliment the front points. Another American, Yvon Chouinard, had created his own rigid crampons in 1968 and the Footfangs were a pretty poor variation on the theme. Consequently, they went in and out of fashion very quickly, though the ‘mono’ print version had some popularity in later years.”

I found when I returned from Canada  in my opinion they were not so great on the mixed mountaineering terrain of Scotland cliffs in winter but at the time what another incredible piece of equipment. All these improvements and the axes meant that many of us could now climb many of the winter routes that were before way out of our league.

The drawing by Bugs Mc Keith that was so influential and  made us got Canada.

Alistair ‘Bugs’ McKeith -, Alistair (1945-1978) known as Bugs

is probably best known for his pioneering role in the development of Canadian ice-climbing, but he started off life as one of a small but influential band of Edinburgh-born climbers of the 60s known collectively as ‘The Squirrels’. His pre-Canada climbing record is impressive: new summer lines in Scotland, early repeats in the Alps as well as new routes in the Dolomites and Mont Blanc and participation of the first ascent of the North Pillar of the Eiger in 1970. McKeith’s climbing career took a brief rest after this when he joined the British Antarctic Survey, but he put the time to good use to experiment with ice-climbing techniques – a factor which would lead to his innovative and bold approach in North America shortly afterwards. After travelling and climbing in the Andes and back in the European Alps he returned to Scotland, he became dissatisfied with the ‘smallness’ of the place and moved to Canada. From the early 1970s onwards, McKeith was one of the driving forces behind the development of Canadian ice climbing, importing Scottish know-how to a largely unexploited arena and unsuspecting local climbing community. The first ascent of Tatakakken Falls was futuristic in the extreme; a thousand feet of Scottish Grade VI ice it was the hardest icefall climbed at the time and the first at its grade. McKeith also made the first ascent of the famous Weeping Wall, off the Jasper-Banff highway. Innovative aid was employed during this ascent, the crux being overcome by the use of etriers hung from Terrordactyl ice axes– a technique which emphasised McKeith’s technical aptitude and willingness to think creatively

Canada Mount Kidd Falls – Mark Sinclair on this wonderfully situated Mountain Route.


About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Avalanche info, Ice climbing Canada, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

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