What was your first Ice Axe?

I put a photo on twitter asking what was your first ice axe? I did not get an ice axe till I joined the RAF Mountain Rescue Team at Kinloss in 1972. Many made their own axes or bought ex War department ones and to some the slaters hammer became a modified gully axe. There were failures with poor metal on the pick breaking and early wooden shafts breaking. In the RAF workshops many ideas were looked at and prototypes made.

Lots to chose from all gone now!
Hummingbird and the Terror.
Name them ?

Mine was a MacIness Massey one of the heaviest axes ever produced. Hamish made them for MOD as they were indestructible. It was all metal and a beast. What a weight. He told me he bought his first sports car with the contract from MOD!

Hamish with his old Massey recently.


From the Scottish Mountain Heritage website.

“The metal shafted axe was a major step forward in axe-evolution. Early Alpinistes had little more than long poles with metal tips for grip, and to probe crevasses; as the conquests got steeper an adze was incorporated for cutting steps and later on came the pick. Refinements such as teeth to hold the axe in the steep ice came much later, and as late as 1950 Geoffrey Winthrop Young tells us “Notches on the underside of the head of the axe, often seen in shop axes, are very objectionable.” _

The MacInnes Massey All Metal Ice Axe was a major milestone in the history of mountaineering. The following is an extract from a magazine article written by Mick Tighe back in the 1980’s, which will hopefully ‘set the scene’
“April 9th – P.Knap (29), Birmingham, A.Beanland (31,__ Bradford, and M.Morgan (26), Oldbury, left Glen Nevis Camp to climb on Ben and failed to return that night. Rescuers did not know where to look. H.MacInnes was out searching next night. Bodies found at 1pm on 11th April, roped together at foot of Zero Gully”.
This stark and rather chilling account is extracted from the official Scottish Mountain Rescue Accident Reports for 1959, and unusually has a foot-note. “Leader fell from 3rd pitch and dragged others down. Both their axes snapped off and stumps were still embedded in the snow”. For Hamish MacInnes, who had been involved in the rescue, this accident had a fairly profound effect. It was customary at that time to belay by driving the axe into the snow and taking turns around it with the rope. The deaths on Zero Gully proved this method to be woefully inadequate, as the then universal wooden shafted axes simply broke. A metal/alloy shafted axe was the answer so Hamish went to work.
Benjamin and Steven Massey of Openshaw near Manchester drop forged the heads, and

10/04/58Ben Nevis 41/1687153 missing climbers found at the foot of Zero Gully.  Fatal.  (Tech). Belay failed,ice axe, recovery party included Hamish MacInness, Tom Patey KMRT and locals. From Kinloss MRT STATS AR

Hamish set up the assembly line in his old Glencoe shed. Bugs McKeith and Kenny Spence used the prototype on an ascent of the Eiger’s North Pillar, and Britain’s first non wood axe, the MacInnes Massey, was born.
One soon fell into the hands of the legendary Glasgow based Creag Dubh Mountaineering Club, who quickly dubbed the rather heavy hammer version ‘the Message’ as it battered the commonly used soft steel pitons of the era so badly, that in Glasgow parlance “they got the message”.

A cut down North Wall
hammer. There were a few still at RAF Kinloss when I started.


Many of the huge improvements made in these early day led to what we have today. Modern axes designed specifically for climbing and what a huge difference they made.

Of course it was a long journey to what we have today so many axes, so many stories.Whats yours?

I bought the early Chounaird Zeros what great axes they served me well. I loved the “thud” in the ice when they were placed well.

My much loved Zeros – sold on to a Museum.

Comments welcome.

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Gear, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering. Bookmark the permalink.

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