Metal Ice Axes – A big change from Wooden shafted axes. The 1958 Zero Gully tragedy.

In the early days of winter climbing walking climbing axes were all wooden. As climbing in winter pushed standards some of the gear was extremely limited. There were only a few top climbers climbing at the highest grades. It was a period where the leader could not fall. There was a huge increase in winter climbing standards especially in Scotland. Classic lines on Scotlands mountains were being climbed one of the pmost famous was Zero Gully on Ben Nevis.

During February 1957, Hamish, Tom Patey and Graeme Nicol made the first winter ascent of Zero Gully on Ben Nevis. Hamish and Tom shared leads overcoming ice overhangs on the lower part of the gully using ice-pegs. A few top climbers of that era were after that route and it was to become a test piece like many others.

Ben Nevis – 10 April 1958 Missing climbers 3 located at the foot of Zero Gully ( Ben Nevis ) Belay failed and axe belay recovered broken. Recovery Party included RAF Kinloss MRT, Hamish McInnes and Tom Patey. Kinloss MRT archives. The wooden axes belay that failed was one of many of that period. Hamish worked on a metal ice axe that would be more robust.

Zero Gully

. From the new Wonderful book by Mike Dixon on Tom Patey. “By February 1957, the unclimbed but named gullies of Point Five and Zero were in the sights of all the top Scottish climbers and, more worryingly for the Scots, many of the leading performers south of the border. The problem was finding the gullies in climbable condition: unconsolidated powder on the plateau can blow down the two chutes, enveloping climbers in hissing spindrift and making progress almost impossible. Nowadays, thanks to the tag ‘Probably the most famous ice gully in the world,’ Point Five attracts climbers from all over the globe, and there can be a continuous line of ropes from bottom to top on a busy day. Zero, although technically easier, has a reputation for being more serious due to its poorer belays.

The strongest axe ever made at the time.

This was a letter I came across dated 8 April 1957

From the Air Ministry – Whitehall Gardens London

To RAF Mountain Rescue Teams Kinloss, Valley, Leuchars, St. Athan, Topcliffe, Nicosia. Harpur Hill.

Subject – Ice Axes.

An ice axe broken through normal use at RAF Valley has recently been the subject of an investigation. This has shown that the moisture content of the broken shaft  was appreciably below the normal( 7% as compared with the normal 12 – 16 % )

It is possible that this is due to incorrect storage at the Maintenance Unit and this will be investigated.  All ice axes held by Mountain Rescue Teams however are to be inspected and tested before further use.  They should not, in future be kept in a heated store  but should be kept out of doors , under cover, or indoors with adequate ventilation and no heating.

The shafts in future are to be dressed with raw linseed oil and not boiled linseed oil as at present. AP3172 will be amended in due course.

The Massey axe

In the 1950s the RAF had thousands of wooden ice axes. The method I have been told of testing at RAF Kinloss was to put them across a curbstone and stand and spring on them. I was informed they would sometimes break up to 5 axes before we got an axe that didn’t break.

Axes have changed so much over the years much of it to the early climbers and innovative climbers like Hamish and others.

Comments welcome

Wasn’t that called a Massey. I saw a film clip of a dog sledge going down a crevasse at the axe held the sled and dog team that were suspended in the crevasse. Bet I have one somewhere. Davy Walker.

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 when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Gear, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Recomended books and Guides, Scottish winter climbing.. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Metal Ice Axes – A big change from Wooden shafted axes. The 1958 Zero Gully tragedy.

  1. Jim Higgins says:

    I see here that raw linseed oil is recommended for dressing the axe shaft. I personally used raw oil but that’s because my local hardware store only had that in stock. My old venture scout leader, a very experienced mountain leader and my inspiration, gave me a row and told me to use boiled oil as the hickory shaft absorbed it more efficiently. Fortunately it never had to be put to the test in earnest. I still have my old camp interalp. I am all nostalgic. I want to mount it above my fireplace wall but the wife says the tv has to go there. Bah.

    Liked by 2 people

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