Innovations that transformed climbing

  • Yeah, we have a climbing history thread, and an old gear thread, but neither of them seemed to be the place for me to toss this one onto the table for discussion...

    After a session at the gym with a friend this afternoon we decamped to the brewpub. Fortunately, we were brave and skilled mountaineers, and managed to cross the street from the door of the gym to the door of the pub without too much trouble. But sometime into the second pint something we were talking about -- I think the first use of a short tool for ice climbing in the late 1930s -- led her to pose the question: "Yeah, but what has really changed climbing in the last 50 years?"

    To which, of course, I replied: "Why there are countless innovations that..." And then ground to a halt. The only really transformative change I could think of was the introduction of Friends. Ray Jardine had been using prototypes for a few years, but these first spring-loaded camming units became generally available in 1977.

    Which is over forty years ago.

    I kept thinking there must be something more recent that had a huge impact, but everything I came up with she shot down with: "Yeah, that was helpful, but it was really just a tweak of something that was already in use."

    Sitting here now at home, with a good meal inside me, and a glass of wine to hand I have had a couple of ideas, but I'd be grateful for your thoughts, too.

    So, other than Friends (and their descendants) the only major innovations in the last fifty years I can think of are Gore-Tex and free-standing tents. And not only are both of those over forty years in the past, neither of them is solely climbing-related. I think Gore was looking at a better fabric for surgical use, for example. But clearly, both have had a big impact on our ability to climb in less-than-perfect conditions. (The every-night comfort we enjoyed on our expeditions to Baffin Island in 1979 and 1981 would not have been possible without the North Face VE-24 tent in the calm-day photo below.)

    But surely I am forgetting something. Surely there was something in the last fifty years...

    Baffin 1981 lo res 02.jpg

  • Ah! I will nominate the first "curved-pick" ice axe, the Chouinard-Frost Piolet, introduced 50 years ago, that first shows up in Chouinard's 1970 catalog brochure. Of course the Scots likely had the sharply-drooped pick of the Terodactyl somewhat earlier, but the Chouinard Piolet opened up steep snow & ice to us-masses. And of course, Chouinard wrote about his technique with the Piolet.
    1970 catalog piolet.JPG

    1970 catalog Piolet 1969 2.JPG

    And we went out & climbed waterfalls, (Cascade Coulouir near Banff Alberat 1976) with his axes & ice hammers.


  • @FritzRay said in Innovations that transformed climbing:

    Ah! I will nominate the first "curved-pick" ice axe

    Yeah, I nominated that one too. And was shot down with "Drooping the pick is an incremental change, not a completely new innovation."

    Yes. drooped, dropped, or curved picks made a big difference, but the real innovation was in the late '30s when Bill Murray realized that shortening the handle -- i.e. creating an ice hammer as opposed to an ice axe -- would make much steeper climbs possible. And he didn't even know about crampons.

    But even if you demand -- at gunpoint -- that I agree to drooped picks as a huge change, well, as you say, that was only a month or two shy of fifty years ago.

    But surely there must be something...


    Hmmm.... Sticky rubber? Maybe. But that was also a long, long time ago.

  • David Harris! Curved picks! Accepted. Sticky rubber & the EB revolution. I of course have a story.

  • DH: I think the first use of a short tool for ice climbing in the late 1930s .....

    Oscar Eckenstein created a short ice axe about 1900. From my website:

    He designed, constructed, and promoted a short ice-axe that could be used with one hand (blade length 18cm, shaft length 84cm). In this, he was sixty years ahead of his time.

    DH: Hmmm.... Sticky rubber? Maybe. But that was also a long, long time ago. 1970s. Boreal.

  • The GriGri is probably a fairly major innovation.. I mean, that opened up hands-free belaying while posting to Instagram

  • Hardened steel pin.

    Whilan's harness.


    Mechanical ascenders.

  • Beak-style pitons

    Alien offsets

  • Kernmantel ropes.

  • @J-Fengel we had hands free belaying BINTD as well, It was called the leader must not fall! You Needed hands free belaying to run those manuel focus, manuel exposure manuel film advance SLR's . especially with woolen mittens 🙂 Nothing like doing a completely terrifying lead and then seeing the photos a few weeks later when the slides came back realizeing your belayer was dutifully takeing photos instead of belaying 🙂

  • Last night I agreed with David that sticky rubber had helped transform climbing & mentioned "I had a story."

    In 1975 my pal Gary & I drove from north Idaho to Yosemite & met up with Gary's friend Dave Neff (Kneff) who had gone to school at Washington State U, but was now living in the valley. Dave was more than happy to guide us Idaho noobs around the valley. One of the first routes we did was The Mouth on Glacier Point Apron. I should explain Gary was 5" taller than me, & that he actually worked out in a gym, & that he had an enthusiast personality, but he was climbing in Galibier PA's, which did not have the sticky rubber used in the EB's both Dave & I were wearing.

    Gary & his PA's

    The Mouth entailed 5.9 slab climbing & although I had never climbed slab that difficult, my EB's & I were able to follow Dave without difficulty. Gary & his PA's had a bad time, with much slipping, sliding, & cursing, & at one point on a traverse, he took a fairly long fall. Gary had a horrible day & he spent the next day sulking, while Dave dragged me off to climb the obscure Arrowhead Arrete.

  • The new ice screws completely revolutionized ice climbing. Old screws took so long and so much energy to place that you had to be a 1 percent climber to lead grade 5. Now grade 5s have ques on them...

    A young and strong me maxing out on an easy 4
    old stuff0010.jpg

    old and weak me maxing out on a hard 5


  • Missed the "last 50 years" part of the OP when I posted my suggestions.

    Can't really think of anything in the last 50 years (other than active cams) that really "transformed" climbing. Definitely some innovations that made it safer and "easier", but nothing that was revolutionary.

    Then again, would gyms count? Certainly gyms have had a huge impact on the sport.

  • @J-Fengel said in Innovations that transformed climbing:

    Beak-style pitons

    Alien offsets

    Well, we know who the wall rat amongst us is.

  • @jgill said in Innovations that transformed climbing:

    Oscar Eckenstein created a short ice axe about 1900. From my website:
    He designed, constructed, and promoted a short ice-axe that could be used with one hand (blade length 18cm, shaft length 84cm). In this, he was sixty years ahead of his time.

    Hmmm... Maybe some definitions are in order here. Eckenstein's "short" ice axe, at 84 cm (33 inches), was only short in comparison to the 5-foot alpenstocks that had been in use to that point. It was useful as a general mountaineering aid and could be used one-handed to cut steps on low-angle ice. But it was far too long to be useful on steep ice -- which is what Murray and his partners were wanting to climb in the late 1930s.

    Their solution was to modify a slater's (roofer's) pick, a short-handled (I think they were mostly about 13 inches) hammer-like tool with a pick on one side and a vaguely adze-shaped blade on the other. This could be swung with some force on ice far steeper than was climbable with the "short but actually quite long" axe pioneered by Eckenstein.

    Which is not a knock against Eckenstein. His axe did allow a climber to cut steps in low-angle ice with relative ease and comfort -- a real breakthrough. But a breakthrough with quickly-reached limits.

    It's possible that someone else, maybe in the European Alps, made the same move to a short tool that could be modified for steep ice at the same time that Murray & Co. did it in the gullies of Glencoe.

    And, of course, the march of time never stops. Those Scots were climbing ice that was unimaginably steep... for the day. But then crampons replaced tricouni-nailed boots, then crampons grew points at the front, then ice screws offered protection, then picks were drooped, then shafts were curved... And instead of cutting a series of hand and footholds up the ice (and then climbing those holds with hands and feet), we now, 90 years later, don't actually touch the ice at all as we romp up it on our picks and points.

    I can't get the one crappy photo I have of a slater's hammer to post, but here's a photo of some of my old tools for reference. The axe on the right is 33 inches long -- same length as Eckenstein's. The Stubai ice hammer beside it is 14 inches (12 if you don't count the weird loop at the bottom), probably about the same length as an old slater's hammer. The BD Black Prophets on the left are 20 inches. They completely changed steep ice for me, but would be considered antiques by a modern ice climber.

    Ice tools.jpg

  • @johntp - haha.. I'm hardly a wall rat!

    Figured, when I got a deal on a few Alien offsets, I'd rarely use them. Turned out, I use them as free climbing pro pretty often.. especially the yellow/green. Great fit in pin-scars

  • @David-Harris said; "Hmmm... Maybe some definitions are in order here. & ". . . Those Scots were climbing. . ."

    Lynn Hill, Mutual assets put to specific use with singular results

    Where were we? Oh, yeah innovations in the last 50 years that drastically changed things starting with a lean toward Ice climbing ?

    I submit that that my pinky fingers are wreckedIMG_650x832.JPG

    These things finished them off


    but I've got all my toes


  • Stainless bolts and hangers

  • Thing is though dave. If I had my 1982 Simond Chakals they would suck compared to the black Prophets but I would still be able to climb better than twice as well with my Simonds and new screws than with the Prophets and old screws. yes the new tools are really,really nice but the the new screws are so much better than the old screws that it's not even comprehensible.. Not that I would want to give up my X dreams but if I was faced with the choice of new screws and Simond Chakals or old screws and X dreams I would have to take the news screws and old tools....


    I will say that the X dreams are amazeing 🙂 and leashless is one of the revolutionary evolutions that David is talking about but many of us have gone back to tethers with our leashless tools. .. The standard practice BINTD was leashes and one tool on a tether . the idea being that if everything went to shit maybe we would be left hanging by our one tethered tool or at least not lose it. Now the tethers are not made to even hold body weight. They are simply to keep us from losing our tools while taking selfies. I do find it is easier for me to relax my grip knowing the tools is tied to something.

  • even when free soloing the new screws make a difference. I know that I can get a screw in anywhere that the ice is thick enough to take a screw no matter how steep it is. That makes it a bit easier to launch up something knowing if I have to that I can bail. that is not to say that you are never committed anymore but it Shure as heck ain't as scary as it used to be. another thing the new screw did was make it not only possible but easy to make a V thread and bail for free. The thought of leaving a bail screw BINTD was unthinkable. we simply could neither afford the monitary price of the screw or the blow to our egos of loseing something that expensive... Now its easy and free to bail 🙂


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