What Is the History of Ice Climbing?

What Is the History of Ice Climbing?

The first documented ice climbing competition was held on the Brenva glacier in Courmayeur, Italy, in 1912, marking the sport's official beginnings. Small occurrences would help put the Alps on the map at the time because mountaineers frequently climbed steep slopes and icy terrain.

However, it was only after 60 years that this sport attracted attention outside the world's top mountaineers. The sport gained popularity after Hamish MacInnes created the drop-curved axe with just a short handle and an angled pick. Contrary to being utilized like a walking stick on steep but not vertical ice, this equipment was intended for climbing, trying to swing into ice from above your head. In addition, crampon design advancements allowed ice climbers to ascend significantly more quickly and effectively.

Initial Ice Climbing efforts

Guides would carve footholds into the ice during the Golden Age of Mountaineering (the 1850s–1900s) and beyond so hobnailed boots could cling to it dangerously. Finally, Conrad Kain ascended the Kain Face, a path that requires 700 steps to the top but can be completed today with tons of specialist ice equipment suitable for both mountain environments and mixed routes along with ice climbing.

A few years later, Oskar Eckenstein ordered the Grivel family to construct for him certain tools that became the first contemporary crampons and, for the first time, allowed one to balance using their front points. It was nearly impossible to stay balanced on pure sheets of ice until that point while facing inward. This newfound ability allowed for increased mobility.

Though Ice climbing came into existence in the early 19th century, it had yet to fully develop into what we know it to be today. For example, falls that were very vertical and ice was still unclimbed.

Initial Ice Climbing efforts

Ice climbing - how it all started?

Although ice climbing has been practiced for centuries, it has undergone some of the most significant technological advancements in mountaineering. Technology advancements have always been closely related to the history of ice climbing.

Due to lighter, more affordable, and more effective equipment, it is now more popular than ever. Social media has also had a significant impact. Although it is a very benign sport, it has become fashionable due to its extreme appearance and vibrant colors. Nowadays, it's not unusual to run upon rock climbers who began rock climbing on ice because "it looked cooler than rock."

Ice was first scaled more as steep glaciated terrain than as the present-day waterfalls. A wooden pole with spikes called an alpenstock was given an axe on top in the late 19th century. On the other end of the axe was a little pick. Originally, this was employed to cut steps, but as time passed, the pick's usefulness expanded to include snagging pebbles and jamming into ice. Thus, what we now consider a typical ice axe head design was created by twisting the pick horizontally and the axe blade.

These instruments were still too long for narrower rock paths. As a result, in addition to the walking axe, a shorter, meter-long piolet became a common second tool. In higher areas, small ice daggers were occasionally employed as help. Balancing was also made easier with the aid of small alpine hammers for driving in pitons.

Ice climbers had to painstakingly carve stairs into the ice to stand on to reach the next step until 1932. This took a lot of time and was uncomfortable. So Grivel developed the first crampon with front points in 1932.

This made it possible for climbers to face the wall while putting their feet on the ice. It was a significant advance. Previously very steep paths that were impossible to manage while standing sideways, i.e., summits like the Eiger North Face, now allowed climbers to ascend ice much the same manner they did rock.

Ice climbing - how it all started?

Notable developments in ice climbing tools

Ice climbing tools and equipment have evolved over the decades. In the 1930s and 1950s, mountaineering axes and north wall hammers were used to traverse steeper terrain. These hammers possessed narrow, sharp picks on the opposite side, but their main purpose was setting pitons to prevent falls. Unfortunately, on vertical ice, the picks and handles were too short and unstable to be trusted.

Following the testing of several axes, Yvonne Chouinard, in his small shack by the sea, came up with a design in 1966 that was short (just 55 cm) and had more curved picks that better fit the swing.

The Terrordactyl and the Hummingbird, designed in the early 1970s by Hamish McInnes and Alex Lowe, were the first ice tools (ice axes are the mountaineering axe, and tools are for ice climbing). They constructed their own after discovering that two small North Wall Hammers performed better than one small and one long standard ice axe and that reversed curves better held the ice and released it. The Glen Coe hardmen, who took them overseas and used daring ascents that pushed the envelope of what was possible to extend their influence, helped the Terrordactyl become an instant hit.

This made short runs of run-out vertical ice climbing possible, paired with ice pitons. Another game-changer was Salewa's tubular ice screws, which could be installed by hand. Beginning climbers typically used the "Barn Door Technique" until receiving adequate teaching during the latter 1980s.

Nearly all of the routes had been climbed by the late 1970s. In 1979, Slipstream, one of the longest routes ever sent, was launched. Ice climbing significantly increased in the 1980s. Better gear, stronger ropes, fully stiff plastic boots, and ice-specific axes became available. Although not widely accepted, the support was growing.

As climbers looked for fresh terrain, this opened up new mixed climbing horizons. Moving between rock and ice while climbing became the new cutting edge. Alpine and crag first ascents that are risky become routine. In response, the following generation of equipment was forced to adapt to increasingly overhung and steep terrain.

The subsequent major advancements happened piecemeal, but double-curved tools have proven revolutionary. It took them some time to gain traction, but Nomics and X's Dreams now rule the market.

Notable developments in ice climbing tools

Important advancements that lead to the popularity of ice climbing

Shorter ice axes were developed in the late 1960s by Hamish MacInnes and Yvonne Chouinard, specifically for use with reversed picks. These innovative gadgets marked a significant advancement since they improved traction on steep ice. Leashes, traditionally used to prevent axes from being dropped, are now essential to keeping one's weight on the tool. Aluminum and other novel materials outperformed wood in terms of strength and weight.

Ice climbing waterfalls started to gain popularity in Canada, the US, and Europe. As the climb of WI4 grew commonplace, risky ascents were made. The technique started to center on the triangle with one tool on top of the other and wide legs, which is so well-known today.

Soon, new tool designs started to appear more often. The first lighter, carbon-fiber tools with less feedback on your arms as you swing were the Black Diamond Cobras. They also weighed a lot less, which is essential for climbs.

The practice of transitioning between rock mountain, and ice was first popularized in Scotland before spreading in more technically difficult ways to North America and the Alps.

Ice screws also started to get more and more sophisticated. Ice pitons, which had to be laboriously driven into the ice, had served as early forms of ice protection.

Screws were simpler to install and could be done manually, making it simpler to work in dangerous situations. Turn cranks were rapidly included in designs to expedite the screwing procedure.

Important advancements that lead to the popularity of ice climbing

Modern day Ice climbing events

Climbing Ice, written by the inventor of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, in 1978, contributed to the widespread adoption of technique and etiquette. The inaugural World Cup was staged in 2002. However, even this event was modest in scope. A few years later, the sport received approval from the International Olympic Committee, opening the door to the Olympics and providing it with much-needed recognition outside of its small-scale community.

Due to thumb grips and the way climbers' hands supported the weight, equipment started to get increasingly strongly bent and ergonomic in the 1990s. The elusive WI6 and daring WI7 ascents, which tested every facet of technique, revealed ever-higher objectives.

New locations like Helmcken Falls, WI11 climbing adventure has become feasible when these advancements are achieved, and we witness ever-greater boundaries being pushed. Ice climbing has come a long way since its initial stages and was not always just grab your ropes and climbing helmet, let's go! Several climbing techniques were developed and are still being invented by experienced climbers. Their expert advice is helping enthusiasts traverse frozen precipitation more safely.

Kevin Macey
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