Skip to content
Home » Features » TOOL USERS: The Headlamp

TOOL USERS: The Headlamp

This Tool Users first appeared in Alpinist 57–Spring 2017.

Surprised by darkness…another miserable night. In an era of folding lanterns and oil lamps, tales abound of mountaineers caught high on peaks after dark. During an 1880 expedition to the Andes, British climber Edward Whymper tried drowning a luminous beetle ina tincture of clear alcohol. “It glowed for several hours,” he wrote in Travels amongst the Great Andes of the Equator, “and gave enough light to tell the time by my watch, and to read the small writing in my Journal.”

A Berec headlamp used by Martin Mushkin from the mid-1950s until 1980. [Photo] Michelle Hoffman

A Berec headlamp used by Martin Mushkin from the mid-1950s until 1980. [Photo] Michelle Hoffman

On starless, moonless nights, under cloud-thatched skies, lanterns offered a faint, capricious light for nineteenth-century mountaineers. Shadows obscured the edges of crevasses and precipices more than a few feet distant. In 1888, descending from the first winter traverse of the Jungfrau with just one functioning lantern, English climber Margaret Jackson wrote, “our only remaining hope had to be continually passed from hand to hand.” Finding the path too treacherous, Jackson and three guides spent the night in an ice cave, sharing a few raisins and rum. (Jackson lost several toes to frostbite.)

The earliest headlamp designs came from improvements in mining equipment. Initially, carbide or oil-wick lights were attached to canvas caps, with leather brims to protect the miners’ face from the flames. But these lamps could ignite underground gasses such as methane and lead to explosions. To curb the number of worker deaths, the U.S. Bureau of Mines (founded in 1910) invested in electric lamps, and in 1915 introduced the first battery-powered headlight.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, mountain lighting transitioned from candles to cakes of methylated spirits or tins of petroleum. On the 1921 British reconnaissance of Mt. Everest, Charles Howard-Bury distributed two electric lever torches to local village leaders. Though George Mallory carried a folding lantern in 1924, his teammates T. Howard Somervell and Edward Norton made use of an electric light on the second summit attempt, where Norton reached an altitude record of 28,126 feet. “Obviously we could not get up to the top before midnight, and we realized that, in the moonless night…that meant almost certain death by freezing,” Somervell observed in After Everest. They barely made it to Camp IV, “shuffling along in the dark with the aid of an electric torch.”

Like others of the decade, the Wonder headlamp, used by the French army in the 1950s, still required a cumbersome battery pack, attached by wire and carried on a harness or in a pocket. The light was famously fickle, and its wires easily tangled or snagged on rocks, trees and climbing equipment. Mountaineers soon came up with their own innovations. On early 1970s climbs, Steve Grossman recalls, he and his climbing partners brought “a couple of Mallory flashlights in the pack and simply held them in our mouths…. I soon made a head strap out of elastic materials to give my mouth a break.”

According to Petzl lore, the first all-on-the-head headlamp was a product of happenstance and limited storage. Paul, the son of founder Fernand Petzl, placed an order for 5,000 plastic casings to hold batteries for carbide caving lamps. Remembering the Wonder headlamps from his army days, he proposed using the extra material to craft a smaller, lighter electric design for mountaineers.

Just down the block from the Petzls’ Grenoble house, a lingerie stand sold garters (by then, simply ornamental accessories). Catherine Petzl, Paul’s wife, brought home a selection in navy blue. Paul fitted the battery packs to the back of these elastic bands as a necessary counterweight to the light at the forehead–thus creating the first headlamp that could be used without a helmet.

Modern versions have continued to increase in lumens, amplifying the brightness of lights in the night (from the Latin, lumen refers to light, but also to an opening). “The power of artificial light to create its own reality only reveals itself in darkness,” Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes in Disenchanted Night. “In the dark, light is life.” Headlamps have radically transformed the nature of climbing by illuminating the path–and extending the possibility–of descent. At the same time, they tend to narrow our focus to the terrain just ahead, and we still have to turn them off to notice the brilliance and mystery of the stars.

This Tool Users first appeared in Alpinist 57–Spring 2017. Subscribe today or order your own copy at the store.