More than thirty years have passed since I first ventured into the Alps and in this time alpinism has made many advances. One need only compare today’s rock technique and climbing knowledge with what it was three decades ago to be impressed! But there remain sections of alpinism that look the same as they did fifty years ago. This is especially true of ice technique and everything involved with this type of climbing. I often read trip reports from alpinists, (both guided and self-lead, who are respected as good climbers) who often write that they were forced to cut steps despite the fact that they wore crampons.
In my own experience, it is very rare that one encounters an ice passage where it is necessary for a good ice climber to cut even the barest number of steps. In the last twenty years I have cut less than twenty steps. (And most of those were during a tour in 1906 where, due to an annoyance, I didn’t have my own crampons.) And there are not many who have spent more time above the snow line, over the last twenty years, than myself. I believe that I may call some of my climbs difficult. Often, though, as I climb I hear it said, Here steps are very useful. or Here you’ll be required to cut steps, and my quick, though perhaps not polite, answer is, Whomever needs steps may cut them himself.
When I explain this situation to another, for example, my good friend C.B. who has climbed more mountains than anyone I know, and without a guide, he responds with, Then you haven’t seen truly hard ice. Why, I’ve seen ice that was so hard that my crampons left no marks on it, and it shattered, like glass, when struck with an axe. And so on. All I know, is that I have yet to encounter ice that was too hard for my crampons’ points to gain purchase when tread upon strongly. Is there a kind of ice that I have never seen? I’ve spent the last twenty years climbing icy mountains on three continents (America, Europe, and Asia) in both winter and summer. Is there ice I have never seen? It is possible, but if so it must be very rare. And when I take into account the number of stories from so-called “expert” climbers who are often cutting steps, then this type of special ice must occur often–and that (that there is a type of ice I have never seen) I find quite unlikely.
I tell my friend C.B., Think about this. With a magic wand I can send you back in time. You’re fit, all your gear is packed, the weather is good, and you’re sent back to the H?rnli ridge forty-five years ago, before Whymper’s summit. Knowing you as I do, the first thing you’d do is climb the ridge, and with modern techniques and equipment that would not be too difficult for you. And, let’s say, no one sees you up there. You come down, and run into Whymper, Croz, and the others. You tell them, ‘I just climbed the Matterhorn, alone, and I know a number of others who could do the same.’ What would Whymper say to you? That you’re a horrible liar, that you’ve had a bit too much to drink, and most likely of all, ‘The poor man, he must be insane to truly believe he’s done such an impossible feat.’ No one would believe you. I feel like I have received a very similar response from many of the readers of this magazine. [When I say that cutting steps is mostly unnecessary.]
Technical diagrams of Eckenstein’s crampons from a 1909 follow-up article in the Oesterreischische Alpenzeitung.
What makes a good ice climber? He must know ice, have good technique, must be able to find the best way up, down and across ice with the least possible effort. What do I mean by technique? I mean to say that his number one qualification as an ice climber is that he must be an expert at climbing when the axe and crampons come off, or that he must be an expert of crampon technique. What can a good crampon technician do?
When the ice isn’t too rotten, he can stand comfortably on a 60-degree slope without using his hands, or axe, and maneuver in any direction. I say when the ice isn’t rotten, because otherwise the ice can shatter around the teeth of the crampons and the climber can slip. In Europe rotten ice is rare, and it is rarely very deep, I’ve never seen it deeper than 5cm; a strong kick, or at most, two is usually enough to reach the solid ice and get a good step. But in tropical lands, I’ve seen ice rotten to a depth exceeding 30cm. Then a bit of pick work is useful to reach the good ice. In the Alps it is similar to how one must sometimes clear snow.
He, the good ice climber, on slopes up to 70-degrees, can stand without the aid of his arms, and he can support the weight of a healthy man with his hands, though the ice must be in good condition.
Similarly, he can, if he isn’t too large, stand on 80-degree ice with his weight on a single leg. In this position he should not need his hands or the axe to maintain balance….
What the ice climbers of the future will be able to climb, I know not. But I find it hard to believe that we have already reached the limits of what is possible.
Technical diagrams of Eckenstein’s crampons from a 1909 follow-up article in the Oesterreichische Alpenzeitung.
What is the cause of bad crampon technique? For the most part it is Bad Crampons. No crampon I have ever made, or been involved in the making of, has suffered from any one, or more, radical failures. But looking at the crampons out there, I can easily say that many have radical failures in their design. And with bad crampons, even the best ice climber can barely advance. Here are my findings after smithing many crampons myself, and seeing many other crampons made.
What a good crampon must have:
1. The material must be strong against warping or bending, and when cold it must not develop any cracks.
2. It must have a high degree of tensile strength.
3. At low temperatures it cannot become brittle.
4. Harder is better, but there is no current material that is hard without also being brittle. Maybe in the future such a material will be developed.
5. The material must also (under present circumstances) have quite a high carbon content. Caution must be taken in the forging that it is not overheated, because if such steel is overheated, even a little, it is ruined. Over-hardened steel will be too brittle for use as a crampon.
6. It is also beneficial when the crampons are light. But they must still be strong enough for a climber to stand on a single point. My current crampons weigh .55kg without straps…. Naturally for a lighter climber, they could be lighter and for a larger climber they would need to be heavier.
7. The entire piece must be forged from a single piece of metal, with no riveting, welding, and brazing. I know this seems like unnoteworthy advice but the crampons I’ve seen where the teeth have been attached by each of these methods amaze me.
8. The inner corners and angles must be curved. Sharp angles in the interior curve are a place for weakness.
9. The teeth should not be too close together. When two teeth are too close together, they are likely to break off a single piece of ice for the two of them, creating a divot rather than traction.
10. Following point 9, it is important to have the right number of teeth. For myself, in regards to the size of my feet and my weight, I believe that ten teeth are the right amount, while for smaller climbers eight teeth may be more useful.
11. The crampons must fit tightly onto one’s boots. Poor fitting crampons are the main reason that these tools are called worthless. Furthermore loose crampons are dangerous.
12. Three-part crampons are entirely worthless. The middle points are always shaky and poor for balance, and they don’t follow the designer’s creed that “simpler designs create fewer complications.”
13. The teeth must have the form of a sharp, four-sided pyramid. Not a dull pyramid or a stubby pyramid with small blunt angled edges. (That latter is a very bad design.) The teeth also need to be sharp.
14. The crampons need to be perfectly in line with the sole of the boot. The middle line of the pyramid should make a perfect right angle to the shoe. These two points are very important, and I have never seen a commercial crampon that didn’t have issues with this detail.
15. The two rear most teeth should be, as far as possible, back and the two front most as far as possible forwards. (In lines with rules 14 and 9.)
16. In line with 15 and 9, the teeth should be evenly spaced on each side.
17. Length of the teeth– Short teeth are very useful for hard ice, rotten ice requires longer teeth. But crampons with longer teeth can be too heavy. The main downside of long teeth is the weight, and that one needs to lift one’s feet higher when walking with them. However, the advantage of this is that when the teeth are made slightly too long they can be filed when dull, and will not then become too short. I think all new crampons should be sized long to accommodate this. With new crampons I size the teeth to 38mm, when they are shorter than 25mm I no longer use them for ice climbing. The frame cannot be too thin or it will be weak. My new crampons’ frames measure 6.5mm by 10mm.
18. Each crampon should have a solid, not welded, ring for the attachment of the laces. Each of my crampons has six rings. For each crampon I use two good hemp cords. The first goes through the two back rings and the second through the four front rings. Each cord is 35g and between 50-60cm long. With good conditions, I can put on each crampon in less than a minute. I have never lost a crampon through it coming off, but one needs to be aware that when the cords become wet they will thicken and become hard, so they should be sized long, otherwise they will cut into the foot. I use my own cords; the ones that are available commercially are not as good.