The North Wall Era Ice Climbing

Scottish Climbing 1908

Climbers experiencing what the Scots call 'full conditions"

(Photo: Jeff Lowe)

27 ▼ Scottish Gullies and North Wölls

Wwii Ice Axe

The nailed boots, hemp rape, ten-point (tampons, and collapsible 90cm straight-pick ice axe that represented state-of-the-art ice-climbing gear (hiring the dank 'North Woll Era* of the 1910s and '30» ¡Phto: Kern Rokrl)

Nevis in 1906, cutting steps with a long axe and wearing nailed boots as in the Alps. On a 1974 pilgrimage, I made an ascent of the route as one of my first climbs in Scotland Even with the latest "revolutionary" ice technology adorning my hands and feet, J was impressed by the steep initial pitch and the beauty of the final run-out to the summit plateau In 1920, Raeburn made the first winter ascent of Observatory Ridge, an iced-up rock route that still enjoys the respect of modern climbers. When the ice is thin, insubstantial, or rotten over rock, technological advances are less important than the skill and spirit of the climber. In Scotland, Raeburns difficult climbs were unsurpassed until the 1950s.

In 1908 a technological advance was made that wouldn't be wholeheartedly adopted by the recalcitrant Scots for forty years, yet it increased the security and speed of climbing on the ice and snow faces of the Alps. Oscar Eckenstein, an experienced British

The nailed boots, hemp rape, ten-point (tampons, and collapsible 90cm straight-pick ice axe that represented state-of-the-art ice-climbing gear (hiring the dank 'North Woll Era* of the 1910s and '30» ¡Phto: Kern Rokrl)

Climbing Rope Hemp Ice Axe

The north side el Mowl Robson, the crown of the Canadian Rockies, has provided generations of North American (timbers with now challenges. In 193«, when Switzerland's modi more difficult Elgerwand w«s cimbed, the North Ridge (left ikytfoe) of Mount Robson represented the top of Iba game 0« lht> tide of the Atlantic. Rabun's broad, snowy North lace (center left}, which is comparable to the North Face of the Triolet, was not climbed until 19*3. Bui Mags Stamp and ikn Logan's 1975 climb of the verticil runnels of the Emperor Face (above the dimber) was on o par with any Ice dimb in the Alps. (Photo: Hike Mutiger)

climber, created a ten-point crampon and invented a "flatfoot" climbing technique that allowed many climbs to be done with few or no cut steps. This Eckenstein technique was quickly adopted by the French, who found it excellent for the névé of the Western Alps.

With the new crampons and an axe one-third shorter than the old shoulder-high style, alpine ice climbing entered what has been called its most productive era. The great guide Hans Lauper capped his brilliant career in 1932 with the first ascent of the Northeast Face of the Eiger—the well-known Lauper Route, seldom climbed and still highly respected. In 1924 special pitons for ice designed by Fritz Riegele were used by Willo Welzenbach on the Northwest Face of the Gross Wiesbachhorn. Between the two World Wars, Welzenbach distinguished himself as the best of a bold new generation of ice enthusiasts. Climbs that he undertook, such as the north faces of the Gross Fiescherhorn, the Grand Charmoz, the Gletscherhorn, and the Lauterbrunnen Breithorn, remained, even into the 1960s, some of the most difficult in the Alps.

Following Welzenbach in the classic "North Wall Era," Jacques Lagarde and Henry de Ségnone maximized the Eckenstein crampon technique on the North Face of the Plan in 1924. Perhaps the finest exponent of this technique, Armand Charlet, climbed the Nant Blanc Face of the Aiguille Verte in 1928 with Camille Dévouassoux. Robert Gréloz and André Roch made the first ascent of the classic North Face of the Triolet in 1931, In the same year, Franz and Toni Schmid, brothers from Munich, climbed the North Face of the Matterhorn, the first of the three most famous north walls in the Alps to be climbed. The next to fall was the Croz Spur, a rock and mixed route on the Grandes Jorasses, in 1935. The remaining and greatest wall, the Eiger-wand, was finally climbed in the summer of 1938 by Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vôrg, Fritz Kasparek, and Heinrich Harrer. On this most controversial and heralded Alpine climb of all time, Heckmair was the natural leader. Although the Eigerwand is not a pure ice route during the summer, Heckmair used twelve-point crampons designed by Laurent Crivel in 1932 to frontpoint up the ice fields in a fraction of the time it would have taken to cut steps. His performance defined the frontiers of the Alpine art until the late 1950s.

Routes climbed on the classic north faces in the Alps and in gullies of snow-ice and buttresses of snow, rock, and verglas in Scotland were not improved upon until after World War II. Existing equipment had already been pushed to near its absolute limits, and most of the obvious and attractive lines had been done. In modern technical terms, the top pure ice grade climbed in the Alps at the time would be about Al3, while in Scotland a mixed standard of M4 may have been achieved.

Though standards were not being set on ice in other ranges of the world during this period, many good climbs were made in the Northern and Southern Alps of New Zealand, in the Caucasus, and in the Canadian Rockies. These areas offer scope for ice as great as that found in Europe, but their contribution to the sport would come later. The next advances would once again spring from the crucibles of the Alps and the Scottish Highlands.

Postwar and into the J 960s

Scottish winter climbing was taken a step beyond Raeburn's most difficult climbs during the 1950s, mainly by Tom Patey, Jimmy Marshall, Hamish Maclnnes, and their friends. Using axe and crampons, cunning and craft to their fullest in a uniquely eclectic Scottish blend of step-cutting, frontpointing, flatfooting, and mixed climbing, these pioneers established many of the best climbs of the day. The most impressive were Maclnnes's ascent of Raven's Gully in 1953, Bill Brooker's mid-1950s ascent of the Eagle Ridge of Lochnagar, and the ascent by Graeme Nicol, Patey, and Maclnnes of Zero Gully in 1957. Their efforts left a future generation of climbers to struggle in their footsteps. Marshall's ascent of

29 T Postwar and into the 1960s

Parallel Gully B in 1959, and his climbs of Gardyloo Buttress and Onon Face Direct the following year (these with the brightest of his apprentices, Robin Smith) were also landmarks from this adventurous era. All of these climbs were rated Scottish grade V By the system of rating used in this book, the overall standard of the most committing of these routes is grade IV, with a technical difficulty of class 5. Throughout the world, harder ice climbs were not made until the 1970s—and then only with the aid of new technology.

During the first two postwar decades, most Alpine climbers found enough challenge in repeating the great routes of the 1930s. A few harder climbs were made, such as the North Face of Les Droites by Cornau/Devaille in 1955, the Grand Pilier d'Angle of Mont Blanc by Walter Bonatti and Cosimo Zapelli in 1962, and the Shroud on the Grandes Jorasses by Robert Flematti and René Demaison in 1968. All these first ascents were major events, accomplished by some of the best climbers of the day, pulling out all the stops, facing terrifying objective hazards, and launching wholeheartedly into the unknown. When Reinhold Messner made his landmark eight and one-half hour solo of Les Droites in 1969, the era was brought to a resounding close.

Because of the large scale of these Alpine routes, the overall commitment rating had reached grade V, with the hardest of the climbs, Les Droites, having a technical difficulty of Al4 to 5 The introduction of the Saiewa tube screw in the mid-1960s made later climbs much safer.

In North America the standard was slightly lower, with a climb like the Black Ice Couloir on the Grand Teton, first climbed by Ray Jacquot and Herb Swedlund in 1961, meriting IV, A13+,- the first solo ascent by Charlie Bell of the Willis Wall on Mount Rainier in the same year, a IV, Al3; and the Snowbird Glacier on Mount Patterson in the Canadian Rockies, climbed in 1967 by Charlie Locke, Ken Baker, Chic Scott, and Don Vockeroth, about the same standard.

An anomaly occurred in 1954 in Alaska, however.

when the experienced team consisting of American Fred Beckey, German Henry Maybohm, and Austrian Heinrich Harrer (of Eigerwand fame) made the alpine-style (that is, without fixed ropes and moving the high camp up with them as they progressed) first

Anderl Mannhardt

Hamish Madnnes was one of the most active Scottish climbers In the 1950s and '60s. He invented the Terrordactyl, developed mountain rescue to a high art, and also wrote mystery novels. The Scottish populace came to view Homlih as a national treasure.

ascent of 12,339-foot Mount Deborah by the West Face and West Ridge. This climb has seen only a few repeats in the intervening years, and none in less than the three days required for the first ascent. Mount Deborah definitely merits an overall grade V.

Another exceptional North American climb occurred a decade later, jules Verne once said, "Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real." Such facile pronouncements are familiar, but perhaps only a delusion of the species. However, six men made a climb in 1965 that makes me feel Verne was right,

Mount Logan is located in the St. Elias Range, Yukon Territory, Canada. Its 19,850-foot central peak is the second highest point in North America, only 470 feet lower than the summit of Denali. Logan is a huge mountain with a summit plateau comprising nearly ten square miles and ridges that span twenty-four miles in an east-west direction.

Three south ridges drop 14,000 feet to the Seward Clacier. The Central Ridge consists of six miles of unbelievably contorted cornices, crags, and ice slopes, it is so large that one-fifth of the ridge would still be a major climb. To climb it in semi-alpine style (i.e., fixing ropes between camps, but not down to base) was an impossible dream in 1965. But that didn't stop A1 Steck, John Evans, Frank Coale, Jim Wilson, Paul Bacon, and Dick Long from doing it.

After three weeks of intense effort, during which the climbers wondered at the sanity of their actions ('This route is sheer madness!"), they had not yet reached a "bump" on the ridge at 1 3,000 feet, which they had designated the Snow Dome. With less than half the ridge climbed and much more than half their food consumed, most parties would have elected to retreat while that option was still open. But these men kept at it. Evans later described the ridge in an article in the Sierra Club journal Ascent: "A high-wire in the sky, artistically daubed with a stiff meringue of snow,- a bottomless fantasy of cornices and flutings."

Finally, on August 6, one month after starting out, they reached the summit. "... [WJcaker than we realized, we staggered like drunks. ..." But they were six very happy and satisfied drunks, for they had gone out on a limb—and isn't that where the fruit is?

Early in the climb, Steck had been ascending a couloir on the side of the ridge when he heard a buzzing sound and instinctively protected his head against what he thought was a falling rock. But the buzzing continued. No rock could fall so slowly. He looked in the direction of the sound only to see a tiny hummingbird hovering and darting above his red pack. The incongruity of this sight stayed in Steck's mind throughout the climb-—a source of wonder and comfort that sustained him through the difficulties. The gigantic climb was eventually named after the tiny creature.

The South Ridge of Logan was indeed a breakthrough. To this day, no climb in North America has required a greater level of commitment. But technically the Hummingbird Ridge (VII, Al4?) was of less importance. The only innovation used extensively was a snow shovel instead of an ice axe for carving a path through the cornices.

In the postwar years and through the 1960s, many superior routes were also being climbed in other mountains of the world. Climbs such as Alpa-mayo in Peru, the Caroline Face on Mount Cook in New Zealand, and the West Face of Mount Ushba in the Caucasus were excellent, although at a lower standard than contemporary climbs being made in the Alps.

During the 1950s and '60s, different nationalities still clung to their own preferences with regard to the techniques used to climb ice. In Scotland step-cutting was the standard,- in France the Eckenstein flat-foot method had been so completely adopted that it had also come to be known as "French technique"; while the Austrians and Germans had for quite some time favored frontpointing in almost every instance. During this time, the small number of ice climbers in the rest of the world had to sort out for themselves which of the techniques was best, usually coming to the conclusion that frontpointing with short axes and daggers (handheld ice picks) on hard ice required football-sized calves, that step-cutting for more than a rope-length necessitated the arms of a gorilla, and that French technique was totally unsuited to the human anatomy. A truly international blend of all these techniques would become the future norm.

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