The Mechanical Advantage

by John Middendorf

In the Beginning: Subtle Means and Engines.

Famous in American history, the year 1492 is also the date of the first mountain expedition using mechanical tools. In France, the King Charles VIII commanded Dompjulian de Beaupré, Captain of Montelimar, to climb Mount Inaccessible, a 1000 foot rock tower in the Vercors Alps near Grenoble. With grappling hooks, ladders, and skills and knowledge gained from sieging feudal castles, Dompjulian and a dozen of the King's men stormed the limestone tower. Francois de Bosco, a clergyman and member of the expedition, reported the climb as "half a league by means of ladders, and a league by a path which is terrible to look at, and is still more terrible to descend than to ascend." Dompjulian called the route "the most horrible and frightful passage" and after arriving at the summit, a large meadow surrounded by cliffs, he sent a messenger immediately down with a letter for the President of Grenoble. It read, "I send you my hearty greetings. When I left the King he charged me to cause an attempt to be made to see whether it was possible to climb the mountain which was said to be inaccessible; which mountain I, by subtle means and engines, have found the means of climbing, thanks be to God." He refused to leave until the President of Grenoble verified his ascent for the King, and remained a week in "the most beautiful place (he) had ever visited" with flowers of many colors and scents, several varieties of birds, and "a beautiful herd of chamois, which will never be able to get away." No longer could it be named Inaccessible, and Dompjulian rechristened it with its local name of Léguille (now known as Mont Aiguille). This first documented mountaineering ascent was at a time far before mountain climbing was considered recreational exploration, and the feat was purely a technical display of vertical prowess.

Footnote: "Half a league" is the equivalent to 7000 feet and must have been an emotional measurement.

After Dompjulian's ascent, using technology to ascend cliffs passed into obscurity for hundreds of years, only to reappear after the primary exploration of the major mountains of earth. As the highest summits were reached, first in Europe, then North America, and finally, the world's most remote ranges, climbers then turned their eyes to less lofty vertical adventures, and the next level of challenges was exposed like a layer of a peeling onion. Ever more difficult routes were forged up steeper terrain until little remained except the so-called "impossible climbs", beckoning rugged individuals willing to push the limits. The pioneers reshaped codes of conduct and created new genres of climbing with better and more specific tools, often implemented in ways far beyond their original intent. The rise in vertical standards throughout the years is intertwined with the evolution of equipment designed for ascent.

In 1850, mountaineers' tools of the day were a long sturdy Alpenstock for bridging precipices and crevasses, ice creepers (spikes for the midsole of the boot, an early form of the instep crampon around since the 5th century BC), and a modified hatchet or wood axe. The ropes of the day were thick and heavy unable to catch a falling climber, but used to create human chains for traveling through glaciers and rock ridges. Rock passages were surmounted with tenacity, human ladders, or occasionally by a spike hammered in with a rock. The great pioneer of the European Alps, Edward Whymper, carried a claw hook attached to a rope for grappling edges in order to maneuver through a short step. Aids were used only as an extra hand or foothold, as the equipment wasn't designed to support one's full weight. By the late 19th century, nearly every high peak in the Alps and many in North America had been climbed by these traditional tools and methods.


As Americans were manifesting their destiny and exploring the West's more remote regions, the Scottish trail builder George Anderson became the first human to stand atop Half Dome using sturdy rock eyebolt technology intended for securing trails through the Sierra Nevada wilderness. Anderson built a cabin at the nearby spring, and in the Fall of 1875, methodically climbed the steep east slab of Half Dome by drilling a hole and hammering in a bolt, using it as a foothold, and drilling again. Occasionally he left the security of the anchors and free climbed across less steep sections of the slab. The ascent took many days, so Anderson attached a rope to all the bolts so he could descend and re-ascend to his high point easily. John Muir described the event, "New routes have been done on South Dome (as it was then known), but the skill and courage of Anderson have not been surpassed". Wild West ingenuity paved the way for the first ascent of the spectacular Devil's Tower in 1893, when Wyoming ranchers Willard Ripley and William Rogers spent six weeks engineering a ladder of wood spikes connected by rope up a 350 vertical crack on the southeast corner of the tower. The summit was attained on the year's Fourth of July celebration and the United States Flag was proudly planted on the summit.


Like Dompjulian's ascent of Mont Aiguille four hundred years earlier, these climbs were isolated events done by rugged individualists, and although American climbers pioneered rudimentary belay and safety techniques for the first ascent of the Grand Teton in 1898, the marriage of technology and climbing really began in Europe, where climbing techniques were more refined and specific equipment for technical climbing appeared around the turn of the century.


The first pitons designed for cracks in the rock--little more than iron spikes with rings-- became available at this time. The tradition of the day, to keep purity in the passion, was to use pitons moderately, preferably only as a means to facilitate descent, and not for ascent. Soon climbers began to eye the steeper, more technical mountain faces with interest, and realized that the traditional means would never be safe for upward passage on such vertical beasts. The imposing challenges of the unclimbed walls of eastern Europe required devising a new, systematic approach broadening rules and modifying means. Stronger manila ropes allowed for tension traverses and short lead falls, and the use of pitons for ascent became more frequent. In this time before carabiners, to supply some protection for the difficult vertical climbing, a short piece of cord was tied around both the ring of the piton and the rope.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the political climate of Europe was changing, as labor movements and ideas of collective ownership grew. An Italian guide named Tita Piaz opposed all political regimes (often landing him in prison), and was equally unconventional in the mountains. Combining bold free climbing and intricate technical maneuvers with ropes and anchors, the prolific Piaz created new techniques climbing inspirational routes. He completed one route with a tyrollian traverse anchored by an iron ball he tossed between two boulders on the summit. In 1907, he climbed the steep 1200 foot southeast face of the Torre Piaz in the Dolomites, and a year later led a successful team up the 1500 foot west face of the Totenkirchl, a challenging route even today. Piaz was willing to engineer solutions for upward passage, thus abandoning the old adage of not relying on gear.

In the western Alps, where the mountains are more alpine in nature, artificial aid on rock was considered unsporting, but in the eastern Alps with its spectacular vertical limestone cliffs, a new standard was arising. When the Italian expedition led by the Duke of Abruzzi returned from the Karakoram in 1909, expedition photographer Vittorio Sella's lithographs of the stupendous rock walls of the Baltoro must have sparked a climber's imagination and provided additional rationale for climbing the steep cliffs at home. Climbing then was still largely a gentleman's sport, and guided excursions were the norm, but some of these excursions were anything but leisurely. In 1910, the Italian guides Angelo Dibona, Luigi Rizzi, and German clients Guido and Max Mayer (who were as equally expert and experienced as their guides) climbed the north face of Cima Una in the Dolomites, a 2600 foot big wall that broke barriers of continuous steepness and exposure. The team had developed custom pitons (Mauerhaken) and ascended with the help of new rudimentary aid techniques and rope maneuvers.

Better climbing through technology is not just about improved ropes and specialized hardware. Equipment for surviving the elements contributed equally to rising standards. Before his disappearance in 1895 whilst reconnoitering Nanga Parbat in the Karakoram, Albert Mummery had developed light weight silk bivouac tents and insulating gear sufficient for living in extreme conditions. Prior to the first world war, lightweight, warm garments were evolving, and with the new all-weather equipment, climbers were prepared to spend multiple days and nights in harsh conditions to gain an ascent. They pursued steeper, longer rock climbs, and their level of commitment towards climbs reached new heights.

In 1910 a trio of inventive German climbers took advantage of the materials available from the industrial revolution. Otto Herzog had seen a pear shaped "karabiner" on members of the fire brigade, and developed the first steel carabiner for climbing. Hans Fiechtl, a master of roped climbing techniques, invented and manufactured the modern piton with an eye rather than an attached ring. Hans Dülfer developed a wonderful new set of methods with these tools, including a belay device using two carabiners, frictionless tension traverses, and sturdier belay anchors. The new protection devices allowed a new bolder style of climbing which combined traditional "free" methods with technical "aid" methods, allowing the climber and the belayer to remain firmly affixed to the rock on routes whose sheer steepness and frequent overhangs had been previously unthinkable. The innovators of the new tools and techniques were great friends and together and separately they pioneered the most visionary big walls of the day, some over 2000 feet in height and requiring several days of difficult free and aid climbing. In 1912 Dülfer pushed standards when he climbed the east face of the Fleischbank and a year later, the west face of the Cima Grande, the centerpiece of the Tre Cime Di Lavaredo. His death at 22 on the Western Front in 1915 cut short what surely would have been an incredible climbing career.

The dawn of the mechanically assisted rock climbs of the eastern Alps was not without competition. Incredibly bold vertical routes were climbed at the time without any mechanical protection at all, what we would call today, "Free-solo." Georg Winkler, a pioneer in solo climbing, made a number of impressive climbs including the first ascent in 1887 of the eastern Vajolet Tower, a year before his death at age 18 during a solo attempt of the Weisshorn. Many climbers emulated Winkler and rejected the use of aid to climb, though he used a rope and rappel hook to descend. Footwear evolved from heavy nail-spiked boots to lighter felt-soled shoes developed by the Simond firm, opening a new era of free climbing with leaders who morally opposed reliance on gear.

Paul Preuss, a vocal and influential climber, rigorously denounced the use of pitons and rope maneuvers as a lower standard. He wrote six climbing rules based on the idea that a climber shouldn't climb up anything he couldn't free climb down. Rule number four stated clearly, "The piton is an emergency aid and not the basis of a system of mountaineering." Preuss was the first to coin the term "artificial aid." Among his 1200 ascents, his routes with Paul Relly up the 2500 foot northeast face of Crozzon di Brenta, the 800 foot vertical northeast face of Cima Piccolissima (the smallest but the most inaccessible summit in the Tre Cima group), and his solo of the east face of Campanile Basso were incredibly bold for the era, with some modern 5.9 reported. In 1913, Preuss died at the age of 27 while attempting to solo the north face of the Manndlkogen. It was an era when not many of the top climbers made it to 30. Perhaps the new safety methods had some merit after all.


The six rules of Preuss:

1. One should not only be equal to any climb that one undertakes, but be more than equal to it.

2. The standard of difficulty which a climber can conquer with safety when descending, and for which he can consider himself competent, with an easy conscience, should represent the limit of what he should attempt on his ascent.

3. Hence the use of artificial aids only becomes justifiable in case of sudden threatening danger.

4. The piton is an emergency aid and not the basis of a system of mountaineering.

5. The rope may be used to facilitate matters, but never as a sole means to make a climb possible. (meaning tension traverses were OK, but not pendulums).

6. The principle of safety is one of the highest principles. Not the spasmodic correction of ones own want of safety, obtained by the use of artificial aids, but that true primary safety which should result, with every climber, from a just estimate of what he is able, and what he desires, to do.

After the first world war, information about new tools and techniques was widely shared. International climbing organizations exchanged information about remote expeditionary climbing in the Andes, Caucasus, Himalayas, Canadian Rockies, and Alaska, increasing the collective knowledge regarding extended human survival in cold conditions. One of the greatest (and least known) alpinists of the era, Willo Welzenbach was the innovator of ten-point crampons that fit the entire sole of the boot and shorter ice tools. He also created the standard numerical rating system (Grades I to VI) based on his experience with hundreds of routes in both the western and eastern Alps. The post war era also brought higher quality woven ropes and stronger carbon steel for carabiners.

Big walls were coming of age, and pre-war pioneers continued to push standards. Otto Herzog and Gustav Haber climbed the 1000 foot Ha-He Dihedral on the Dreizenkenspitze in 1923, a technical big wall route requiring two bivouacs on the face and which was not repeated, despite many attempts, until the 1950's. Hans Fiechtl’s Ypsilon Riss (5.9 A1) on the 1200 foot North Face of the Seekarlspitze was perhaps the most difficult of the era. New routes with names reflecting their character captured climber's imaginations, and the increase in the appeal of big rock routes spawned a new breed of vertical pioneers.

Prior to his immigration to the United States, Fritz Wiessner teamed up with aid master Roland Rossi and the adventurer Emil Solleder for some of the wildest long rock adventures in the Alps, including the Southeast Face of the Fleischbank (V+), and the Furchetta North Wall (VI). Sensing the security of the first aid tools, climbers became willing to risk lead falls, and empowered by the improved safety on the steep stuff, free climbing standards rose. In 1925, Solleder and Gustl Lettenbauer climbed the northwest face of the Civetta in a day, a 3800 foot 5.9 route in the Dolomites, using only 15 pitons for protection and belays. A year later in the Julian Alps (now part of Slovenia), Stane Tominsek and Mira Marko Debelakova spent two days climbing the technical 3000 foot north face of the Spik, their reliance on the new gear making it possible. The husband and wife team Hans Steger and Paula Wiesinger climbed a new VI, 5.9 A1 route on the North Face of Cima Una. Tools for safe upward passage were improving, and by 1929, Luigi Micheluzzi and team climbed the Marmolata, the highest peak in the Dolomites, by its steepest route, the 2000 foot south pillar. Pitons were used for protecting the lead climber and occasional aid on these historic big walls, but in deference to the strict anti-piton standard of the western Alps, they were used sparingly. Truly these routes set new standards of boldness and commitment on the vertical.


It took some time for the European tools and techniques to filter into America. In 1916, Conrad Kain climbed two of the most technical routes of the day, Howser and Bugaboo Spires (5.6), without the use of any hardware. Lacking adequate protection, he considered these climbs harder than his difficult alpine route on Mt Robson, which today is considered a much more serious proposition due to the length and objective hazards. In the Adirondacks, John Case, an early president of the Appalachian Mountain Club, applied skills and belay techniques learned in Europe at the Indian Head and Chapel Pond Slab, using a rope to belay, but no anchoring protection. Albert Ellingwood, a Colorado College political science professor (who also learned climbing techniques from visits to Europe) introduced rudimentary belay techniques to the Rockies, and pioneered artificial rock anchoring in Colorado when he climbed the Lizard Head in 1920 using three iron spikes similar to telephone pole steps. Today it is a loose and scary 5.7+ route and still the most difficult Colorado summit to attain. Ellingwood became the finest rock climber in the land, and his improbable 1925 route on the 2000 foot northeast buttress of Crestone Needle (5.7) with Eleanor Davis, Stephen Hart, and Marion Warner using only a rope and a braced belayer for safety was the most inspiring and the highest (14,197 feet) rock climb in America at the time.

In 1927, anchoring protection specifically designed for rock climbing was introduced to North America. Joe and Paul Stettner emigrated from Germany after getting their first vertical experiences in the Kaisergebirge, inspired by the innovator Hans Dülfer and his steep routes and techniques. After a few years working in Chicago, they found themselves missing the mountain life they had been born into. They ordered the latest pitons and carabiners from Munich, and headed out on their Indian motorcycles to Colorado. There they procured a rope at the local hardware store and pioneered the first ascent of their historic 5.7 route on east face of Long's Peak using the European pitons for protection. Their ascent marks the dawn of mechanically protected climbing in the US.

The same year the Stettner brothers brought modern climbing with "running belays" to the US, in France a seed was germinating that would change the nature of climbing profoundly in the future with the development of a portable set of tools for anchoring in rock anywhere-- the rock drill and expansion bolt. The inventor/manufacturer Laurent Grivel used these new tools on the first ascent of the spectacular Pére Eternal, a 200 foot slender finger of rock on the north ridge of the Aiguille de la Brenva. Bolts were used sporadically in the following years, including the south ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, but very little is acknowledged in the records. Their official inauguration to the climbing world was not to come for many generations.

On the east side of the continent, members of the Appalachian Mountain Club who had visited Chamonix and the Dolomites, returned from Europe with new ropes, hardware, and safer belay methods. Robert Underhill, brother and sister Lincoln and Miriam O’Brien (later Underhill), Elizabeth Knowlton, Fritz Wiessner, and Bill House, and the cousins Bradley Gilman and Hassler Whitney all made belayed ascents of the steep rock faces of the Cannon, Cathedral, and Whitehorse cliffs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Underhill exported the knowledge west when, as the chairman of the Committee on Rock Climbing of the Appalachian Mountain Club, he wrote an article for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1931 describing the latest rope management techniques. The information enabled pioneers to open a whole new range of routes in the Sierra, laying the groundwork for the technical big wall routes to come.

Back in Europe in the 1930's another bold new era for big wall climbing began as the first of the three famous last great problems (footnote: along with the Eiger and the Grandes Jorasses), the North Face of the Matterhorn, fell to the brothers Toni and Franz Schmid. Pitons began to appear more widely in both the western and eastern Alps, and climbers began to universally recognize that the use of anchoring systems was facilitating great achievements on extremely difficult vertical terrain. Popularity of the sport increased and the climbing population evolved from consisting of exclusively aristocrats and guides to a broader set of athletes, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and a new breed of working class heroes.

Emilio Comici was an Italian longshoreman when he began caving on weekends. After a particularly difficult cave exploration--setting the world's depth record near Trieste--he ran to the nearest summit on the Karst Plateau and forever made a pact to spend his free time in the open air of the mountains instead of underground. He became an expert of the "Bavarian technique" pioneered by Dülfer, Herzog, and Fiechtl, and revolutionized climbing by perfecting a new style well suited for the extreme cliffs of the Dolomites, and ultimately, the big walls of the world. Comici was the inventor of modern aid technique using multi-step aid ladders, solid belays, complex rope maneuvers, hanging bivouacs, and climbing with a trail rope as a means stay connected to your belayer for hauling up extra equipment as needed. Realizing that he had a choice to reject the use of mechanical aids or accept them wholeheartedly, he chose the latter, and made heavy use of the new tools.

In 1931, he put the new systems to use on the 4000 foot northwest face of the Civetta. This was the steepest and perhaps the most difficult climb in the world at the time (and is still to this day is a challenging 26 pitch vertical adventure), but not satisfied, he wrote "I wish some day to make a route and from the summit let fall a drop of water and this is where my route will have gone." He realized his dream of such a route, a direttissima as it became known, with his direct line up the 1500 foot overhanging north wall of the Cima Grande in 1933. The line wavers slightly but no more than if the mythical drop of water were buffeted back and forth by an unseen wind. On the steep initial half of the wall, Comici and Giulio Benedetti used just 75 pitons -- on average only one every ten feet -- hardly excessive considering that the wall overhangs continuously and is composed of less-than-solid rock.

Comici freely shared his expertise and helped create a new vision of the possible. He inspired many with his dream of the ultimately aesthetic route, and couldn’t have known that his dreams and philosophies were to create passionate splits in climbing attitudes as new technologies developed.

The 1930's were an age of innovation in Europe. The leader of a talented new group of climbers from Fontainebleau, Pierre Allain, developed lightweight down clothing and bivouac equipment suitable for surviving on the steep icy faces of the Alps, and in 1935, made the first ascent of the cold north face of the Dru with Raymond Leininger, a pioneering multi-day free and aid route that combined the challenges of an alpine route with the technical aspects of the Dolomite and Kaisergebirge vertical walls. The Simond firm in Les Bossons began to manufacture high quality pitons, equipping a new breed of extreme climbers. Gino Solda, Raffaele Carlesso, Domenico Rudatis, Ettore Castiglioni, Raimund Schinko, Alfred Couttet, and Giusto Gervasutti all made incredible technical climbs during this period; but the climber who stands out most prominently, both for the quality of his routes and the breadth of his vision, was Riccardo Cassin. Cassin mastered aid techniques and took them to new extremes on the major routes of the period, including the Walker Spur of the Grand Jorasses (with Gino Esposito and Ugo Tizzoni), the Northeast face of Piz Badile (with Esposito and Vittorio Ratti), and the North Face of the Cima Ovest (with Ratti). Cassin's routes continually pushed standards of difficulty and commitment of extreme wall climbs.


Perhaps the best summary of the relationship between technology and human boldness in the interwar period came from Heinrich Harrer in his description of the ascent of the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 1938. Harrer had elected not to take a pair of crampons for the ascent, while his partner Fritz Kasparek had a pair of traditional "ten-points", crampons with ten sharp points evenly spaced around the sole of the boot. As they finished a long session of step-cutting through the Second Icefield, they were surprised to see below them Andreas Heckmair and Wiggerl Vörg rapidly approaching. Heckmair and Vörg were using the recently fashionable twelve-point crampons invented by Laurent Grivel in 1932 that had the addition of two front-facing points. The front-points allowed a climber to climb on the toes facing forward rather than the traditional French method of keeping the foot flat on the ice, as if climbing a slab. Harrer writes, "I looked back, down our endless ladder of steps. Up I saw the New Era coming at express speed; there were two men running--and I mean running, not climbing--up it". The two teams joined forces for the historic first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger and revealed a new layer of the onion and should have marked the opening of a whole new era in climbing, but the outbreak of another great European conflict soon put an end to the risky vertical games.

In the less frenetic United States technical climbing developed slowly. Trans-Atlantic travel was still expensive and slow, and information about the new European techniques was hard to come by -- the only available readable literature on climbing techniques came from Britain, where traditional mountain guide/client excursions up the 4000 meter peaks were still the norm. But that is not to say there was no progress. Dwight Lavender designed and produced the first pitons made in the US at the engineering workshop of Stanford University. In 1932, the American Alpine Club Journal published an article explaining the worlds climbing systems, including the use of safety snaps (carabiners), then a rare item in America. The article begins, "Not withstanding feeble protests by a few climbers, mostly of the past generation, hammers, pitons, and safety snaps have definitely entered into modern climbing technique." With the new tools and safety methods becoming more widely known, climbers began to eye the challenges unpeeling in the Tetons, Yosemite, and the Southwest.

Dick Leonard, a California Bay Area law student, formed the Cragmont Climbing Club, and practiced the new techniques on the local rocks. He ordered carabiners and pitons from the Sporthaus Schuster in Munich and began putting them to use on the spectacular granite cliffs of Yosemite, marking the first use of climbing hardware in the Sierra Nevada. The European pitons were made from a mild steel, and though well suited for the limestone of the Alps where their softness allowed them to conform securely to the undulating cracks in the brittle rock, they were usually impossible to remove once placed, and far from ideal in California granite. Leonard made sure he had an adequate supply of 55 of them, and, in 1934, teamed up with Jules Eichorn and Bestor Robinson for the first ascent of Higher Cathedral Spire, the most technical aid climb in North America at the time, and the first of a long lineage of its kind in Yosemite.

Leonard was a student of rope dynamics, and developed safer rope techniques by establishing the modern body belay (with the rope around one's waist) combined with a dynamic belay method in which the belayer absorbed shock of a fall by letting the rope slide around one's waist for a few feet before stopping the fall completely with a gloved "brake" hand. The dynamic belay resulted in lower maximum loads on the anchors, rope, the falling climber, and the belayer, and using the new safety systems, Leonard and others were able to risk longer falls on bold forays on the technical cliffs of Yosemite.

Further east, the 2500 foot volcanic plug of Shiprock in the New Mexico desert stood as one of the last great mountaineering challenges in the continental US in the late 1930s. Bill Ormes and Bill House attempted the extremely difficult north summit in 1937 via what is now known as the Ormes Rib, on which they encountered difficulties exceeding 5.9. With marginal protection and no way of avoiding the free climbing on aid, their efforts culminated in a long and dangerous fall by Ormes. He retrieved the deformed piton that had finally stopped him, and later wrote an article entitled "A Piece of Bent Iron" in the Saturday Evening Post, offering a warning to those who would push their luck on such severe climbs.

Such warnings often act as incentives, and in 1939 Dave Brower, Raffi Bedayn, John Dyer, and Bestor Robinson set out from Berkeley for Shiprock. They were well versed in the new Yosemite techniques and armed with all the latest gear, as well as the secret weapon: a bolt kit. Their ascent up the imposing, overhanging, crazily skewed basalt columns to the fragile and bizarrely shaped tuff-breccia of the upper part of the route was a wild and historic multi-day adventure with difficult aid and free climbing. They avoided the dangerous Ormes Rib and instead rappelled down a gully in the tortured landscape and traversed into the massive interior bowl of the decaying volcanic plug. From here they scrambled easily up to the final crux, a steep, 200 foot step to the summit. After many pitons, a scary lasso over a horn, and 4 bolts, Shiprock was won. And a new tool was officially initiated into the climber's repertoire.

Aware of the controversial nature of what they had accomplished, the four Shiprock climbers self-deprecatingly called themselves "rock engineers," but this first use of drill and bolt on a major mountaineering challenge marked the dawn of another new age in the history of technologically aided climbing, and new visions of the possible soared. Brower, now an internationally famous conservationist, helped to set the precedent of fixed climbing anchors in the wilderness. Could he have known the extension and the future implications of the use of the tool that was to occur?

Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome was once more the scene of the next big advance in technical climbing standards. The beautiful southwest face of Half Dome (the right skyline of the classic valley view of Half Dome) had been attempted as early as 1933 by Richard Leonard and other Sierra Club members, whose attempts convinced them that it could not be climbed without excessive use of pitons. Leonard wrote, "The undefined borderline between justifiable and unjustifiable use of direct aid would have to be crossed" (SCB, 1936). But in 1946, John Salathé and Anton (Ax) Nelson climbed the southwest face by a difficult 5.8, A3 route using a revolutionary new piton: a replaceable one that could be placed, removed, and reused. With these, the team was able to efficiently manage the 150 placements required for the 1200 foot route.

Salathé, a Swiss immigrant, had been a blacksmith before a mid-life spiritual conversion led him to devote his life to ascetic meditation and climbing. When he began climbing in 1945, he found that the available pitons were too soft to be driven into narrow cracks without buckling, so he returned to his forge. In his San Mateo Peninsula Ornamental Iron Works, Salathé used the high-carbon chrome-vanadium Model T axles to forge ultra-strong pitons which could be hammered into the hard Yosemite granite without buckling, as well as back out without getting mangled. He also created a new tool which Ax Nelson coined a "sky hook", the first hook for climbing Yosemite's granite edges.

Footnote: There are those who feel that "spiritual conversion" was a polite way of describing a loss of reason.

Salathé's thin pitons became the eponymous Lost Arrows after Salathé and Nelson's arduous 1947 ascent up the 1200 foot chimney to the fantastic lonely spire of granite known as the Lost Arrow. With a rack of 18 of Salathé's forged pins, 12 carabiners, and a few bolts, the two friends spent five devastatingly hot days on the route, a major psychological breakthrough in multi-day big wall climbing. Peeling a major layer of the onion, the Lost Arrow route was a harbinger of the longer and longer routes of the future that would require hundreds of pieces of protection and aid placements, impossible without the kind of removable piton developed by Salathé.

Technology was developing on many fronts, and software as well as hardware changed drastically at this time. Nylon, developed by the DuPont Chemical Company, was used to make high-quality, strong, and resilient ropes and fabrics, allowing climbers to go more boldly with lighter weight gear than ever before. Allen Steck, a Berkeley native who participated in several historic routes (including the first ascent of Yosemite's second major big wall, the North Face of Sentinel in four days with John Salathé) helped manage the Ski Hut, a Berkeley store which made available all the latest rock climbing innovations, including Cassin pitons, Bedayn carabiners, and the new high-quality ropes. Steck traveled and climbed all over the world, introducing the first nylon rope to Europe in 1949. It was ultra-strong, hawser-laid affair--stiff and heavy compared to modern kernmantel designs, but revolutionary in its time. Climbing shoes were becoming lighter and more grippy. Raffi Bedayn began to manufacture his aluminum carabiners, which for a typical rack of 35 reduced the load weighing down on the climber's shoulder over five pounds.

Rock specialists on both sides of the Atlantic proliferated. Audacious new climbing challenges in the Southwest, such as Spider Rock and the Totem Pole, were climbed with full arsenals of equipment. Yosemite rocketeers were pushing standards with the aid of the latest angle pitons from Jerry Gallwas and knifeblades from Chuck Wilts. Further afield, Fred Beckey was exploring the remote rock climbing challenges of Snowpatch and Pigeon Spires in the Bugaboos, the Devil’s Thumb and Kates Needle in Western Canada, Michael's Sword in the Juneau Icefields, and many difficult mixed ice snow and rock routes in the Cascades.

The real breakthrough of the era was the first ascent of the remote Patagonian peak of Fitzroy in 1952 by the powerful French climber Lionel Terray and his partner Guido Magnone. The Fitzroy climb, and the expedition of which it was the culmination, pushed the climbers and their equipment to new limits. As Terray wrote many years later "Of all the climbs I have done, Fitzroy was the one which most nearly approached the limits of my stamina and morale. Technically speaking, it is doubtless slightly less extreme that some of the climbs that have been done on granite in the Alps in recent years, but a great ascent is more than the sum of its severe pitches. The remoteness of the Fitzroy from all possibility of help, the almost incessant bad weather, the verglas with which it is plastered, and above all the terrible winds which make climbing on it mortally dangerous, render its ascent more complex, hazardous and exhausting than any to be found in the Alps."

The modern big wall era began when in 1955 Walter Bonatti took big wall climbing into a new dimension with his six-day solo ascent of a new route on the southwest pillar of the Dru. Considered by many as perhaps the greatest single climb of all time, the Dru ascent was a dramatic illustration of the potential of technology and technique combined with the power of an indomitable human spirit. The proof that a solo climber could anchor and self-belay up these incredible difficult and technical steep routes meant that there could be no more limits to the biggest rock faces in the world.

In Yosemite, hammock bivouacs were the norm and new routes and faster ascents pushed standards. Distinctions of the new style evolved. Few argued that pitons and bolts were not valid mountaineering tools. The inventive Royal Robbins drew an aesthetic line, one that balanced the art required to find a viable weakness up a smooth wall with the minimum number of tools required to do so. He would return from each adventure always with an exact count of the total number of pitons and bolts that his team had used. He developed efficient techniques for living on the big stones, including the modern hauling system utilizing Jumars (a Swiss-made rope ascending tool designed for bird watchers) and his 1957 ascent of Half Dome's Northwest face ushered in a new era.



Warren Harding, often thought of as Robbin's nemesis, was a world-class climber in all respects, but sometimes took a different approach. Harding would choose his finest routes not by scrutinizing a wall's weakness, but rather for its strength and formidable location. His first ascent of the Nose on El Capitan was a testament to his tenacity and endurance. The climb required 125 bolts, specialized large pitons (made of cast iron stove legs), and immense lengths of fixed rope. Robbins rejected excessive use of bolts and fixed ropes, and proceeded to prove to himself and the climbing world that a better style was possible. In Basic Rockcraft, the book that taught a new generation of climbers, Robbins wrote, "Like many of the technological wonders of modern man, bolts are at once a blessing and a curse. They make possible some of the finest rock climbs on earth by opening up stretches of blank and otherwise unclimbable rock. But they also diminish the value in climbing by making it possible for anyone to go anywhere if they are willing to drill." Robbins pushed standards with every major route that he climbed, and carried American tools and techniques to remote areas. His direct ascent of the west face of the Dru with Gary Hemming, and the Southeast Face of Mt Proboscis in the Logan Mountains with Jim McCarthy, Layton Kor, and Richard McCracken (during which only 2 bolts were placed) were testpieces of the modern art of finding the most aesthetic weakness up a major wall and climbing it alpine style.

Footnote: Alpine style here is defined as once the ground is left, it's left for good until the summit is reached.

With airplane access, lightweight clothing, sleeping bags and tents made of new insulating and hydrophobic synthetic fibers, and tools and techniques developed on the walls of Yosemite, the best climbers of the day tackled multi-day routes in other remote areas: the Bugaboos, the Troll Wall of Norway, the Ruth Gorge in Alaska, The Rocky Mountains of Canada, and the Paine and Fitzroy groups in Patagonia were all arenas of the wild vertical.

In Europe, climbers were taking Comici's concept of the Direttissima to its logical limits, and drilled their way directly up the overhanging walls of the Dolomites. The bolted "drop of water" line was forced on many major faces cumulating in absurdity in 1967 when Enrico Mauro and Mirko Minuzzo placed 340 bolts on the 1500 foot Cima Grande north wall; on average, one every 53 inches!

The Lure of the Impossible

In 1971, Cesare Maestri extended the logic of drilling the impossible to its ultimate limit, and hauled a 300 pound air compressor and pneumatic rock drill for his climb to the rim of Cerro Torre. In one spot, a place where a previous British attempt traveled up the exposed, natural cracks on the southeast buttress, Maestri simply drilled his way across blank rock for 90 meters to stay out of the wind! Like Comici with his extended use of pitons generations before, many climbers could not resist going "gonzo" once the technology was embraced. The resistance to the unlimited use of bolts had its champions. Herman Buhl, Walter Bonatti, and Reinhold Messner all spoke out against the bolt technique. Gaston Rébuffat published his book Starlight and Storm, an inspirational text describing his finest climbs; in his well-illustrated tools and techniques section (added to the 1968 edition) he gives detailed lists of equipment but never mentions a bolt kit. A blind eye to the topic prevented the loss of the lure of the impossible.


Impact Awareness: The Clean Revolution

While the rest of the world nailed spectacular walls, the British climbers were patiently learning a less brutal technique of climbing more safely involving a novel method of creating a uni-directional anchor. Tradition running strong in Britain, climbing evolved slowly from the days of climbing exclusively with guides. The serious peer disapproval regarding unnatural aid caused climbers to surreptitiously hide any equipment in their packs. Aid climbing was derogatorily coined "steeplejacking," and the piton was a last resort and placed only in emergencies. In the 1920s, top climbers began pioneering a pitonless craft on the numerous short crags in rural areas. The most inspiring climbs of the day were the pebble routes, using slung natural chockstones.

Fred Pigott experimented with placing and slinging natural chockstones for protection and aid on the east buttress of Cloggy in 1927. His partners, tongue in cheek, excused his deeds as acts of Providence: the rocks from below were somehow accidentally finding their way into the cracks and wedging into the constrictions! Soon pebble protection became an art form, and expert eyes searched streambeds for the right combination of rocks later to be expertly placed for security on climbs. In the late 1950s paths to the crags switched from streambeds to railroads, and climbers began using leftover machine nuts found lying by the tracks. Drilled out and slung, these soon evolved into custom-manufactured aluminum affairs known as "chocks ".


Footnote: John Brailsford innovated a synthetic polymer chock in 1961. Though the "Acorn" chocks were adequately strong, climbers preferred to trust their lives on the Moacs he later made out of the more familiar aluminum.

Soon climbers around the world discovered that with practice and technique, it was possible to climb exclusively with the new chocks. Royal Robbins, the leading proponent in the US of the new chocks, says of the time, "Climbers willing to choose a harder form of climbing brought themselves to a higher standard in deference to non-destructive principles. This was doubly good: chocks increased the challenge, and they weren't damaging to the rock" Customized shapes were soon produced to fit more and more cracks with the engineer-and-craftsman team of Tom Frost and Yvon Chouinard leading the way. They innovated a variety of new shapes, but their major contribution to the clean climbing revolution was the invaluable Hexcentric, co-patented in 1971, which made clean protection available even in parallel-sided cracks. These new clean tools profoundly affected the future of climbing. The combination of the ease-of-use of chocks and their ethical/environmental correctness led, in the relatively short span of a few years, to the almost complete disappearance of pitons from the free-climbing scene , and their relegation to last-resort status on aid climbs.

Sensing that the willingness to bolt and aid blank faces made the challenge of the mountains ring hollow, climbers took clean climbing to the limit. In the Shawangunks climbers were risking serious falls trying to avoid fixed pitons to earn a spot in the coveted "first clean ascent" registry at Rock and Snow climbing shop. Here one could read tales of belayers anchored to a single lousy nut perched on an tiny edge, one hand gripping a carabiner poised to be clipped into the eye of fixed pin on the slightest sudden movement. The first major first ascent to go all nuts in North America was Royal Robbin's Nutcracker Sweet on Ranger Rock in Yosemite in 1967; but the clean revolution took some years as either ignorant or stubborn climbers used pitons on subsequent ascents. By 1975, only a few aid climbers carried hammers, and most climbers who came to the game after the early 1970s didn’t even own a hammer.

Meanwhile other new tools developed to make climbing more efficient: Ed Leeper perfected hook design with the invention of the arched base, and Bill (Dolt) Feuerer produced new piton designs. Clyde Deal, a machinist working in the Yosemite Machine Shop, customized gear for the Camp 4 climbers, including the first "Bashies", small rectangles of aluminum with a hole for a sling, used to paste into small pockets in the rock. Chouinard and Frost designed and produced RURPs and Crack-n-ups, and a few inventive climbers began tinkering with adjustable crack jamming devices. Aid-specific software began appearing too. With state of the art harnesses, haulbags and hammocks of his own design, Bill Forrest pioneered technical ascents in the Black Canyon and the Southwest. Forrest also evolved bashies to specifically sized "Copperheads", which enabled thinner and thinner seams to be aid climbed without bolts .

Footnote: But not necessarily without damage. A bashie or a copperhead is often not removable, and once the sling or wire rots or breaks the piece is useless. In fact the problem is serious enough that as early as 1970 Steve Roper coined the term trashie to describe the unusable remains of a bashie.

Charlie Porter was another gifted aid climber who had a penchant for tinkering. He manufactured early versions of a two-part adjustable-size climbing nut, custom wall harnesses, a hammock with built in padding, and a variety of specialized nailing tools. With his mastery of tools and techniques along with his indomitable spirit, he soloed a new route on the huge and remote north face of the North Tower of Baffin Island's Mt. Asgard in September 1975. After spending over a month ferrying loads 35 miles from the outpost town of Pangnirtung to the base of the route, Porter spent nine days solo on this fearsome wall in freezing conditions, and another week getting back to civilization. Always reticent about his accomplishments, Porter never reported the route, the most significant big wall climb since Bonatti's climb of the Dru.


Footnote: When once asked for information and a "topo" (a detailed climber's map of multi-pitch routes showing the belays, etc.) of one of his El Capitan first ascents, Porter simply drew a single straight vertical line on a napkin and wrote next to it, "A5", then gave it to the bewildered inquisitor.

That same year the British climbers Joe Brown, Mo Anthoine, Malcom Howells, and Martin Boysen took a similar spirit to the Karakoram Himalaya where they attempted the unclimbed granite face of Trango (never nameless) Tower. Their first attempt ended part way up at what is now known as the Fissure Boysen. They had only one large bong and Boysen had to run out eighty feet of unprotected offwidth, at almost 20,000 feet, before placing it to insure that he was protected for the rest of the pitch. On the next move his knee jammed and would not come loose, and he spent hours fighting to free it, cutting his pants off in the process. He prepared to die as the sun began to set, but when he finally relaxed, he fell out of the crack, and descended to his concerned team. After the emotional drain of nearly seeing Boysen die a cold death, and running low on food, they retreated. The following year they returned and completed the climb. Boysen took a second bong, and managed the offwidth without problem. At 5.10, A2 their route was not as technically difficult as Porter's A4 adventure on Asgard, but it was the hardest and most impressive technical route completed at high altitude, and it opened the door to big-wall climbing in the highest ranges on earth.

The next profound equipment change was the development of crack camming devices. After an incomparable career of first ascents dating from the 1930s in the various mountain ranges of the USSR, Vitaly Abalakov devoted his life to mountaineering instruction, equipment design, and the promotion of international good will for mountain climbing. Scrounging surplus aircraft materials, he made a variety of innovative tools, including the first hauling pulley, the first adjustable tube chock, inventive rope clamps, titanium pitons and crampons, retrievable ice screws, and the V-thread rappel anchor (not, strictly speaking, a mechanical device, but nonetheless an ice-climbing breakthrough). His invention of the Abalakov Cam was the first application to climbing of the principle of a constant-angle curved surface, with a cam shape based on the mathematical logarithmic spiral. Designed so that a load produces a rotational force, the logarithmic cam shape allowed for a single device to fit in a range of crack sizes without a change in the loading pattern, making it predictable and stable. Abalakov shared his ideas with the world, and freely distributed information on their design and construction.

In 1973 Greg Lowe filed for a patent for a sprung loaded version of the Abalakov Cam, manufactured some workable single cam units, and equipped his brother Jeff, who rapidly scooped some of the finest long routes in Zion National Park, notorious for its hard-to-protect parallel-sided cracks. These early single cam units had an elongated 30 degree camming angle, which provided limited stability, and their use never became widespread. In 1977 Ray Jardine climbed the Phoenix, Yosemite's first 5.13, with a new secret weapon. With an engineer's understanding of the principles of force and friction, Ray designed a sprung loaded opposing multiple cam unit with a more stable 15 degree camming angle and an innovative triggering mechanism. He kept his "Friends" cloaked in secrecy before his patent in 1978, and Yosemite was rife with rumors of Jardine's devices allowing for effortless protection placement on hard free routes. Before the commercial availability of Friends, a lucky inner circle of wall rats were able to buy his initial limited production of the innovative tools in the Camp 4 parking lot, and subsequently saved vast amounts of energy expenditure on the taxing big walls.


As is the case with most technological advancements, the ethics of the use of Friends was a hot topic, and arguments were made that they made climbing too easy by taking the challenge out of placing chocks. Licensed by Jardine, Friends were mass produced in the Wild Country factory in the Peak District of England, and became instantly popular world-wide, to the point that not only was there soon no debate about their use, indeed for many climbers Friends, and their various descendants, became the very foundation of climbing protection and safety. And there is no question that spring-loaded camming devices allowed climbers to take a huge step forward in clean and safe ascents of both free and aid routes not only on the crags, but also in the mountains.

Vertical shelters have been the most recent advance in equipment for the most extreme multi-day routes. Evolving from the Warren Harding's BAT (Basically Absurd Technology) hammock that could be anchored from a single point, the LURP (Limited Use of Reasonable Placements) tent was developed by Greg Lowe in 1974. Though lightweight, BAT hammocks were cramped and forced the inhabitant to lean against the wall, which in a storm ran with cold water. The precursor to the modern portaledge, the LURP tent solved the problem by adding a solid aluminum frame around the bed, keeping the inhabitants away from the wall. During its use on the first winter ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome, heavy winds and snow were comfortably survived for the first time in the history of big wall climbing. However, it was initially considered a specialized tool rarely worth the weight, and never made it past the prototype stage. Climbers seeking the comfort of a portaledge made their own. By the early 1980s portaledge use became popular with the somewhat more widely available one person "Cliff Dwelling," manufactured by Mike Graham. Graham also produced a dozen two-person "Fortress" portaledges, which facilitatied the unpeeling of new layers of remote big wall possibilities, and equipped Hans Christian Doseth and his partners who went on to make the first ascent of the spectacular Norwegian Buttress on the Great Trango Tower in 1984.

Portaledges allowed for a new level of comfort and safety on multi-day vertical ascents on big walls all over the world. Bigger and bolder big wall routes are being climbed without recourse to fixed ropes (and thus less, not more, gear), and portaledges are continuing to evolve into more structurally solid, weatherproof affairs, such as the lightweight six pound titanium A5 shelter used by Catherine Destivelle for her nine day solo first ascent of the Dru in 1991. Modern vertical shelters have allowed smaller and lighter teams to push standards of commitment on the world's biggest rock faces.

Today we see a continuation of the relationship between climbers and their tools. Helicopters have facilitated even closer access to the base of the big routes, and have been used not only for the approach but also for the descent. (Footnote: Helicopters took Todd Skinner, Paul Piana, and Galen Rowell to the base of a route, and also off the top after their ascent of the Great Canadian Knife on Proboscis in 1992.) Improvements in sticky shoe rubber have played a big part in changing attitudes toward free climbing on big walls. Improved insulating layers and lightweight weatherproof clothing and shelters have revolutionized climbers' attitudes toward bad weather. The adoption by climbers of the compact powered masonry drill (more accurately called a rotary percussion hammer) has sparked a huge advance in technically difficult free-climbing, and the free-climbing skills so gained are being taken to the big walls.

Are any arguments against technology pertinent? Is there an artificial line to maintain, or is the use of all tools valid, as is epitomized by Lynn Hill's first free ascent of the Nose in 1993 and her subsequent first one day all free ascent, proving conclusively that the Nose could be potentially climbed without any equipment at all. The Nose was originally 90% direct aid, and Hill's climb was widely hailed specifically for its non-reliance on mechanical aids. But without the old piton scars, without fixed protection, without her big-wall aid climbing experience, without the extraordinary free-climbing ability she gained from bolted sport climbs and indoor gyms and competitions, would there have ever been a such a free ascent?

The relationship between technology and climbing follows a very traditional pattern. As each new technology develops, there is an initial resistance. Some tools are rejected outright (like the Dolt Cart), some fade into obscurity (like the tossed "grappling hook"), and others are used sparingly until accepted with the new standard that is created. Generally, the element of risk is reduced with each new technological evolution. Detractors will speak out against the new ideas, and push themselves harder to prove the lack of necessity of new tools. But eventually new tools become mainstream. Climbing challenges have always seemed limited as a resource, but new and bolder challenges always appear. Is there a limit? One thing is certain: no one can predict future technology and the limits to the human will.

Perhaps it is all just temporal, as exemplified by Gross route on the Dru. In 1975 Thomas Gross soloed the big wall climb with his guitar in 18 days and created some disdain from the climbing community due to its unprecedented (though moderate by today’s standard) use of 68 bolts. The route, and the controversy, was erased in 1997, when a massive chuck of rock 300 feet high, 100 feet wide, and 20 feet thick fell above the mid-way point.

--this article went through a final edit and was published in Ascent in 1999.


This article has been translated to Russian, with additional images.

Translated back to English!



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