I'm reading Space Below My Feet at the moment. As far as I can understand, in the early fifties they were climbing without crampons in Scotland, cutting steps to climb gullies. When did crampons come in in Scotland? Moffat mentions using them in the Alps. Perhaps these had no front points so weren't useful for steep stuff?
How does cutting steps for steep ice work in practice? I'd love to see some old footage if any exists - the only videos on step cutting I could find are tutorials for easy angled snow, a technique I've used quite a few times, but how this translates to classic Scottish gullies is hard to imagine.
I remember reading there was a bit of a division in Scotland with some using crampons and others using nailed boots much later. Might have been an East/West thing?
There's a good little bit in the film "The Pinnacle" where Dave Mac and Andy Turner repeat the fabulous week of Robin Smith's and Jimmy Marshall's famous climbs. They ( Robin & Jimmy ) did all the climbs cutting steps but Dave and Andy climb them with modern tools and crampons. However there is a short clip of them both having a go at step cutting up the ice falls which form near to the CIC hut - they find it both desperate and scary. They don't have hob nail boots on which probably made even more precarious! A superb film and well worth watching.
They were step cutting into the 70s. There will be a few on this site who remember it. If you are interested it might be worth contacting Ken Crockett via the SMC. I believe his mid 70s ascent of Smith's Route Icicle finish on Gardyloo Buttress was one of the last step cut new routes on the Ben.
I was reading a copy of cold climbs at the weekend, and in the front is a pretty detailed timeline of notable first ascents in the UK and key events such as different types of crampons being invented.
Unfortunately not got the copy to hand, but if you have a copy I'd have a look there. If you haven't got a copy I'd recommend getting one anyway!
Crampons were around a while in some form before front points were. They were cutting steps on the north face of the eiger, how mad is that.
They used to use their axe to chip handholds and foot ledges out of the ice to then climb conventionally. In the dave mac video mentioned earlier, one of the old boys describes modern ice tools as 4 points of aid and suggests it isn't ethical
I seem to remember references to "French technique" as an intermediate stage following step cutting, which I believe was using crampons on steep ice but before front points were developed or common.
I've seen 'French technique' used as a way to describe a certain way of walking on crampons. A sort of crossing over of steps. I'd imagine this comes from that.
I've done loads of step cutting, in the early 1970s. You face the slope diagonally and chip away with an ice axe. It's quite slow, and takes some practice to keep your balance. Because it's diagonal you go up in zigzags
I think that's right. Crossing over steps with feet pointing downhill. More for steep snow slopes.
> I've done loads of step cutting, in the early 1970s. You face the slope diagonally and chip away with an ice axe. It's quite slow, and takes some practice to keep your balance. Because it's diagonal you go up in zigzags
I was lucky to be taught how to do it on a Macinnes course in 1969. On hardish snow-ice you made three chops with the adze, starting about a yard away at shin height, about three inches apart, each one successively further away from you, then pulled the axe back to clear the debris from the step. As you say, making a zig-zag ascending route.
Yes, the Edinburgh (Marshall etc) and Glasgow (MacInnes etc) climbers were using crampons in the mid 50s but Aberdeen climbers (Patey etc) didn't adopt them till later.
If using crampons, steep slopes were generally climbed straight up, cutting incut handholds that became footholds after moving up. If in balance and feeling confident, you could just cut a step every 2 meters or so and frontpoint between them. If the route forced you to ascend diagonally you hoped it was in the direction of your stronger arm. There are some pictures of stepcutting ascents in my gallery, though none with close-up views.
That was excellent, thank you, well worth the 9CHF to rent - I think I'd seen clips from it before on YouTube but the full length film answered a lot of my questions.
I can't wait to get back to Scotland now after watching that.
Edit: but I think I'll stick to my four points of aid
Just re-read 'The White Spider', Harrer was concerned about his lack of crampons on a rope of four as they reached the summit icefield!
Not exactly on-topic but a great old-school video from the Ben: youtube.com/watch?v=mXzVNFrLzk0& (He goes a fair way before putting crampons on!)
No Lanyards or loops, they got in the way of swapping hands. Wool gloves were great for a better grip on the ice and a nice little lip or in cut on the hand hold helped too.
> I think that's right. Crossing over steps with feet pointing downhill. More for steep snow slopes.
Not just steep snow. I watched a French team practicing this technique on the wall of a crevasse on the Mer de Glace, so pretty steep ice. They faced out, knees bent so the crampon points were flush with the ice with their back to it. They then made a backwards over-the-shoulder swing with the axe (an ordinary mountaineering axe rather than short technical tools) and then shuffled up backwards. It looked surprisingly efficient, although rather scary. Presumably there comes a point where the wall is too steep for this technique, but for most Alpine routes it is probably very effective and avoids the need to carry a second axe.
I know this has been played a number times on UKC, but what route is it , Comb gully ?
> Not exactly on-topic but a great old-school video from the Ben: youtube.com/watch?v=mXzVNFrLzk0& (He goes a fair way before putting crampons on!)
Love this video. Didn’t even wear gloves whilst riding his motorcycle in winter!
He was a proper hard b*stard wasn’t he? Remember reading a great story about him ‘sorting out’ some knobhead in The Kingshouse hotel one evening.
French technique can’t be used on steep ice. It was and still is used to ease loading and strain from constant front pointing on the calf muscles on big alpine faces such as upper part of Courtes N Face. Before droop picks were invented in the 70,s straight picks necessitated step and hand hold cutting and at that time most crampons had front points. People also played with ice daggers, notably in Scotland by Bill March and John Cunningham. Interestingly in a conversation I had with Anderl Heckmair many years ago, he claimed he used a curved pick axe on 1st ascent of Eigerwand in 1938, although I never tried to verify this!
Looks rather straight or minimally curved to me:
I agree. I thought at the time it was a bit dubious and that pic. proves it. All the same quite a good effort though!
I’ve enjoyed reading this thread on antediluvian ice technique and it has set me off reminiscing. I was brought up on the old French technique from 1962 with piolet ramasse across the body etc which we practised on the Bossons Glacier near the road! It was instructed by Armand Charlet who ruled the roost for too long at the guides school (ENSA) where his conservatism considerably retarded change.
In mid-August 1966 I did the Forbes Arête in a complete whiteout, leading through with K.C. Gordon and Al Hunt and Cam behind. I quote my diary: "we never wore our crampons all day" which I have subsequently annotated [this was the stupid Johnny Lees/ Scottish idea who had trained KC. In any case we only had 10 pointers]. Early September I did the Tour Ronde N. Face with him in ever worsening weather. He led the first pitch and at the rimaye started his old game until I yelled at him in no uncertain terms to put his crampons and get on with it.
In 1970 I climbed the N. Face of the Gran Paradiso in icy conditions with Alan Burgess with the intention of not cutting steps and impressed him with the (non-curved) ice-axe and dagger technique I had by now adopted. I continued for long to do some fairly impressive routes with it, like the Triolet with Lindsay Griffin who himself was experimenting with the latest ideas. A gift from Mo of his little curver about 1973 certainly improved things until finally after more or less soloing the N. Face of Mont Blanc de Cheilon in 1981 with rif (see above) I decided to stop climbing this kind of route as too dangerous.
In 1980 I started coming under the influence of Simon Richardson who tried to modernise me, but it was only in 1982 that we got onto a proper Alpine ice route, the obscure N-W Face of the Dolent (opened by Charlet in 1934 and only recently repeated), that I saw what was required. But it was only in winter 1984, aged 50, when I spent a winter term at Harvard that in fact I learnt to swing my ice tools properly and this was put to good use in my first ever visit to Scotland in 1986 when I had a fabulous few days climbing with Simon and Roger Everett on the Ben: but after 1991 my visits were entirely in summer. In the Alps and elsewhere until 2012 with my last Dolomites route, my climbing was entirely on rock and my need for crampons more or less confined to approaches, the odd little ski tour and my last Vallée Blanche in 2016.
So while I had quite a long period as quite a good ice climber I never learnt modern ice climbing to my regret. Tempus had fugited.
My ice-dagger provided mostly moral comfort on the Triolet in 1968. I don’t think they lasted long with the ice-tool revolution just around the corner.
Perhaps you should read "Mountaineering in Scotland" by W.H.Murray
> They used to use their axe to chip handholds and foot ledges out of the ice to then climb conventionally. In the dave mac video mentioned earlier, one of the old boys describes modern ice tools as 4 points of aid and suggests it isn't ethical
Doubtless modern ice tools have made things so much more accessible for us punters, but of course the great modern climbers took that advance into much harder scary terrain such as WI7, athletic mixed and Scottish mixed Trad. Still, you have to marvel about Raeburn’s 1906 ascent of Green Gully.
Of course cutting steps is still a very useful technique in mountaineering to get across a short patch of hard snow or make steps in crampons more secure when people (or you) are tired or less confident.
There is a good summary here: https://www.highlandguides.com/winterhistory.htm
Apparently John Cunningham used a stiletto shaped dagger on the free-standing icicle of The Chancer in 1969. My dagger is more like a channel peg with a jagged blade.
WH Murray in his book Evidence of Things Not Seen reflects on Dr JHB Bell climbing the Centre Post of Coire Ardair using an ice-pick and small hatchet. It did not win “converts”.
For perspective... in the 1950s it was common to have https://www.outdoorgearcoach.co.uk/tricouni-nails/ even after people moved to rubber vibram soles. So to a certain extent they compete with Non front point crampons. Not using crampons wasn't as bad a disadvantage as you might expect. That said given the choice of the two I know which I'd pick!
Grivel invented front points in 1929 https://www.climbing.com/gear/history-of-crampons-timeline-no-226/ but they didn't spread as fast as you'd expect. The adoption of crampons was largely driven by adoption of front pointing, more than the invention of crampons even though by a weird quirk of history crampons were invented by an Englishman to reduce step cutting (although his parents were refugees from Germany https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Eckenstein)