We Began with Nothing
People have been climbing to the top of stuff for a long time but its really the last 150 years where we have begun to really push the limits of what is possible. When I have gone out climbing I see all the gear and knowledge that most people have and the few unknowledgable stragglers out there that have no idea what they are doing on top of a mountian in a rainstorm wearing jeans. I want to express some advances and in my mind important achievements that we have over come to make this sport of getting to the top of stuff as safe and comfortable as it is.
Cotton, Hemp and Hobnails
There are numerous books out there about early pioneers who climbed when the stuff they used was not at all designed for mountaineering but rather for the commuter in London. They wore Tweed jackets which while it seems they thought they were awesome they are talking about a thick flannel wool. Then they wore cotton and wool and since those fabrics do not come in a large variety of thicknesses appropiate for freezing temperatures they had to literally wear lots of layer as many as seven by one account of the early British Mt. Everest expeditions. The fact that people were willing to wear clothing that would absorb so much water and inevitably freeze is an amazing fact. The amount of suffering that they did compared to what we do in our moisture wicking and fleece garmets is almost unfathomable.
I have a nice rope that doesn't get very wet and can hold like three tons where as I was reading in one of the books below that the breaking strength of the rope was not enough to hold a fall! Also, I have no idea that hemp rope actually streches any, I mean anthing stretches a little but when you fall 20 feet decelerating in 1 foot might hurt. Oh yeah and the bowline, that knot from Boy Scouts, they used to use that to hold the rope around themselves. I also have issues with just loping the rope around your waist so that in a fall it slides up and breaks your ribs. I took my mom climbing recently and she fell numerous times and after it was done she said how safe it seemed I can only immagine her reaction had she broken some ribs.
I have an assortment of shoes for the various terain and weather and these guys had hobnail boots. They specifically wanted boots with less nails because the nails conducted heat. I have never worn any but I immagine it would be something like having these freezing little spots under your feet that never warm up but continually feel cold. It is similar to studded tires or track racing spikes with little studs sticking out to give them a grip on the terrain.
I shall not forget the alpenstock as well. Its this hiking stick like five feet long with a metal spike on the end. I can only guess how they did anything more aggressive than 60 degrees with one of those thing. Self-arrest had to the best of my knowledge not been invented yet and with out a pick and adz on the end it would have been impossible anyway. The ice-axe as well was invented early enough to give early Himalaya pioneers an edge in the early 1900's yet it was not much of a change from the long alpenstocks.
I am also amazed at the great lengths they went to in the early days to haul cameras up mountains. Those things were so complicated and had glass plates or the newly invented film which was only in its infancy.
I must also mention the oxygen of the early Everest expeditions which altogether weighed 32 pounds yet they found they still climbed faster with it. It also being newly invented was fickle and seven of ten systems were broken when they arrived at base camp. With percentages like that its no wonder numerous improvements have been made to make the system more safer and reliable.
It also amazes me to see the little A-frame pup tents that they used. The wind must have knocked them down all the time. I slept in little tents like that enough times to know that unless it is staked down impeccalby it will get blown over. And the fact that they used canvas! It's hard for me to immagine hauling that up a mountain and especially if it gets wet the weight would double or something. I don't know the detail for every expedition but i suspect that to lessen the weight of the tent they perhaps did not have floors on all the tents such as the military used to have.
Last, I must give a shoutout to all those victorian women in full dresses with hats and all the acoutriaments yet they still made it to the top of stuff. Amazing.
Vibram, Down and the Ice-Axe
Enter stage left the post-war era with all the advances of wartime governments and we have the people that got famous taking down the big ones. In Herzog's book he talks about the new Vibram soles which promise to be better than previous soles. The elaboration of how well the soles worked is masked by the fact that they lost their toes because the boots were still leather. However, they did make it to the top and back down which proves that the boots probably did something right. Vibram was still in its begginning stages, but it was still amazing enough to help the Italians to summit K2 a few years later a climb that has been challenging climbers for nearly a hundred years now with very limited success.
The snaplink, is like a carabiner except more like those things you can get in a hardware store. That is what they had no locking anything. No weight ratings. No wire-gates so I assume that they froze all the time.
I really like my down sleeping bags, parkas and mittens because they keep me warm. To the early mountaineers the use of down must have been one few comforts in the freezing weather. Technology was not as advanced as it is now to achieve 900 fill down but the compressability and warmth of down is still unparalleled. This era of climbing saw climbers at higher altitudes and comming back down alive repeatedly and some of this success must be attributed to deep cold weather down sleeping bags and other garmets that allowed climbers to remain at cold temperatures for longer periods of time safely.
Although the ice-axe had been invented previously to the second world war its full potential was not realized until it was used in combination with stiffer more reliable boots and the true universal utility of the object was capatilized on. An indispensible object which now is almost taken for granted has gone through many changes. It was made shorter and the pick, adz, and shaft were modified to make it more reliable and ergonomic for the tasks that it would encounter in the mountains.
Formal glacier glasses were being used for the first time although I have not been able to find much infomation about them they appear to have a metal and perhaps rubber rims much like current day swimming goggles. To me having that metal so close to you face is asking for problems with frostbite but not going snow-blind is how anyone climbed any mountain.
Plastic, Gore-tex and Titanium
It is nearly impossible to compare different mountaineers through the ages because Mallory never wore a down jacket and never summitted any 8000 meter peak
Plastics boot were first a novelty that many in the traditional community were at first skeptical of. However, those that chose to go out on a limb and try them did not lose as many toes to the best of my knowledge. They are the epitome of mountaineering. They can take feet way below freezing and back again. Plastic boots have a full shank as well which mean that there is a strip of metal in the sole that keeps them enormously stiff. That is an innovation that allowed mountaineer's to climb steeper ice than ever before. In fact, without the invention of plastic boots ice climbing as we know it would not even exist. Also, on previous himalaya expeditions it was commonplace for summitters to lose fingers and toes now the danger of losing toes is very well dimished.
Water-proof breathable fabrics are now commonplace. It began with Gore-Tex. The principle is a garmet that has very small holes in it that allow the passage of moisture. However, these holes are so small that water drops are not able to penetrate the membrane due to the surface tensionof the water. Now, origional Gore-Tex is a coating, similiar to a plastic coating and in all honestly it did not breathe the greatest but was much better than the former non-breatheable clothing. Fabric advances recently have taken the step so that the fabric itself is the membrane and does not need to be coated with anything. The fabric market in recent years has literally exploded with softshells and silicon inpregnated nylon fabrics. It is now possible to stay relatively dry and flexible in nearly all conditions on the earth. The most recent fabrics winners of the Editors Chioce 2006 awards by Backpacker magazine are apparently completely waterproof and as breathable as a softshell.
Titanium and Carbon-fiber materials have revolutionized the market of lightweight mountain travel. While steel and aluminum are still used in various capacities stoves, tent poles, stakes, ice-axes, hiking sticks, backpack stay bars, and others are all made at a fraction of the weight and much more dependable than the tools used by our predecessors. The constant materials science that allows new alloys with better properties is constanly pushing the limit of light weight.
Also recognigition must be given to Ray Jardin for inventing the Spring-Loaded Camming Device (SLCD) more commonly known as the CAM. Now placements are so easy and straitforward that to safely lead a climb much less experience is needed. That being said leading is a very serious skill that takes a large amount of experience and professional instruction is a very good way to learn. That being said it is now possible to potect climbs that were once thought impossible and climbers are pushing the limits of what is possible by lead climbing 5.13 and 14's where the scale used to end at 5.9.
Headlamp and Light Emmitting Diodes (LED's) have also revolutionized climbing by allowing climbers to begin climbes early and summit and get down before the sun melts too much snow making avalances a greater danger. As well, the batteries have gone through huge changes so that a small battery can now last a few hours in freezing temperature and literally days in a more temperate climate. Using these technologies I have hiked on mountains every hour of the day and night without any injury more than a scrape.
There have been other advances as well such as rock climbing rubber shoes that are able to smear on all sorts of surfaces. Glacier glasses have also improved to have UV protection and side sheilds and antifogging properties. Backpacks are being optimized all the time to be waterproof and have the appropiate straps for anything and made lightwieght and have comfortable shoulder and waist straps. Fleece insulation is constanly be upgraded so that the perfect amount of wind resistance and warmth is obtained. Patagonia amongst others is pushing what kind of fabrics can be recycled and used in new clothing. Wire-gate carabiners are not as easily frozen shut as other traditional carabiners.
The technology to use digital cameras, satellite phones and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) has revolutionized the way expeditions are percieved. An expedition may be followed on the internet by thousands with video clips and daily web postings. It is possible to a person on the summit of everest to call a loved one such as a person in the United States might do on a lesser peak using a normal cell phone. Also with the use of digital photography it is possible to take hundreds of pictures without changing the film and that allows mountaineers to take more pictues and relieves them of the burden of changing film. GPS has allowed navigators to find their way in remote in remote areas and with heavy fog which covers landmarks. These advances have made wilderness travel more accessible and visible to those who do not have the skill needed to naviagate and take pictures with equipment from previous decades.
I can only speculate on the advances that will happen in the future. Personally I want a suit that weighs nearly nothing, is wind and water-proof, warm down to like -50 or somthing ridiculous, boots as light as my running shoes that I can front-point in while still being as warm and water-proof as my plastics. I want some kind of tent that keeps warmth in while not condensing, weighs like three pounds for four seasons, and it must be roomy. I know those requests are nowhere near the way life actually is now but at the rate that technology is accellerating I might as well get the word out.
Again I must thank my mountaineering predecessors that froze and lost fingers and toes and broke many bones in climbing accidents. For those of you that truely suffered with the equipment of yesteryear I must thank you for pushing the barrier of what we know can be done and making it safer for us the next generation. Without your sacrifices the ease with which I climb today would not be possible and I would end up just running to keep myself occupied. I also thank you for all the books and stories and improvements you made to techniques and learning because as I learn more and more all the time about this great sport I am so pleased that I do not have to learn it all myself by trial and error and that someone else can tell me from the start that front-pointing on 30 degree slopes will devastate my calves. Thanks for helping my little 19 year old self get off to a safe start and a promissing career.
As far as I know here is wher I gathered information. However, much of the info is based on my personal knowledge and reasearch of what every company is out there doing in an attempt to get me to buy their stuff.
PBS television station show about Everest featuring the 1996 climb among others. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/everest/exposure/gear.html
Hobnail boots. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobnail
Lost on Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine. P.L. Firstbrook. NTC Business Books. Copyright 1999.
Annapurna. Maurice Herzog. The Lions Press. Copyright 1997.
"Editors' Choice 2006." Backpacker. Rodale Inc. April 2006. p. 93-101.
Mountaineering: The freedom of the Hills 6th ed. Editors: Don Graydon and Kurt Hanson. The Mountaineers. Copyright 1997.