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March 2012 Issue
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A short history of… the ice axe

Sir Ed Hillary’s famous ice axe is on permanent display at the Auckland Museum
The ice axe has seen a dramatic evolution in use and design over the past 100 years, by Ross Miller

Surely, if one piece of equipment encapsulates the spirit of the mountaineer it is the ice axe. When Auckland Museum produced ‘Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and Beyond’ in 2003, the exhibition’s centre piece was the axe with which he summited Everest. It was insured at the time for $1million and was later donated to the Museum’s permanent collection by Lady Hillary.

Vintage axes made by Simond from Chamonix, France, of similar design to Hillary’s, appear in online auctions occasionally for less than $300, however, they are far removed from some of today’s models.

Predating the axe, travellers on snowfields and glaciers used a long stave – an alpenstock or a fell stick – with a steel spear point on one end. It acted as a third leg, similarly to a longer, fixed-length modern walking pole. In 1786 alpenstocks, along with a standard hatchet to cut steps in the ice, were used by mountaineer and guide Jacques Balmat and his companion Michael Paccard to make the first ascent of Mont Blanc.

Combining a hatchet blade, rotated from the vertical to horizontal to form an adze blade with a pick issuing from the back of the head, and fixing this to a shortened alpenstock produced the first alpinists’ axes in the mid 19th century. They were made on demand by blacksmiths in villages in alpine regions. By the end of the century, the ‘ice axe’ of around 125cm length (spike to head) was considered essential equipment for the mountaineer.

Innovation is the precinct of mountain equipment and before the turn of the century, some climbers were experimenting with shorter 85cm shafts. In the early 20th century the adze blade was shortened and the pick elongated. In the mid 1960s a youthful Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia outdoor equipment, reinvented the axe to incorporate a curved pick that he deemed more ergonomic and easier to handle.

Up until the 1970s the shafts were made of wood – normally dense, straight grained hickory, although the lighter and slightly weaker European ash did find favour in the 50s and 60s, including that of Hillary’s axe. The pick on Hillary’s axe was typical of the early 50s – being straight spike-shaped.

In the early 70s, metal alloy shafts became popular and the shaft length shortened – the rule of thumb being the measurement from the heel of the hand with the elbow just bent, to the ground: around 70cm, +/- 5cm. Axes as short as 55cm appeared for the growing sport of ice climbing. Wooden shafts were still being produced but these were often strengthened with wrapping of fibreglass bandages. Picks where detailed with serrations and chisel tipped rather than spike ended.

No wooden shaft met the standards introduced in 1978 by the UIAA (Union of International Alpinists Associations) and they faded from view until revived in homage to classic alpinism by the manufacturer Grivel with its ‘carbonwood’ composite faux-grained lookalike.

Today, shafts can be alloys or composites, the heads made of special light and strong steels or even alloys such as magnesium and aluminium. The breadth of use-specific designs means some manufacturers offer as many as 30 models.

The demands of mountaineers have evolved dramatically from those early climbers whose main aim was peak bagging. New sports and innovations meant axes have been created for alpine ice and waterfall climbing, competition speed climbing, gender specific designs, technical climbing and alpine tramping. Modern axes have changed, in some cases radically, to reflect these changes over a period of a 100-odd years, but the tool’s basic premise remains the same – to provide security in planned and emergency situations.

Almost casually in High Adventure, Ed Hillary recounted: ‘A few more whacks of the ice axe, a few very weary steps, and we were on the summit of Everest.’

What better motivation than his account to get out there and bury your pick in some crusty snow.