November Interruption #2

In the throes of NaNoWriMo and other activities making November extremely busy, with limited blogging time, I’m continuing a series of excerpts from Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69, taken from the Project Gutenberg release of the 1871 J. Murray edition.  This time, ice axes and crampons.

This excerpt is noted in the digital edition to have been on pages 135-136 of the original print edition.  This time, most of the paragraph divisions are original.

WARNING: Whymper’s views on the use of crampons and rope in traveling on ice are of historical interest only, for their contrast with modern thought.  To take them as actual advice could be extremely dangerous.

It is generally admitted that veritable ice-slopes (understanding by ice something more than a crust of hard snow over soft snow) are only rarely met with in the Alps. They are frequently spoken of, but such as that to which I refer are very rarely seen, and still more seldom traversed. It is, however, always possible that they may be encountered, and on this account, if for no other, it is necessary for men who go mountaineering to be armed with ice-axes, and with good ones.

The form is of more importance than might be supposed. Of course, if you intend to act as a simple amateur and let others do the work, and only follow in their steps, it is not of much importance what kind of ice-axe you carry, so long as its head does not fall off or otherwise behave itself improperly. There is no better weapon for cutting steps in ice than a common pick-axe, and the form of ice-axe which is now usually employed by the best guides is very like a miniature pick.

My own axe is copied from Melchior Anderegg’s. It is of wrought iron, with point and edge steeled. Its weight, including spiked handle, is four pounds. For cutting steps in ice the pointed end of the head is almost exclusively employed: the adze-end is handy for polishing them up, but is principally used for cutting in hard snow. Apart from its value as a cutting weapon, it is invaluable as a grapnel. It is naturally a rather awkward implement when it is not being employed for its legitimate purpose, and is likely to give rise to much strong language in crushes at railway termini, unless its head is protected with a leathern cap or in some other way. Many attempts have been made, for the sake of convenience, to fashion an ice-axe with a movable head, but it seems difficult or impossible to produce one except at the expense of cutting qualities and by increasing the weight.

MY ICE-AXE.  Public domain image from

MY ICE-AXE. Public domain image from

Mr. T. S. Kennedy (of the firm of Fairbairn & Co.), whose practical acquaintance with mountaineering and with the use and manufacture of tools makes his opinion particularly valuable, has contrived the best that I have seen; but even it seems to me to be deficient in rigidity, and not to be so powerful a weapon as the more common kind with the fixed head. … is the invention of Mr. Leslie Stephen, and it answers the purposes for which he devised it—namely, for giving better hold upon snow and ice than can be obtained from the common alpenstock, and for cutting an occasional step. The amateur scarcely requires anything more imposing, but for serious ice-work a heavier weapon is indispensable.

To persons armed with the proper tools, ice-slopes are not so dangerous as many places which appeal less to the imagination. Their ascent or descent is necessarily laborious (to those who do the work), and they may therefore be termed difficult. They ought not to be dangerous. Yet they always seem dangerous, for one is profoundly convinced that if he slips he will certainly go to the bottom. Hence, any man who is not a fool takes particular care to preserve his balance, and in consequence we have the noteworthy fact that accidents have seldom or never taken place upon ice-slopes.

The same slopes covered with snow are much less impressive, and may be much more dangerous. They may be less slippery, the balance may be more easily preserved, and if one man slips he may be stopped by his own personal efforts, provided the snow which overlies the ice is consolidated and of a reasonable depth. But if, as is more likely to be the case upon an angle of fifty degrees (or anything approaching that angle), there is only a thin stratum of snow which is not consolidated, the occurrence of a slip will most likely take the entire party as low as possible, and, in addition to the chance of broken necks, there will be a strong probability that some, at least, will be smothered by the dislodged snow. Such accidents are far too common, and their occurrence, as a rule, may be traced to the want of caution which is induced by the apparent absence of danger.

I do not believe that the use of the rope, in the ordinary way, affords the least real security upon ice-slopes. Nor do I think that any benefit is derived from the employment of crampons. Mr. Kennedy was good enough to present me with a pair some time ago, and one of these has been engraved. They are the best variety I have seen of the species, but I only feel comfortable with them on my feet in places where they are not of the slightest use—that is, in situations where there is no possibility of slipping—and would not wear them upon an ice-slope for any consideration whatever. All such adventitious aids are useless if you have not a good step in the ice to stand upon, and if you have got that nothing more is wanted except a few nails in the boots.

CRAMPONS.  Public domain image from

CRAMPONS. Public domain image from


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