Which climbing axe would you buy? The history of the ice axe

Even the more specialist world of winter climbing offers the modern climber a plethora of axes and shiny hardwear that each boast a range of ‘unique’ features. At a moments notice a climber can acquire a specific axe to cope with a range of terrain, style and conditions, yet it has not always been so. Historically axes were made by an individual using local materials, off the shelf did not exist. However as skills developed and features improved, certain makers developed a reputation and began producing axes on a far larger scale. Here we look at the gradually changing approach to climbing tools and look at what axes you might have been able to purchase in 1900s.  

F. Ralling Kuno Rainer ice axe. c1930.‍

Felix Ralling was a blacksmith based in Austria and named this model after the notable Austrian climber Kuno Rainer. Felix Ralling’s smithy was based in the Stubai valley in a small village called Fulpmes which became the heart of the iron industry in the Stubai valley and was often referred to as ‘Village of Smithy’. Kuno Rainer climbed with Hermann Buhl, climbing the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses in 1950, and complete a traverse of the whole Jorasses ridgeline to the Col de Grande Jorasses. The two also partnered for their ascent of Nanga Parbat, Pakistan in 1953. Here however, Rainer was content to run the expeditions base camp and logistics rather than summit with Buhl.

Brades ice axe. 1943.‍

Brades were a sizeable firm in the mid 1900s, manufacturing a range of tools from billhooks to axes and trowels. At the outbreak of the second World War however, the firm were contracted by the War Department to produce these axes for the military. The firm themselves were established in 1782 when William Hunt brought the Brades estate in Oldbury. They went from strength to strength, producing their highly sort after archaeological tools which are still manufactured today.

Stubai Aschenbrenner ice axe. c1950.‍

The iconic axe that was first produced back in the 1930s by Peter Aschenbrenner and remained in production up until the 1960s. The Aschenbrenner fast became the go to axe of choice for many military personnel with many distributed to the German Edelweiss mountain divisions during World War II. After the war they became increasingly popular in Britain with a range of shaft lengths created to suit a variety of climbing situations.

MacInnes Massey ice axe. 1963.

Hamish first began designing axes for general use after a fatal accident in Zero Gully on Ben Nevis in which all three climbers broke their wooden shafted axes during a fall. This led to the first all-metal axe being released in the 1960s called the MacInnes Massey which was produced by tractor manufacturer Massey Ferguson. The axe was also unique in that its short length heralded a new direction in axe design, one which focused the tool on pure vertical mixed and ice climbing. Such innovation was not a rarity to MacInnes who went on to revolutionise rescue equipment with the iconic MacInnes stretcher.‍

MacInnes Terrordactyl ice axe. c1969.

The axe that opened up whole new possibilities in hard Scottish Winter climbing. MacInnes gave many prototypes to international expeditions to trial on hard mixed climbs in the Alps and Himalaya. One of the prototype’s more notable successes was on what has now become known as the Scottish Pillar on the Eiger. In August 1970 Alasdair McKeith, Kenneth Spence, and Ian MacEacheran put up the hard new line using MacInnes’ ‘Terrors’.

CAMP Chouinard Frost ice axe. c1970.‍

This particular axe was used by Joe Tasker on Dunagiri (7,066m) in the Indian Himalaya alongside Dick Renshaw. More broadly it was was offered in a range of shaft materials throughout its production; notably hickory, laminated bamboo, Rexilon (made from laminate beech) and finally fibreglass. Ash models were also available in European markets. The downward curving pick was an idea developed from the likes of the MacInnes Massey which was released in the early 1960s. The downward pick held better in ice.

MSR Thunderbird ice axe. c1970.‍

MSR’s 2nd generation ice axe that featured an aircraft grade aluminium shaft and an array of bright colour schemes. The Thunderbird was built soon after Larry Penberthy founded the company in 1969. The ‘T-Bird’ as it was often known was developed in the Seattle area with input from a number of notable climbers. The change however was radical from the existing wooden models and many climbers resisted the development from the classic materials; Yvon Chouinard famously referenced the ‘day-glo metal monster more suitable for assassinations than ice climbing’. Yet the undoubted strength of the Thunderbird and the preceding Eagle model that MSR also produced set the trend, and during the 1970s all axe manufactures transitioned to metal and lightweight alloy materials.

Snowdon Mouldings Curver ice axe. c1977.‍

From the small Llanberis factory run by Mo Antoine and Joe Brown that produced the iconic Joe Brown helmet and Limpet tent. Joe Brown and Mo Antoine revolutionised a range of climbing equipment from their base in Llanberis, developing the iconic Joe Brown helmet as well as the Curver ice axe. This was so popular that Mo had to turn down a huge order from a Japanese distributor representing 2,500 stores. At the time only four people worked for Snowdon Mouldings which was based on Llanberis High Street.

Mountain Technology Vertige Xtreme ice axe. c1980.

Modular pick heads and curved shafts opened up even greater areas of the mountain not previously accessible. The axe was a popular choice in its native Scotland and the ability to replace the pick for both repair and to cope with a range of ice climbing terrain has meant that these were used for decades. The company was established in the 1970s by Hugh McNicol, whose experience in the aero-engineering industry at Rolls Royce enabled him to produce some of the most popular axes of the 80s and 90s. Originally called Mountain Engineering it later became Mountain Technology and went on to produce the iconic ‘banana’ shape of the Vertige Xtreme from the factory in Balluchulish, Glencoe.

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