Mechanical Advantage series by John Middendorf
notes from Jeff:
Great article, as always.
One note on piton steels: as you noted, mild-steel pitons conform to cracks, and in areas with very irregular cracks (limestone), this trait has some advantages over harder steel pitons. A hard-steel piton will break and punch through the rock to form a straight channel. It may be stronger when initially placed, but the placement is very susceptible to loosening via freeze/thaw, etc. A softer piton has conformed to the shape of the crack and will retain its holding power (corrosion notwithstanding) for much longer. The metal will have to be straightened out in order for the pin to pull.
Given that a lot of early piton innovation occurred on limestone, which has very irregular crack geometries, and most uses involved relatively low loads, it’s arguable how important it was to use harder steels. In Yosemite, with its extremely uniform cracks, and abundance of wider cracks, hard steel provided a much more universal advantage. You can also see how the destructive (but economical) practice of removing pitons came along with the use of harder steels. For leaving fixed, softer-steel pitons are still the better choice in most instances.
I believe a small rack of pitons are still essential for remote big wall climbing. I hear a lot these days of people bringing big power drills to the mountains (ie Skinner/Piana on Proboscis in 1992 along with helicopter access, etc), because I think the art of piton craft and the occasional 1/4” bolt is mostly the domain of a few, and often misunderstood.
So for a remote wall, strong, reusable pitons to minimize impact is better than the current trend of bolting as first choice if not clean.
I am not aligned with the current zeitgeist thinking that bolts are “clean”—In 50-100 years they will all be junk.
So that is my thinking, that hard reusable steel pitons are still an optimal first ascent big wall tool for fast efficient alpine ascents, so I wanted to document their development. I think I covered all the details of mild steel being better in limestone, etc, in my earlier Europe research rambles.
I will probably get into all the ethics, etc in other pieces, this one was just for general timeline to better understand that it was not just Salathe and Chouinard who invented high strength steel pitons in the period.
Thanks for reading, and hope to keep collaborating with you on various eras. Eventually I do want to convert all this research into some sort of readable book, and you would be a top resource to help me with this if I ever got there….
On 19 Aug 2022, at 6:03 am, Wolverine Publishing <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
I agree on lots of that. I wasn’t really critiquing your article, just noting that soft pitons often work better for fixed protection - possibly replacing bolts in some cases - than hard steel pitons. Maybe the ideal would be an appropriate titanium alloy that was both corrosion proof and somewhat malleable to resist free/thaw loosening.
From: John Middendorf <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: pitons
Date: 19 August 2022 at 9:50:00 am AEST
To: Wolverine Jeff Achey Publishing <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: Jerry Gallwas <email@example.com>
Definitely agree with you, especially on your specialty--going fast and light and bold on hard long-day free climbs. I could see taking a few titanium or mild steel ("ok, "soft iron" is probably not going away) for a long mostly free route, where placing an intended fixed pin on lead would be way easier than bolting. But does anyone really climb that onsight style anymore? Seems like everything is practiced now.
My focus of studying the evolution is really about the dreams of youth I never did, because I wasn't good enough or had the time (or money), routes like the huge north alpine big wall of Jannu, or any number of beautiful lines on big no-name faces in the Karakoram and Himalaya (Baffin and Patagonia pretty mature). Jannu has been done with lots of fixed ropes, and there are some amazing routes on the ridges, but the main wall has a line that could conceivably be done alpine style. For routes like that a team would have to go light, but having a rack of a few beaks and Lost Arrows and maybe a baby angle or two would be the go. They'd have to be resuable. Titanium no good as very hard and brittle. That is the beauty of what Chuck WIlts brought to the table, choosing 4130 out of all the choices (though 4130 was becoming a major supply, generally indicated by all the shapes and sizes the raw billet comes, at the time--but there were other high alloy steels to choose from). It really is the best steel for a strong, reusable piton, mostly because of its versatility of heat treatments. Wilts knew the relationship between hardness and toughness, Gerry Cunningham might not have with his first "stubby angles", a great design, but someone snapped one of his pitons with a few sideways blows which indicates way too hard (probably not annealed). Chouinard figured it out pretty fast. I am really hoping to hear from Jerry Gallwas soon. I had some discussions about this with Tom Frost when he would come to stay at my place in San Francisco (during his divorce), but foolish as I was, I was more interested in his experiences on walls far and wide, which has already been well documented. We talked a lot about design, but more about future designs, not past design work, though he clued me in on Ajax Forge, location of hammer and other Chouinard forged stuff, before he got CAMP pitons, a good tidbit, especially as I had also used Ajax Forge for my A5 hammer design two decades later). There are also some lessons to be learned about starting up production for a small time player, something it would be good to see more of, for those interested in innovation. Guys like Mark Blanchard inventing and producing a solo device for a few hundred people seem to be long gone.
Always interesting to watch from the stadium how climbing evolves. Hoping to have a week climbing in Arapiles with my kids next month.
What are you working on now, and when can we see it?
portaledge design: bigwalls.net
historical writing: bigwallgear.com