The rise of iron for ascent

Mechanical Advantage #5

(Continuing from

After the famed ascent and tragedy on the Matterhorn in 1865, back in the French/Italian/Austrian/Swiss Alps, the remaining unclimbed high summits were climbed primarily with the prevailing alpine technique of laborious cutting steps in steep snow using instep crampons and long ice axes. Most of the ascents were facilitated by guides with sharp local weather knowledge and extensive mountaineering skills, hired by wealthy patrons, though the ethic of climbing without the assistance of guides was also developing.

One of the last high alpine peaks to fall was the Meije in France, with no easy route to the summit.  Whymper wrote, "Meije is the last--the only--big alpine peak that has not been trodden by the foot of man" (though it should be noted there were many woman alpine climbers at this time). In 1877, the Baron of Castelnau, who had climbed Mont Blanc four times as a teenager, joined with the guide Pierre Gaspard and son for the first successful ascent, after which the Baron, 20 years old, retired from climbing. Their ascent of Meije is celebrated by the French Alpine Club, which was founded only a few years earlier, as it was considered the last important summit of the Alps and “one of the rare peaks to escape our British neighbours”.

As the highest summits were climbed, the next big climbing challenges were the Aiguilles—often more sheer and sometimes as high as the high peaks but without sufficient "prominence" (footnote)—such as the Aiguilles Noire de Peuterey, Petite Dru, Grand Charmoz,  and Grépon.

(footnote: An independent mountain summit in the Alps, as defined by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, traditionally requires at least 300m topographic prominence).

Many of these Aiguille ascents involved moderate (5.5/5.6) rock climbing in exposed and wandering situations, where a fall was not an option with the ropes of the day. Some of the technical rock climbing sections were christened and feared, such as "Mummery’s Crack" on the Grépon, a notoriously difficult section now rated 5.7, and retained its reputation as one of the hardest rock climbs in the Western Alps for the next 30 years. The standard climbing boot of this era had metal-studded soles, and were becoming more and more specialised for different kinds of climbing (very difficult bouldering using boots with a fine nail pattern was noted in the Elbsandsteingebirge around this time).

The Giant’s Tooth

In 1880, Albert Mummery, who had already done many first ascents in the Alps, declared the summit of Dent du Géant (the "Giant's Tooth") "absolutely inaccessible by fair means" after being turned back by a steep band of slabs. Several others teams who had also tried to overcome this section had also failed.  Two years later, in 1882, the Maquignaz guiding family broke with alpine tradition and forged a route up the slabs by systematically hammering a number of rudimentary pitons (called “stanchions” at the time) as hand- and foot-holds into cracks over a period of three days, each day fixing ropes to their high point. Their clients, the Sella family, followed the ropes for the first ascent the following day.  The route, "Sella's Staircase", is sometimes said to mark the end of the “Silver Age of Alpinism”, and with the more extensive use of mechanical tools for the ascent of the Giant’s Tooth, the debate on the sporting limits of style and mechanical tools in the mountains began in earnest (the route still has fixed ropes “in situ”) (footnote). It would not be the last time of what constituted “fair means” of ascent would be questioned and debated.

(Footnote: the second ascent was a month later, by William Graham and the Maquingnaz family guides. The route up the steep slabs of the Dent du Géant is still to this day maintained with thick grabby fixed ropes, more similar to the ropes of this era; but even with the ropes, the route requires the skills and abilities of a 5.6 rock climber and very exposed climbing. Graham used all of the sieged ropes and pitons of the Sella expedition, and he also climbed to the slightly higher summit of the tooth. Soon after, he applied, but was denied acceptance into the prestigious British Alpine Club, perhaps because of his use of what many of the members of the Alpine Club considered unsporting methods to claim an ascent. Nevertheless, he went on to have an adventurous life.

NEXT: Skip to early piton technology

TK: Ringbolts and free climbing gymnasts in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains (East Germany/Czech Republic Saxon and Bohemia Switzerland).
Mummery on Mummery’s Crack on his 1883 ascent of Petit Grépon with Lily Barstow (Mummery’s third climb of the Grépon) —from Guido Rey, Alpinismo Acrobatico.

(all images will be properly referenced in future “editions” along both biography. The one online at is partial biography.)


In the Beginning: Subtle Means and Engines

Pre-1492 climbing tools

The Modern Era of Mountaineering (1786)

American Trail Builders, 1800's

The rise of iron for ascent

Rope Technology in the 19th century

Mizzi Langer -- first advertised rock climbing pitons (Mauerhaken)

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1a

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1b

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1c

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1d

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution-part 1e

Tita Piaz-Alpinisto Acrobatico (Piaz PartA)

Campanile Basso di Brenta

Tita Piaz-Speed Climber and Rope Acrobat (Piaz PartB)

Tita Piaz-Guide and Rigging Expert (Piaz PartC)