Monday, 19 July 2010

Oscar Eckenstein's workshop

Another afternoon of hard work on the ice axe project has yielded some tangible results. I have made and fitted the spike assembly, and spent over two hours carving out the grooves and socket for the steel head. This is the most delicate part of the job, and the point where most can go wrong. The grooves have to be cut to exact dimensions, and of course, I am doing this work by hand as it would have been done a hundred years ago (although I have stooped to using power tools for a few of the more laborious tasks!)

One of the purposes of this project is to gain an appreciation of the craftsmen who made mountaineering equipment in the 19th century. During the Golden Age of Alpinism, if you wanted an ice axe, you went to your local smith and paid him a one-off fee to make an axe to your specification. In those days, quality was not assured and Whymper tells tales of the heads falling off ice axes, or the picks breaking with heavy use.

With the explosion of popularity that Alpine mountaineering experienced in the 1880s and 1890s, there soon became a constant demand for ice axes. As the first 'Alpine outfitter' companies evolved from existing blacksmith guilds, the production process was simplified and improved. The first riveted ice axe heads started to appear in the '80s. Although this meant the pick was almost impossible to replace, improvements in workmanship and quality materials meant that an ice axe might last for generations, if properly cared for.

Simond - Grivel - Stubai - these companies, well-known today, were mass-producing ice axes by the turn of the old century, using techniques virtually identical to the ones I have used to make this axe.

The master craftsman of the late 19th - early 20th century was the great inventor Oscar Eckenstein. From his workshop came ideas such as the first ice axe that could be used for cutting steps with one hand, and the modern crampon. He took his 'ice claw' idea to Mr Grivel in 1909. All crampons that mountaineers use today are the direct descendents of his design.

Eckenstein is an important character in my book, and it's interesting to experience this unique insight into his world. I have a renewed appreciation for the Alpine outfitters of old, where everything had to be painstakingly made by hand. Despite this labour-intensive method of manufacturing, the end results are invariably pieces of astonishing beauty and understated good design, unlike the soulless machine-made ice axes of today's age.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I'd love to give making one of these a go. There is nothing produced today which has the appeal, and the heart, of a traditional wooden ice axe.