Thursday, 12 August 2010

Introducing the Raeburn Project

It's no secret that I've been interested in the history of mountaineering for quite some time now. It started by reading a copy of 'The White Spider' when I was seventeen, followed shortly after by purchasing a battered old 1930s ice axe from Ebay. I gradually broadened my knowledge of the subject, and by this point I have read a great deal about climbing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is also my subject of choice for my fictional projects.

I have a specific interest in how mountaineering was done in that period. What skills were employed that have been lost today? What equipment was used, and where did one get it from? In short, I want to know exactly how the practice of mountaineering differs between the late Victorian era and the present day.

Over the past couple of years this interest has driven me to tentatively try out various items of 'vintage' equipment in the mountains. It started off with a long-shafted traditional ice axe, and in the 08-09 season I climbed several routes with the step-cutting technique, culminating in my ascent of the North Face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach sans crampons (Grade II). However, climbing ice in crampon-less Vibrams is a bit unnerving, and I decided to take the next step and get myself some nailed boots.

Up until now my experiments have been disorganised and haphazard, but I think this coming season is the perfect opportunity to start documenting and do these experiments 'properly'. For guidance, I will be using the respected mountaineering texts from the period: work such as the Badminton Book of Mountaineering, Whymper's observations, books by G. Abraham and O.G. Jones, and a range of articles from the journals of the Alpine Club and Climber's Club.

Why am I calling the experiment 'the Raeburn project?' Harold Raerburn was one of the greatest Scottish climbers to have ever lived, and completely dominated winter climbing prior to the Great War. Indeed, it took many years for standards to get back up to the level that he set in the first years of the 20th century.

So, my mission is going to be to try and recreate the equipment used by these early climbers, and then to become proficient at the skills required to use this equipment. I already know how to cut steps on ordinary steep snow, but what about climbing steep ice with a long axe and short hammer? And mixed climbing in nailed boots--how was that done? What about standing glissades, Mummery tents, 19th century style belaying? The list goes on.

There is only one item I refuse to compromise on, and that is the rope. You will not see me using a static Hemp rope on the mountains, because it is a fact that they are dangerous compared to modern dynamic ropes.

Still, I hope to learn a lot from this experiment and perhaps broadening my base of skills will make me a better climber. I will not be using 'vintage' equipment and techniques exclusively over the winter--far from it--but I do hope to get enough mileage in to practice the skills sufficiently.

PROGRESS SO FAR

Equipment

I currently have:
1. Hobnailed boots. Early 19th century in style, basic conical hobs, no climbing nails at all. I plan to replace these boots with ones equipped with Clinkers and Tricounis (currently underway).
2. 3ft2in Hickory-shafted step cutting ice axe
3. 'North Wall hammer' for cutting on steep ice
4. Coat, single-breasted, made from full-weight rough tweed. Modifications include adding extra buttons and sewing up key areas to improve weatherproofing.
5. Knapsack, WWI style, about 15l
6. Glacier goggles, of the type commonly used 1900 - 1930

Work in progress:
1. Pair of leather climbing boots fully equipped with an efficient pattern of Clinker and Tricouni nails.
2. Designs being made for 9ft Puttees

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