Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Raeburn Project: Mid-Season Review

Although I have done relatively little climbing this season so far, thanks to a number of factors (weather, conditions, working hours, ebbing enthusiasm and increased emphasis on other areas of my life), I have had several good days out with the 'vintage gear' as I like to call it collectively. In 2008 this project began as an informal way of trying out some of the equipment and techniques of the past. It has since expanded into a full-blown attempt to become a Victorian mountaineer, in outlook, philosophy, and skills, and in that respect it is already a success.

I have conducted several challenging mountaineering excursions using only equipment that would be in common use during the 1890s - 1910s. Most of my climbs average about Grade I, but in the 08-09 season I climbed the Grade II North Face of Stob Coire Sgreamhach using step-cutting techniques (but, notably, using modern clothing as I did not then dare wear tweed on the hill!)


Bidean's North Ridge
A straightforward ascent of Bidean nam Bian in variable snow conditions, requiring several hundred feet of step cutting up an exposed summit ridge, and also considerable powder wading!

Stob Coire nam Beith - the Nameless Gully
Two thousand feet of continuous step cutting on the best quality neve, culminating in a sporting battle with a medium sized cornice.

Stob Coire nan Lochan's NW Ridge
The easiest outing of the season so far, requiring relatively little cutting. However, conditions on the summit ridge were severe, providing a good test of the capabilities of tweed in Scottish winter conditions.

In this section I will make brief notes on the discoveries I have made about each item of Victorian equipment I use.

My normal mountaineering outfit consists of cotton breeches (with thick trousers on underneath), two pairs of woollen socks, a long-sleeved cotton shirt, sleeveless woollen pullover (usually not worn), a long woollen scarf, a wide-brimmed trilby hat, and a coat of coarse tweed capable of being buttoned up right to the neck.

I have become comfortable wearing this gear in a variety of conditions. I haven't dared venture out in warm wet conditions yet, as I suspect I would get soaked; but in sub-freezing temperatures, regardless of wind strength, snow or spindrift, I am absolutely confident that this equipment is up to the job of keeping me warm and comfortable.

In fact, I would go so far as to make the bold claim that in many conditions this gear is better than the modern conventional setup of fleece and Goretex overcoat. I'm always more comfortable in tweed than Goretex in comparable conditions, provided it's not above freezing and raining!

The Tricouni-nailed boots have proved to be a qualified success. On the plus side, I have been raving about their superior performance on muddy and icy rock; they are simply so much more versatile than modern B3s. They are comfortable to walk and climb in, lighter than a modern boot and crampon setup, and easy to keep waterproof. They also grip neve beautifully.

On the other hand, the soles wear more rapidly than Vibram (both the nails themselves and the bare leather) and will require more skilled maintenance in the long run to keep the boots in service. The nails also conduct heat away from the feet very readily: even with two pairs of socks, these are cold boots to wear when climbing snow!

Their performance on hard, smooth, or sloping rock is also not as good as Vibram. Some kinds of holds simply cause the nails to skate off.

Ice axe
The ice axe I built over the summer is the pinnacle of this entire project. The metal components were salvaged from an old 1930s Stubai axe, and heavily modified: the pick and adze were reshaped to conform to the c.1900 norm. The handle was made from dense, seasoned hickory.

This axe, which is 3ft2in in length and has a weighty swing, is the best tool I have ever used for cutting steps, both uphill and downhill. Once the trick is learned of putting your bodyweight behind each two-handed swing, cutting requires surprisingly little effort for such a heavy axe. It is, however, far too heavy for one-handed cutting overhead: its use is limited to snow or ice slopes up to about 60 degrees.

Another minor problem is that the steel head was attached to the shaft using copper boat rivets. The bottom rivet has loosened very slightly (thanks to the low sheer strength of copper). A couple of hammer blows has fixed it for now.


For winter hillwalking and low-grade climbing, I have found the equipment of the Victorian mountaineer to be perfectly adequate and comfortable. In many respects it is better than modern equipment: I travel lighter, am more comfortable, have better freedom of movement, and never have to faff with putting on and taking off crampons, or ice axe leashes / lanyards. There is enormous satisfaction in choosing a line up a mountain face or ridge, and cutting steps up that line, creating the climb in a way that is more artistic than the brutally ignorant force of front-pointing. Step-cutting, once mastered, also requires less effort (and calf strength!) than front pointing.

I am quite certain that on higher grades, modern equipment proves its value. However, those higher grades are of no interest to me, and at this stage in the season the project is progressing as planned.


  1. Hi Alex, nice post. One question, what do you use for gloves. I have read about a technique used in the past where large woolen gloves are boiled until they shrink and the knit becomes really tight and close. These gloves were used for the first trips to the high mountains. I was often thinking of trying the technique myself(for the gloves). Keep up the good work.

  2. Hi Stephen, forgot to mention my gloves. I use Dachstein mitts which are made in exactly the way you specify. They're great!!