The History of Ice Climbing

Climbing ice is absolutely a fascinating endeavor. Steep ice climbing has come a long way by continual enhancement in equipment and constant pushing of a former “inaccessible”, until it became what we see and experience today.

Words by Tanja Schmitt
Images by Tanja Schmitt and Norrøna

The fascination of ice climbing and the stoke is timeless. However, acknowledging the past and its players and paying them tribute for constantly pushing the idea and developing ice climbing to its best so that future protagonist could enjoy ice even more by being faster and lighter and safer is an important part of ice climbing, too. We are what we are because of our past. And ice climbing has a fascinating history of its own worth knowing.

A (brief) history of ice climbing 

Ice climbing has been seen for a long time as a part of mountaineering. Back in the Alps, the potential for ice climbing had long been unrecognized and climbers concentrated on high mountain routes. It took some time until the activity finally developed as its own strain, mainly initiated by American rock climbers until it finally became a small but very exquisite recognized cosmos on its own. Here more than in any other sector of climbing the interaction between climbers and equipment was (and is) predominant. Developing and improving the equipment which was needed to climb steep and steeper ice became possible only through visionary individuals, curious and courageous enough to leave conventional paths and venture into totally new and unexplored terrain, additionally developing new techniques and equipment. 

This article tries to summon up the most shaping influences and developments which led from the first steps as part of Alpinism to an independent activity on its own, covering hereby the most molding Players and inventions in Equipment.

“There were however so many characters involved and so many variations in different parts of the world existent that this summary can only highlight on certain aspects in the history of ice climbing.”

The start

The very  beginning

The first who moved through iced up terrain were hunter gatherers or herdsmen in middle age. Their equipment was primitive: an early version of a crampon with three points which could be slipped on their boots. However, those first ice crossings were led by necessity and we know little about their story.

The start of Alpinism

The start of Alpinism as an independent activity done for no other reason than to conquer a mountain or cross a glacier did not set off before the 18th century, and is strongly linked with British exploration on all fronts. Rich gentlemen saw the conquering of mountain summits and glaciers as a worthwhile ambition and the ascent of Mont Blanc, with 4807m the highest mountain in the Alps by Jacques Balmat and Michel- Gabriel Paccards in 1786  marked the start of glacier exploration. Those early pioneers were equipped only with an ‘alpenstock’ and hobnailed boots.

With the increased interest in early mountaineering in the Alps, guides were needed since most mountain aspirants were missing the knowledge and the skills. Chamois hunters, hill farmers and crystal prospectors did the job and already in 1821, the first guiding company was founded in Chamonix and guiding started to become a profession on its own.

Ice sections in steeper parts became the biggest challenge.

The guides developed the techniques to overcome them by cutting steps into the ice for their clients: the ice axe became key equipment, strong and heavy ( weighing around 2 kg) with a vertically-aligned axe blade.

The length of the handle was aligned to the height of the guide and custom-made.

Soon the design of the ice axe was improved by lengthening the pick and turning the blade from a vertical direction into a horizontal one.

With an increasing touristic setup, the golden age of Alpinism started around 1850 with many first mountain ascents being made in the Alps and around the world (Mount St Elias / Alaska 1897; Aconcagua/ Argentina; 1899 Mt. Kenya/ First expedition to K2 in Pakistan by Oscar Eckenstein)

A big change appeared when climbing became no longer a privilege of the social elite but for independent climbers no longer needing guides. 

With the increasing rivalry between European nations in a politically charged context in the early 20 century, French, Italian, English, and German climbers began climbing competitively, and ice no longer appeared to be just an obstacle to reaching a certain mountain, but a prestigious goal in itself. The first ascent of many new and difficult mountain faces through steep angled ice began. An important parameter in this achievement was the constant development of new and better equipment.

Until 1930

Early Equipment until 1930

The FIRST Crampons

Several strap-on crampons were fabricated towards the end of the 19th century, a simple design with 10 symmetrical points.

The use of these first crampons was often frowned upon and considered as artificial ads. Many guides saw their work (cutting steps into the ice) endangered.

In 1908 British engineer and Alpinist Oscar Eckenstein (1859-1921) revealed a new crampon design that came out in cooperation with Henry Grivel, a blacksmith in Courmayeur. It was lightweight, articulated and equipped with an effective strapping system. This design would last until the 1930s!

Eckenstein also initiated the first “cramponning competition“ on the Brenva glacier in 1912. The techniques moving on steep ice are still named after him (also referred to as “the French technique“). Young guiding aspirants have to perform it until today in order to become a certified mountain guide.


The use of ropes was for a long time not common in Alpinism and climbing and was even considered as cheating. Climbing with ropes was not a safe business in any case, since in the early fabrication they were made from plant fibers, mostly hemp. As a result, rope rupture did not seldom occur. Belaying systems were basic and a fall of all rope members most possibly resulted in a rope team fall. One of the most prominent falls appeared on the Matterhorn in 1865 when Michael Croz fell to his death after he had successfully first ascended the Matterhorn with Edward Whymper (who untied the rope and survived). 

The use of ropes became commonplace around the beginning of the 20th century.


Pitons were first developed mainly to facilitate the descent but soon used for protection and aid in rock climbing. In 1921, the first carabiners were designed especially for climbing, which for the first time allowed passing the rope through it without untying first. This was finally possible due to the invention of an opening gate.

From 1930 on, these carabiners gained popularity, mainly used for rock sections.

The first ice screws, however were another topic.

It was the Austrian Alpinist  Franz Riegele ( a companion of Willo Welzenbach) who first manufactured and used them. Long and flat with teeth they had to be hammered into the ice and offered only little security.

(One of the famous Schmid brothers who did the first ascent of the Matterhorn north face died while trying to place an ice piton on the Wiesbachhorn).

Shorter Ice Axes

The ice axes became shorter and much lighter and the pick was modified with teeth for more grip on the ice. Now they can be used with only one hand.

1929- 1970

The first revolution 
1929- 1970

12 Point crampon

1929 Laurent Grivel ( the son of Henry Grivel, the famous blacksmith mentioned above) invented the 12 point crampon, a crampon with newly added 2 front points.

This completely changed the way ice would be climbed and opened the gate for the future.

Now ice would be affronted similarly to rock and movement on ice became more natural.

Anderl Heckmair was one of the first to use those first 12 point crampons, during the first ascent of the Eiger north face in 1938.


The first tubular ice pitons appeared in Germany in 1938 and were called “Rosegs“

Clothing and Nylon ropes

In 1930 synthetic polymers such as polypropylene, polyester and nylon were invented. They served firstly for war efforts (such as parachutes) but in 1946 the first outdoor clothing like jackets, tents and backpacks came on the market.

With higher durability and waterproofness this involvement made a huge difference in winter climbing and ice climbing.

Ropes made from nylon were another major step forward and appeared from America and Europe in the early 1940s.

In 1960 the first Person made ropes were fabricated by Edelrid, and were composed of an inner core and outer woven sheath.

Alloy carabiners and Alloy crampon

In 1946, the first carabiners made out of alloy entered the market designed by Pierre Allain. In 1958 they were constructed of Zicral, an alloy as strong as steel but half the weight.

Vibram Soles

In 1936 Italian climber Vitale Bramani invented the rubber lug sole after he and his partner Castiglioni had the idea to approach Pirelli, the famous tire manufacturer, for help. Such the hobnails previously used were replaced.

Turning Point:

1968 -1977

1968 -1977

Despite the obvious advantage of the 12-point crampon, conservatism prevailed for a long time in France with the noticeable first ascent of “the shroud“ on the Grande Jorasses made by René Desmaison and Robert Flematti in 11 days, still using 10 point crampons in 1968. The climb had a huge impact and was broadcast through radio across France.

The following year, front points were unanimously adopted in France.

The real thunderbolt appeared however when the Tyrolean Reinhold Messer soloed the Davaille route on the North Face of the Droites one year later in just 9 hours- unparalleled till date.

The 12 point crampons and the techniques inherent in it were taking their triumphant progress and the development towards modern steep ice climbing got closer.

What was needed most in the next step was a revision of the ice tools:

The first prototype of modern ice axes was developed by Hamish MacInnes: the Terrordactyl. It was a very short metal ice hammer with a pick inclined at 45 degrees. 

In 1966, the legendary Chouinard looked at the existing ice tools and improved them with a curved pick, thereby making the tool more aggressive, and easier to penetrate the ice with.

Bringing this new idea on the market was a hard one, since the French thought the idea crazy.

It was due to Donald Snell that the conservative Charley factory finally produced the first 55cm long ice axes with a curved pick based on Chouinard’s original design.

It was Walter Cecchinel who set about reinventing ice climbing: by making the second ascent of the‚ Lagard- Ségogne‘ color on the Aiguille de Plan in fine style in 1972 he performed perhaps the first time ever a new technique which the French call, “Piolet traction”, and what is nowadays performed naturally, meaning to move forward by pulling up on the shaft of the ice axe.

This was furnished by Cecchinel using a newly designed ice axe, improved by adding a shaft and a handle, which would eventually evolve to Simond‘s famous 720 model.

In 1970 metal progressively replaced wood in the ice shafts, and Forrest, Simond and Camp manufactured this new type of ice axes.

The use of this new equipment and techniques were adapted throughout the world, leading to impressively steep and long ice climbs.

Although they were late starters, it was the Americans who would eventually push steep ice climbers in the coming new decade.

It was foremost the revolutionary free climbing actors such as the names of Chouniard, Frost and Robbins who transferred their required skill set to the world of ice climbing.

In 1971, Jeff Lowe climbed a vertical multi-pitch icefall in Utah called “Marklen’s Peak Waterfall”.

John Bouchard, John Bragg, Rick Wilcox, Mike Weis were crashing actors.

But it would be the Canadian Rockies that would soon become a Mecca for Alpinists in the following years, with climbs like the lower “Weeping Wall” first climbed (with aid techniques) in 1973 by British climbers McKeith and Wood, and “Polar Circus” in 1975 by McKeith and Porter which would become the longest ice fall ever climbed for several years: it took them 8 days of aid climbing, fixing ropes and even placing bolts to climb its 800 meters.

Free climbing ethic would win through being influenced by American free climbers coming to the Rockies and in 1977, the Weeping Wall was climbed in fine style as would Polar Circus over a 2 day period in 1978.

An outstanding climb also took place in Norway when Americans Henry Barber and Rob Taylor climbed the Vettisfossen in 1977.

"This completely changed the way ice would be climbed and opened the gate for the future."

The development of Ice Protection towards modern Ice Screws

A major part in the direction of the future became the possibility of securing an ice climb by technical protection.

The early “ice pegs” were like hooks in rock climbing. They were hammered into the ice but had little holding power. The first reasonable ice protection that appeared was in 1963 and resembled a corkscrew. Next appeared the “Warthog”, hammered into the ice and unscrewed.

But the revolutionary idea was the invention of the tubular ice screw. Saltwater designed the first model that had a screw threat and teeth but was too small in diameter and not long enough to give good protection. The next invention by Chouinard offered much better protection, but the screws still were hard to place into the ice while climbing. Therefore the “Snarg” became a better choice, they got in easy but were notoriously hard to get out.


1980 onwards/ 

Vertical Ice

Modern steep ice climbing rapidly improved around the 80s .

The ice climbing tool improved step by step combining the qualities of the inclined pick of the Terrordactyl and the curved pick of Chouinard, firstly resulting in a so-called Banana pick. Soon a shovel like adze was added, the picks became interchangeable, the grips became better designed and leashes could be added.

Rigid crampons appeared. The first tubular ice screws that could be placed one handed were invented at the end of the 80s and  became a game changer in hard ice climbing.

Better clothing with waterproof and breathable qualities appeared on the market and impacted the game likely: The first Goretex appeared in Europe in 1978.

(Norrøna brought their first Arktis Gore Tex Shell on the market in 1975 and in 1979 Thomas Carlström developed the first Trollveggen Outfit!)

The first Polar fleece fiber came out 1984 and Polartec fleece followed in 1986.

The first Plastic Boots became popular in the 1990s.

The quality of ropes developed immensely over the years with constantly enhanced sheathed core rope. Special impregnations soon prevented the former soaking of the rope through water.

In the 80s the technique of climbing with twin ropes developed.

All those factors added to reducing the risks caused by failing equipment.


Around 2000

Around 2000, it became popular to climb without Leashes on the shaft, allowing even more freedom of movement.

The first ice climbing competitions became popular around 1990 and started a movement of an extreme “sportive” approach with a near complete elimination of risk.

The events were organized on natural structures but also on artificial structures just for the joy of climbing and competing.  The IWC (Ice climbing World Cup) Committee was founded and started organizing 5 competitions held in 5 European countries.

In 2002, the first world championships took place.

In the same period, Drytooling became more and more popular: a mind set similar to sport climbing, Drytoolers use the same tools of ice climbing with different picks ( the Dry Tool pick is stronger and thicker) and climb rock instead of ice.

The idea evolved as climbers sought to climb unconnected ice daggers by climbing the first part through rock. Drytooling with self protection became necessary on big ice routes like the “Gramusat” in France or the “Stanley Headwall” in Canada.

Playing around with a minimized risk, Drytooling also provides a great training possibility.

However Drytooling on bolts should not be mixed up with ice climbing on natural ice since the first can be compared to fencing with a wooden sword while the other compares fencing with a real steel sword. 

It was those real steel swords in the very beginning- as we have seen- that shaped the limits of the “possible” first.

“The mindset of the pioneers on steep ice was sharp and uncompromising, climbing virtually free solo, hammering in their nearly worthless corkscrews, suffering the cold by wool mittens and wool anoraks, gaining slow progress and often bivouacking in an ice climb.

They climbed without helmets and with cold leather boots. Their ice axes were hard to bring into the ice and the front points of their crampons blunt. Nearly always the icefalls they encountered were unclimbed, adding spice to the question “can it be done…?”.

Keep this in mind when you try to understand the grading system, and from time to time think of all those who have given everything they had in order to make modern climbing possible.

Enjoy your climb.

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