Eiger Direct 1966 : Another Bare Knuckle Fight (2)

So what is the difference between technical climbing equipment now and in 1966 and how had it changed since the 1930s?

Hardware and climbing methods


Big wall techniques. New methods were evolving rapidly in Yosemite. This included the ‘jumar rope clamp’ used first in Europe for crevasse rescue and first used in Yosemite in 1964. The techniques developed were for multi day routes where loads were too heavy even for the second man to carry. So the Jumars were used by the second who followed using Jumars instead of rock climbing. Later methods used specially made large capacity, (at least double the size of a big pack) cylindrical haul bags up after them. But this was too early. Seconding on Jumars was method of the team and the Germans were also using cylindrical containers ( possibly for water) attached to their harnesses to lighten their loads.

Crampons in 1966 were mainly the new Salewa pressed steel adjustable, although one of the German team said that the front points of his forged crampons were bending out of shape and becoming useless. More worthy of note is that crampons were attached with straps in that period, which compressed the boot and feet. Boots had much less internal structure then and so the risk of frostbite was much greater. The cable heel clamp bindings which we are all familiar with today were not developed until the early 80s.

When the climbers were facing in, as is customary today, they were only holding on with short hand-held ice daggers, and boots were not so stiff, and this was well before rigid crampons. Dougal’s account of his last epic lead pitch without axes and only ice daggers is incredible, needing an extraordinary level of both physical and mental strength.




The new construction, kernmantel, was invented in Germany and was already available from the early 60s. These types of ropes were a dramatic improvement over the previous nylon hawser laid types, let alone the hemp ropes of 1938. Water absorption was very low and they had much more stretch than the former hawser laid versions, and indeed that was part of their safety in that they would absorb energy in a fall. Germans used a combination of what now would be called full weight and 5 mm, a clear distinction, sort of a ‘no ifs or buts’ choice when climbing. The Anglo-American team, however, used full weight and 7mm, the latter for hauling purposes. It is normal to assume that jumaring on this was the cause of Harlins death. However, it is always possible that the thicker rope will also have failed because of the way in which this sort of dynamic rope stretches under load. Any friction between it and rock will cause abrasion and eventual failure. Today it is well understood that a rope used to follow the lead climber in a jumaring situation should be a ‘static’ rope without stretch, similar to those used for caving, or on a yacht.


Ice axes


The curved pick revolution of 1970 was still 4 years away. The axes used had changed little since Whymper’s time, save for the version with hammer head instead of the adze. What was used on steep ground were short hand-held ice daggers with very limited penetration and hence little holding power. These could best be described as a psychological aid. Dougal’s description of his final pitch, climbed only with daggers and no axes, as ‘one of the most testing of his career’ leaves one in little doubt.




Harnesses were on the German list but it was not the sit harness we know today, but probably a chest harness made of rope. Climbing sit harnesses (in other words with the leg loops) did not arrive until after the 1970 British Annapurna expedition. The nylon webbing sit harness was Don Whillans innovation, developed by Troll.


Belay devices


No plates or figures ‘8’ for belaying are visible.
Abseil methods. Although the figure eight abseil device was available by possibly as early as 1962, there is no evidence of such in the kit list or of its use. Indeed Dougal describes the rope burning painfully through his jacket near the hood and this is just what the classic abseil method would do although they would be using the amended method using a karabiner clipped to the waist belt or existing type harness and rope over the shoulder instead or a device to slow and control rope movement.


Pitons and Ice screws


The early 1922 ice pitons had gone and were replaced by the Marwa ice screw. The tubular ice screw which has many times greater holding power had already been invented by Salewa Munich by 1962, and they carried 20 of these compared to 25 tubular. By contrast they took 100 rock pitons, plus 2 drills and and bolts, an indication of the terrain they thought they would encounter.



Helmets were an innovation of 1962 and both teams were well equipped here.
Headlamps; well equipped of course but in 1938 candle lanterns were the only light. Candles were of course on the German equipment list, and these were for use in the bivouacs.


What equipment do we have today for our safety?


Ropes which are being developed to much higher standards by the UIAA testing from 1967 onwards; climbing sit harnesses enabling one to take the weight off one’s legs without too much loss of circulation;
ascenders, whilst much more readily available and much lighter versions have not essentially changed since the date of the 1966 climb.
belay plates, powerful protection which together with improvements to all the other key links has changed the rules from: ‘the leader shall not fall’ to ‘the leader expects to fall if he is to improve and succeed.’




In the late 60’s, after an introduction by Graham Tiso, Mike Parsons of Karrimor arrived in Leysin Switzerland to talk to Dougal Haston about a successor to the famous orange Whillans pack of only 27L capacity. The result was the pack that Dougal would have wanted on the Eiger in 1966. A 60L pack, with a very long extension, to make a good bivi cover and a long front zip to give easy access. This purple coloured pack became known as the Haston Alpiniste.


Summary of Timeline


1930s: Austrian climbers experimented with making crampons rigid along their length to enhance performance, but it was not commercialised.
1931 Dr Karl Prusik of Vienna introduces a method of ascending the rope itself.
1932 Laurent Grivel introduced the first 12-point crampons.
1933 Pierre Allain, France, designed and produced warm bivouac items – ‘La Grande cagoule’ made of rubber coated silk, and the ‘pied d’elephant’ or ‘elephant’s foot’, which was down filled.
1934 Discovery of nylon polyamide fibres.
1937-39 Vitale Bramani developed, in conjunction with Pirelli, the first rubber sole moulded to imitate the shape of nails.
Early 1950s Down clothing and ‘pied d’elephant’ ( a short sleeping bag invented by PA (Pierre Allain, see our Great Innovators: Pierre Allain ) came into general use in the Alps.
1952 French company ‘Pile Wonder’ produced first ever battery operated headlamp.
1956-58 Ice screws take a small step forward with the Marwa screw thread ‘bottle opener’ type .
1960 First Kernmantel construction ropes become available in Germany.
1962 First fibreglass helmet, designed by Swiss climber Paul Hubel from the aluminium test model. Sold by Schuster, Munich.
1962 Hermann Huber of Salewa, Germany, achieved a design breakthrough by producing the first easily adjustable crampons, also with increased strength for front pointing technique.
1962 First tubular ice screw developed by Huber of Salewa.
1962 An improved abseil device, the ‘abseilachter’ or ‘figure of eight,’ was developed.
1964 Big wall climbing techniques were progressing in Yosemite in the 1960s. This included the ‘jumar rope clamp’ used first in Europe for crevasse rescue. Jumars were first used in Yosemite in 1964
1965 Helly Hansen introduced a range of polypropylene underwear (LIFA®) designed to move moisture away from the skin. .
1966 Chouinard experimented with axe shapes and persuaded Charlet to make him an axe with a curved pick, and just as controversial, a shaft as short as 55cm.
1968 Karrimat, (closed cell foam mat) becomes commercially available.
1970 UK expedition – The Annapurna South Face expedition resulted in several innovations:
i. The Whillans box 2nd generation.
ii. The Whillans’ nylon webbing climbing harness by Troll.
iii. Whillans down suit.
iv. Neoprene overboots for the (still single) leather
1978 Plastic shelled mountain boots introduced by Koflach of Austria. First available with felt inners and then later with closed cell foam inners called after the foam itself, Alveolit. This was a process for chemically blown foam as distinct from the pressure chamber blown version used on the Karrimat.


See Innovation Timeline for further details

See Eiger Direct 1966 ; another bare knuckle fight (1) for details of clothing and footwear