Eiger Direct 1966 : another bare knuckle fight (1)

How did the clothing and equipment used on the Eiger Direct 1966 compare with what we have today? How had layers and climbing hardware changed since 1938?

The 1966 Eiger Direct climb was similar to the first ascent in 1938 in that it could be referred to as a ‘bareknuckle’ fight. Although there had been some progress on equipment and clothing,  1966 was on the cusp of the polymer fabrics and climbing hardware revolution. What was being used was in essence emerging technologies which weren’t remotely good enough, and the clothing arguably could have been worse than pre polymer generation products.

Our two reviews cover the clothing, footwear and equipment and differences between the 1938 climbs and 1966. It also identifies the garment layers, footwear and climbing hardware which they didn’t have in 1966, but which we all came to expect as the norm in the  decade or so following 1966.

Looking at our timeline, we can see that that the latest equipment which could have made a difference was not always used: language barriers, customs duty borders, and indeed cultural differences were what caused the time lag. New equipment often means new practises, frequently developed elsewhere in entirely different conditions. What we can also observe is one of the early examples of mountaineers meeting on expedition and sharing equipment ideas. These started to happen in parallel with the step by step removal of tariff barriers across Europe. (As an example when Pete Hutchinson set up ME in early 60s, the import duty on French- made down gear coming into UK was 40%).

Today we perceive the role of leading mountaineers as promoting gear through sponsorships, but throughout 150 years of development we can also see that the key innovators were climbers who did it for themselves to achieve their own ends. We call these people ‘lead users’, and to an extent we can see this happening in the footwear developments done by the Anglo Americans  with a leading French footwear supplier of the time, Le Phoque. Of course, the Eiger isn’t the ideal place for testing really new ideas; however, it is the place to ensure that you are absolutely up to date with the most suitable gear of the time. Today, news of these gear updates and best choices spread by the minute, via all the social media. Back in 1966 it would have taken years.


Evolution of technique and equipment.

In 1922 Willo Welzenbach and his partner Fritz Rigele invented the first basic ice pitons, simple square bars, and used them on the first ascent of the Grosse Wiesbachhorn, where the steepest section was a 75 degree ice wall. This was the breakthrough which took the pre-WW1-developed rope/karabiner/piton protection techniques by Dulfer and friends, in Germany, onto the steep ice faces of the Western Alps. Willo opened another 11 premieres, and for this and his creation of the UIAA grading system he has been referred to as ‘The father of modern Alpinism’. These routes were just as steep as the Eiger, but it was the rockfall danger which differentiated it and the subsequent publicity resulting from the many deaths through the 1930s before the final successful ascent in 1938. The infamous ‘Hinterstoisser traverse’ on the Eiger was a function of the Dulfer technique using double ropes.
Footwear was leather boots, and double boots were created by the German teams for their 1930s Himalayan expeditions, but these were far too heavy and clumsy for alpine use. Nail patterns were designed by selecting the most suitable nails for each section of the boot, so Tricounis were around the front toe area and sides.
Ropes were hemp, a natural fibre which absorbed water or snow and froze solid overnight. Clothing was wool and cotton, but lacked down, even though it was in use on Everest in 1922 and the 1930s, and Pierre Allain in 1933 (best known for his rock boot) created a brilliant combined bivouac and clothing system incorporating the use of down.
Of the Eiger’s 4 first ascensionists, 2 were using 12 point crampons, still forged in that period, so they could climb facing inwards and move much faster than the other pair.
Clothing was almost all wool, either woven (loden) or knitted (as in Dachstein mitts) and very often felted to compact the wool and increase the density and windproofness.


EIGER DIRECT 1966, almost 30 years later.

The 2 competing teams took the leading equipment of the day, influenced strongly of course by their own cultures and experiences and modified after they found new methods and indeed new gear around the world. Both were drawing on that newly erupting melting pot of new methodologies, Yosemite USA and translating those methods into an entirely different climate. Much depended on their portable environment, otherwise known as clothing layers, footwear and bivi gear.
Sometimes they would compromise on cost, perhaps not wanting to pay for Angora wool suggested by the leader and opting for a cheaper wool/cotton mix. Oft times they were not understanding the qualities of either the new or even the old materials as well as they might.




By the 1940s, nails had been replaced by the moulded sole, replicating the nail configuration, by Vitale Bramani, hence Vibram. The brilliant boot design by the Everest ‘53 team was forgotten after 1955, but had it been commercialised it would have led the world for maybe 2 decades.

However, in 1966, leather was still the only material for boots; the plastic shell was still more than a decade ahead.

The plastic boot was developed first by Bob Lange for ski boots in 1968,  but then it took another 10 years before Koflach in ‘78 developed a winning concept using a closed cell foam inner boot.  This idea however had faded and almost disappeared again by the mid 90s, such was the speed of transition to footwear that cares for your feet and feels the holds. The closed cell neoprene full overboot, a Karrimor Whillans innovation and the vital bridge until the Koflach shell, was not developed until 1970 for Bonington’s Annapurna expedition. Even using leather boots, all climbers remained completely frostbite free.


As with garment layers, there was the need to prevent water ingress and provide warmth. However, closed cell foam, a key insulation material today was just on the horizon 2 years ahead, so no Karrimats (1968) in use here. Felt had been used in high altitude boots since the 1924 Everest expedition , and when highly compacted was a good material. But the boot craftsman often determined that inner layers or even a separate inner (ie of a double boot) was composed of thin leathers and  open cell foam (already in use for furniture), both of which absorbed much water. Wool also holds lots of water, but when used as clothing it is always reckoned to retain warmth even when wet. After a bivi or two that would not be the case. The black outer leather absorbs water from snow crystals like water into blotting paper. Within days this footwear would be sodden and then frozen.

The Anglo Americans  chose to use only one pair of socks, presumably opting for the better footwork this would give. rather than 2 pairs which had been normal in this period. It may also have been a show of confidence in the new ‘le Phoque’ boot, which had an interesting looking modern feature of a rubber overlay to the laces. It should be noted that what we know as the ‘bellows tongue’ which fully seals the boot across this area did not yet exist, the tongue being semi loose as indeed in a modern ski boot inner today. And it allowed lots of water in.


Garment layering


Layering has been in use since at least Oetzis’s time and is not merely use of multiple garments, but the technique of selecting and using them together and at different levels of activity and inactivity. Layering principles are that basically the more layers, the warmer and the more versatile one is. Anglo-American techniques were based on multiple layers and stemmed from a century of Polar exploration which was translated into use on Everest in the 1920s. However the core German belief, that is until the 60s or 70s, was that the less layers the better. This may have been reflected in their choice of less warm inner layers/sweaters and perhaps more reliance on down equipment as outers. (My interpretation, based on what is said about their sweaters and what the Anglo Americans  were using, probably the number one choice of the period, Norwegian oiled wool sweaters.)


The choice of a soft non-waterproof cotton one piece outer garment by the Germans was unsurprisingly bad, although one-piece shell suits and even down one-piece suits became standard for Himalayan expeditions by the early 90’s. The nylon outers selected by the Anglo Americans were equally unsuccessful, but in a different way. Condensation occurred of course, and the hydrophilic PU coatings that we know today were still a decade away. But zips and indeed velcro were very well established, and so trying to put nylon overpants on over crampons and resulting rips was either poor garment selection or lack of choice, or the need for a simple design request to a sponsor, or lack of forethought in the stress of the situation.


It is very easy now to make comparisons with the layers and garments available today and wonder, perhaps in awe. But layering selection and technique has always been as important as the technology. This is proven in the very high success rate of Polish climbing teams in the 80s, who claim the first winter ascent of Everest and two other summits. This was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the USSR and its satellites had been isolated from Western technologies for half a century. They had none of the modern things we have today.


Comparing Mallory 1924 layering, Eiger 1966 and Today.


Our research on reproduction of the Mallory layers and testing to 25,000ft proved that they were good enough to summit on a good day. The summit bid pair were moving together and not on terrain needing a belay. That made it good enough, but not for a bivouac. The 6 clothing layers were tailor made to size and were alternating silk over wool over silk, with a final solid waterproof totally windproof outer layer of Burberry cotton fabric. Interestingly the sequels to the Burberry fabric, Grenfell and Ventile were never proven as superior although the garment designs were an improvement.. They did, not however, use George Finch’s great 1922 innovation, the down jacket.

These 1922 layers were probably superior to the Eiger 1966 layers because of the way in which windproof silk trapped air in the wool layers. However, the great weakness was the hood design and the closure around the throat and mouth area, causing Norton an almost fatal accident when his larynx froze. Mallory’s boots were very good, but totally unsuitable for use on steep ground and with crampons. By using nailed boots instead of crampons they avoided tight straps compressing the feet. Fitness for purpose indeed.

The Eiger 1966 men used wool but without windproof layering to trap air.  This made them more dependent on their down outer layers even when moving, in contrast to today’s practises. The German cotton outers were nothing like as as good as Burberry and would have absorbed water. The outer fabrics of all the down gear would not have had DWR ( durable water resistant) finishes and snow and spindrift would have melted into the fibres and down very rapidly. The nylon PU outers would have prevented this, but condensation from sweat was the problem.

Today we obviously have much better layers, but the methodology is also different. These evolved step by step and the USA mountaineer Mark Twight was able to outline his principles clearly in his book in 1999. Use only enough layers to keep you warm enough when climbing, but when on belay use a big down jacket, hence the term belay jacket was born. This was partly driven by the need to avoid changing layers when using harness with leg loops.


Today it goes without saying we have much better windproof layers.  These were developed partly because of the need for very much tighter woven nylon fabrics needed to hold in the increasingly finer down and the microfibres of non woven insulating polymer materials. Hydrophilic coatings and ePTFE laminates allow sweat to pass through to a varying degree, not totally, but enough to make a huge difference to the drying out of the inner layers.


Garments conclusion


An understanding of what the fibres, fabrics and materials will and indeed won’t do and how the garments are configured with, eg, pant side zips or well-designed hoods, and choosing and using appropriate methodologies is as vital to success today as it always was, regardless of all the amazing new technologies.


For further insights into clothing layers and technology see Keeping Dry and Staying Warm:  Almost everything you need to know about outdoor and mountaineering garments and usage practices.

 See Eiger Direct 1966: another bare knuckle fight (2) for details of climbing hardware