“Solitary scrambling over a pretty wide area had shown me that a single individual is subjected to many difficulties which do not trouble a party of two or three men, and that the disadvantages of being alone are more felt while descending than during the ascent. In order to neutralise these inconveniences, I devised two little appliances, which were now brought into use for the first time. One was a claw—a kind of grapnel—about five inches long, made of shear steel, one-fifth of an inch thick. This was of use in difficult places, where there was no hold within arm’s length, but where there were cracks or ledges some distance higher. The claw could be stuck on the end of the alpenstock and dropped into such places, or, on extreme occasions, flung up until it attached itself to something. The edges that laid hold of the rocks were serrated, which tended to make them catch more readily: the other end had a ring to which a rope was fastened. It must not be understood that this was employed for hauling one’s-self up for any great distance, but that it was used in ascending, at the most, for only a few yards at a time. In descending, however, it could be prudently used for a greater distance at a time, as the claws could be planted firmly; but it was necessary to keep the rope taut, and the pull constantly in the direction of the length of the implement, otherwise it had a tendency to slip away.
The second device was merely a modification of a dodge practised by all climbers. It is frequently necessary for a single man (or for the last man of a party) during a descent, to make a loop in the end of his rope, to pass it over some rocks, and to come down holding the free end. The loop is then jerked off, and the process may be repeated. But as it sometimes happens that there are no rocks at hand which will allow a loose loop to be used, a slip-knot has to be resorted to, and the rope is drawn in tightly. Consequently it will occur that it is not possible to jerk the loop off, and the rope has to be cut and left behind. To prevent this, I had a wrought-iron ring (two and a quarter inches in diameter and three-eighths of an inch thick) attached to one end of my rope. A loop could be made in a moment by passing the other end of the rope through this ring, which of course slipped up and held tightly as I descended holding the free end. A strong piece of cord was also attached to the ring, and, on arriving at the bottom, this was pulled; the ring slid back again, and the loop was whipped off readily. By means of these two simple appliances I was able to ascend and descend rocks, which otherwise would have been completely impassable for a single person. The combined weight of these two things amounted to less than half-a-pound.”
- from Edward Whymper’s “Ascent of the Matterhorn” originally published in 1880.
Now I would say, 130 years later, that Edward Whymper had quite an innovative approach to alpine climbing, especially considering this era being truly the “Golden Age” of climbing in the Alps! One would be hard pressed to deny the effectiveness of his “little appliances,” as even modern guiding techniques would employ a similar “anchor retrieval” when absolutely necessary(!). Although not as likely with the claw/grapnel, though aid climbing via “hooking” has been a common technique for quite some time. The weak link in this case was the quality rope used. Hemp or manila “laid” construction was the state of the art… not quite to the current UIAA standards. One could only judge the degree of recklessness based on the consequences and ultimate outcome….obviously it worked for Mr Whymper! I highly recommend reading this “classic” of classics in mountaineering history. Thanks to our friends at Rock & Ice/Ascent for this excerpt from his “Ascent of the Matterhorn”. -DJ