The use of crampons has always been the source of controversy. They were probably the first tool, or the first
artificial means, used to cope with the difficulties of mountain terrain and simultaneously they were also the
last tool to be universally accepted and used.
The first evidence of crampons (fig.1) can find on the Arch of Constantine (beginning of 1V century dc.) in Rome. According to Tertulliano (160-220 DC.) they were invented by spies in order to move with safety on difficult terrain, in fact they are called “ the spy’s shoes” (caligae, elevatae, seculatoriae).
Simler (Simlero) cites their use in Vallesiae et Alpium descriptio in 1574 and we can find them again with Signore de Villemont in 1588. They were “grappettes”, normally with four spikes, fixed under shoes to avoid slipping and were certainly used by the woodsmen and hunters who shared the mountains with crystal hunters. The mountains were conceived as being highly dangerous with terrible precipes and frightening glaciers. The Enlightment and following era of Romanticism changed these views and saw rocks and ice as having an intrinsic beauty and a potential for leisure activities. These are more or less the tools that the Burrits and the de Saussures used when they talked of something that fort bons pour marcher sur la neige ou sur le gazon, mais ils sont très-incommodes sur le rochers. (Very useful for walking on the snow and grass, but uncomfortable on rock).
Remember that the boots were hobnailed ensuring a good grip in difficult situations, above all due for guides when cutting steps.
The invention of rubber soles by Vitale Bramani (the name from which Vibram derives) came just before World War II. The technique of hobnailing shoes had become very sophisticated and mountaineers could choose between many types and quality of hobnails (fig.4). Some claim that is was due to the excessive and incorrect hobnailing of his boots that caused the death of Courmayeur’s famous guide Emile Rey, returning from the Dente del Gigante (25-8-1895).
(fig. 1-2 - Historical crampon)
(fig. 4 chiodi)
So the story continues with various changes from 1800 to 1840. The designs copy one and another, some with very elaborate forms,
but always along the same lines of the “grappettes”.
In the second half of the century more complete designs began to appear, covering the whole of the shoe, like the crampon Pastori d i Brescia in 1876, the one made in Vienna and Salisbourg in 1884 anticipating the Algan with its ten points distributed symmetrically and double articulation which already resembled “real” crampons (fig.6). Finally Fiorio and Ratti’s design merits a mention in 1888 (fig 7).
It is also interesting to find out what the mountaineers thought about crampons. There were at least three different approaches: the Tyrol’s (today we would call them the Eastern Mountaineers) who adopted them enthusiastically. The “purists”, typically the English, who totally refused them. C.D. Cunningham, in an article in 1988, after writing six pages on the ice-axe treated crampons made this comment: “Crampons, which I presume a mountaineering purist would look upon as “artificial aids” are never used in the Alps and are only seen in the Tyrol”. Whimper treated crampons in the same way declaring “artificial aids on which one cannot depend on dangerous slopes”. And that was that until the next century.
Zsigmondy held a different point of view insinuating that “the guides at Zermatt should not use crampons, because as it would no longer be necessary to cut steps in the great walls of ice, it would diminish the reputation that the mountains have for thousands of travelers who are always astonished by the hundreds of steps that need to be cut”. Mereur had the same idea, “one could be tempted to believe that it is true, because, seeing the extensive use that the Tyrol make of these tools, it is difficult to understand why they are unknown here. The fact is that, the guides have an instinctive repugnance for these tools”. (Fiorio and Ratti - C:A:I:. 1889).
During the same period military technological advances equipped a large number of soldiers to deal with potentially dangerous situations. Above all for equipment that could be adapted to different shoe sizes. For example in France, Lieutenant Trémeau’s invention could be regulated and only weighed 500 grams (fig.8). These military requirements were unfortunately needed when the 1st. World War broke out.
The whirlwind Oscar Eckenstein (1859 - 1921) broke into this rather quiet environment in the early 20th century.. An engineer, brilliant
mountaineer, argumentative and a loner, he published two articles in the Ostereich Alpenzeitung, on the 20th. July 1908 and the 5th. June
1909, detailing the results of his research on the manufacture of crampons, their systematic use and the incredible feats they could perform.
In fig.9 illustrates his designs.
Eckenstein’s real innovation and its importance doesn’t just lie in the technical perfection of the crampons but rather in the spirit of courage and innovation with which he defined their use..... his major contribution has been that of a moral nature. This ultimately consists in the faith that mountaineers laid in his inventions: nobody dared before him, but afterwards everybody trusted crampons. (Manual d’Alpinisme du C.A.F. 1934).
Our hero bought his plans to the blacksmith at Courmayeur, Henry Grivel – who, even though he was doubtful, made the crampons for the
“English gentleman”, who had the undoubtable advantage of being able to pay. Success was immediate, so much so that on the 30th. of June 1912
a competition for “cramponneurs”, between guides and porters, was organized on the Brenva glacier. It is important to note that Eckenstein also
introduced a special marking system to judge the competitors’ style in the various trials. This could make it the first climbing competition in
the history of mountaineering, even though it was on ice. Alphonse Chenoz won (on the right, standing next to O.Eckentstein, fig. 10).
In the meantime a very untidy Henry couldn’t patent the new designs because mice had eaten the original drawings.
The way forward had been set out, new tools and technology gave high quality results; though there was still something missing. It was Laurent, Henry’s first son and a mountain guide, who added the two front points that were necessary to allow whatever movement was necessary on the steepest and hardest gradients. The 12 points crampon was born in 1929 (fig. 11).
As before, it wasn’t just a matter of progress with materials but a question of change in philosophy, to be able to “dare” when facing difficulty, to be able to face it straight on.
This was the beginning of the battle between front-on or side-on techniques. As the official french manual says (CAF and GHM) in 1934: “the smith Grivel from Courmayeur produces crampons with 12 points - they are, it would seem, very useful to help overcome those short passages of difficult ice that one finds on glaciers without cutting steps or twisting ankles; or to surmount steep slopes of hard snow in particular in terminal crevasses. This type of crampon can be particularly useful especially for those who have ankles with limited mobility. The front points though, do not seem to be useful without committing imprudence on sheet ice........The mountaineers, who have good ankles, which do not suffer the continual pressure will not gain any advantage with this sort of crampon. Though it will be very useful for the others”.
The “ultimate” opinion in the international debate came with the ascent of the north face of the Eiger on 21-24 July 1938, thanks to (as well) Heckmair’s and Vorg’s 12 spikes, according to the one of the second team, Harrer who with Kaspareck had problems with their old crampons. In France though, the ostracism continued for a long time, up until the adoption of “piolet traction”.
In the meantime Grivel presented the famous “superlight” ,a special request that the Alpine School at Aosta had forwarded for the teams in the Mezzalama Trophy in 1933. Made in steel, in collaboration for the first time with the Cogne steelworks, Amato Grivel, Laurent’s younger brother, used the alloy Nichel-Chrome-Molibdeno, achieveding strength whilst allowing a reduction in thickness and therefore in weight. They forged crampons weighing 360 grams a pair, up until then impossible.
After the terrible interruption caused by the war, production was oriented towards crampons that could be adjusted to fit different types and measures
of shoes. On the technical side there was a leaning towards tools suitable for hard and steep ice, fast becoming the main goal for mountaineers. The
American Yvon Chouinard was probably the first person to think of a rigid crampon which provided a more stable platform and efficiency in penetrating
hard packed ice. These crampons were very efficient though fragile and dangerous; plastic boots would be the solution. In 1972 Mike Lowe screwed vertical
teeth like blades onto his ski boots, These were the Foot Fangs, a real revolution in the concept of crampons: a vertical structure with an automatic
binding. A few years before, Stubai had moved forwards the second pair of points increasing the grip and balance efficiency of the front-on technique.
The Makaly, designed by Walter Cecchinel, was the most famous crampon at the time. Other important innovations to note in recent history are the
following: the mono-point (Charlet and Grivel in 1986 with an old idea that had never been used), the anti-balling up plate (J.Fréchyn 1979) and
the back spur for the new technique of heel anchorage.
In the meantime another old idea was discovered (Edouard Frendo at the beginning of the 1950’s) used light alloys to make light weight crampons; though their use seems to be limited to particular competition needs and as spare equipment. Today crampons are not all purpose objects used in every situation but there are specific types for different situations and disciplines; this is especially true for ice-falls.
For a better analysis of the contemporary evolution of crampons look at the paragraph “History of waterfalls, goulottes etc.” on the ice-axe page.