How much did 19th century climbers know about their gear's limitations?
November 25, 2013 6:04 PM   Subscribe

If you were the average climber/mountaineer in the mid-to-late 19th century, how aware were you that your gear was basically crap in terms of providing protection from falls?

Hemp ropes, homemade pitons, cold steel wonder they said "the leader must not fall." But did they know that, for example, rope X could take Y amount of force before it broke? Did they test gear to failure like we do today, to know how far they could push it? (And if so, what were the standards?)

I assume they knew about the physics involved, redundant & equalized anchors, shock-loading, and other things to avoid. But in terms of gear, was it anything more than just basically, "Well, this was made by an experienced guy, it should be strong--Hope it works!"?
posted by gottabefunky to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Alpine Journal 1863-1922, in case it's of use. Other mountaineering books and journals of the 19th century.
posted by XMLicious at 6:29 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

But did they know that, for example, rope X could take Y amount of force before it broke?

Yup. (Some tables, theory, and lore from 1886. Engineers would have been taught about Young's modulus and stuff by then, and they'd have been using tables and rules of thumb for a looooong time previous.)

No idea to what extent they'd be testing pitons, cold steel links, etc, if at all. A lot of stuff would have been knocked together by village blacksmiths (or city blacksmiths) and probably not tested to destruction, even though engineers and metallurgists had test apparatus back then. I guess?

You might want to start by focusing on carabiners in particular and seeing how they characterized and tested them.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:32 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know specifically about climbing rope, or if "climbing rope" was even a thing, but hemp or Manila rope used for naval applications in the 19th c. was tested for strength and rules-of-thumb for choosing/using them were well-known to sailors and longshoremen.

Just based on common practice as described in old sailing manuals and similar sources, I think it's safe to say that the safety factors in use in the 19th c. were frighteningly thin compared to today. This is probably doubly true for climbing.

But my guess is that in considering their equipment, most probably didn't think about its deficiencies as much as they thought it was better than nothing at all, or better than the previous generation of equipment which was worse.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:46 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

With some exceptions, like the Elbsandstein in E. Germany, climbers in the 19th century weren't engaged in climbing as we know it today, climbing steep difficult terrain and lobbing off willy-nilly. Given that body belays and the 'dulfersitzen' rappel (basically just wrapping the rope over your shoulder and through your crotch) were standard practice until like the 1960s, I doubt they bothered much about redundant equalized anchors either. The stuff they were climbing back then (to get up mountains rather than steep cliffs for fun), was generally lower 5th class at most, and just as if you were to climb that kind of stuff these days the rope would have been mainly psychological protection and a means of descent. And it wouldn't really matter how strong your rope was (and no doubt the strongest ropes for their diameter and weight would have been chosen) because being a static, non-stretchy cord tied around your waist, a fall of any great distance would cause a lot of damage. But anyway, yeah to answer your question, I think they would have known all of this, would not be pushing the limits of human gymnastic and physical ability on the rock, and would not fall.
posted by Flashman at 8:33 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

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