During the second British expedition to Chomolongma in 1922, George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce used bottled oxygen for the very first time. The four steel cylinders and the supporting frame of each piece weighed around 14 kilogrammes, and the apparatus was both awkward and prone to clogging. That was 70 years ago. Today, the market is packed with modern, ultra-efficient and innovative equipment, some of which has undoubtedly contributed to making mountaineering more accessible.
The ice axe, one of the indispensable tools of climbing, has seen remarkable changes since its early days. The ice axe of the early 20th century used to be quite long, doubling up as a walking stick on level ground. Nowadays, apart from being shorter, it is also provided with two or more holes for looping ropes. New alloys, resins and fibres, and combinations of these, have replaced the traditional wood and metal in the axe.
A decade ago, the “reverse curve pick” axe — the pick curving slightly upwards — became available. It is now considered to have been a revolutionary step in the design of ice-climbing equipment. Some shafts nowadays are bent, the plus side of these being that they reduce fatigue and protect the knuckles while attacking the ice, and the minus point being that they are less versatile because of their specialisation.
Researchers at Scotland’s Strathclyde University have developed safer ropes for the Cairngorm Climbing Company. A chemical dressing applied to the yarn used in making the rope changes colour when the rope reaches its UIAA designated number of falls. So, when the rope has been used for long enough, it turns black at the places where it has been weakened, warning the against an unprotected fall.
Gore-Tex is a synthetic membrane that has been used widely in mountaineering gear. Sheets of the membrane are used to line outdoor clothing. The clothing keeps the body surprisingly warm and dry while allowing moisture to escape through pores in the membrane. This material has also been used for shoes, sleeping bags and tents, with mixed results. Gore-Tex liners in boots help in drying up the boots quickly while on ice or moist ground. But in tents, it is less effective.
Rucksack design is increasingly ergonomic, geodesic domes provide more living space for a given floor area, and their alloy poles are light and strong. Harnesses for full-body, waist and kg have been improved although mountaineers complain they are inconvenient and restrictive and many prefer to tie ropes directly around their waists the old-fashioned way.
A noteworthy development in the Nepal Himalaya has been the easy availability of light, high-pressure oxygen bottles, coming from Moscow. After the Soviet disintegration, these cylinders, said to have been developed for the military, have penetrated the market and have become quite popular. Their selling point is that they are half as heavy as the regular European models,
On the life-saving front, perhaps one of the most important product of Himalayan climbing has been the Gamow Bag, a seven kilogram nylon chamber which resembles a pumped-up sleeping bag. It has been hailed as an effective life-saving, first-aid device for acute mountain sickness (AMS). The sufferer is placed inside the bag, and air is led in from an attached pump, simulating a descent of several thousand metres. Although intended as a temporary first-aid device only, the Gamow Bag, developed by a Colorado doctor, has proven valuable in many cases of AMS. The price of the Gamow hovers around U$ 2000, which presently restricts it to larger expeditions. However, word that other manufacturers are working on clones to sell in the below U$ 500 range holds out the possibility that this innovative hyperbaric chamber will lead to greater confidence among mountaineers to come climb in the Himalaya.