By Bruno Schull
Who invented the ice axe? Did shepherds scrambling back and forth between high pastures add crude picks to wooden alpine stocks, or is that just a climbing legend? How did the long ice axes of the last century evolve into the short technical tools we know today? I am not a historian, so I can not answer these questions, but I suspect that there are many different interpretations, and that the definitive story remains to be told. What I can offer is the story of one ice axe, which has been made in largely the same form for over one-hundred-and-forty years, by four generations of the same family. It’s the story of the ice axe which accompanied climbers on the first ascents of the highest mountain in the world, and the most infamous north face of the Alps. It’s also a story about craft, an intangible combination of skill, tradition and values, fast disappearing in the modern world. It’s the story of the Bhend ice axe.
Before I go any further, I would like to say that I learned a great deal about Bhend ice axes from four sources: first, an article published by the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, a newspaper based in Zurich, Switzerland; second, an article published by Bayerischer Rundfunk, a media platform based in Munich, Germany; third, an article written by climber, historian and museum director, Marco Bomio, which can be found on the website of Bhend Metallbau, the company which produces Bhend ice axes; and fourth, several articles collected in a tourist brochure called Faszination Eiger, produced by a larger magazine, Schweizer Illustrierte, also based in Zurich, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the legendary Heckmair route on the North Face of the Eiger. In addition, I had the pleasure of visiting Bhend Metallbau, where I spoke at length with owner and craftsman Ruedi Bhend. He tolerated my questions in poor German, showed me several ice axes from his collection, and invited me to take pictures of his workshop. His contribution was invaluable, and I am grateful for his patience and generosity. Finally, while I have attempted to bring Bhend ice axes to life, I encourage you to follow the links below, and study the pictures, much better than my own, worth more than words.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Karl Bhend traveled from his home in Interlaken, Switzerland, to the small town of Grindelwald, in the heart of the Bernese Alps, at the foot of the Eiger. There, in 1880, he established a small metal shop, where he repaired wagons and carts, and forged shoes for draft animals. At that time, climbers were beginning to arrive in the Alps in great numbers, inspired by the Golden Age of mountaineering, between 1954 and 1865. A local mountain guide, Christian Almer, encouraged Karl to begin making ice axes to meet the demands of guides and clients, and in this way the first Bhend ice axes were produced. The ice axes became popular, and soon there were three other craftsmen producing ice axes in the same area; Schenk in Grindelwald, Jorg in Zweilutschinen, and Hasler in Lutschental.
Karl’s son, Alfred, and grandson, also named Alfred, continued production into the twentieth century. The latter Alfred was a climber. Not satisfied with the equipment on the market, he made lightweight crampons with eight points. These crampons were not produced for very long, as developments in technology, such as front points, and modern manufacturing techniques, such as stamping, made traditional methods obsolete, a trend which, to some extent, foreshadowed the fate of Bhend ice axes.
Bhend ice axes earned their first great success in 1938, when German climbers Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vorg, and Austrian climbers Heinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek, completed the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a climb which repelled numerous other parties, and lead to several widely-reported tragedies, including the deaths of German climbers Max Sedlmayr and Karl Mehringer, in 1935, who froze during a storm, and the death of German climber Toni Kurz, in 1936, who hung lifeless on a rope before the eyes of would-be rescuers. These tragedies contributed to the myth of the Eiger, which became known as the Morwand, or Wall of Death, a play on the common name, Norwand, or north face. When the successful climbers descended, they were photographed by journalists. The photograph is dark and grainy, taken at dusk, but their faces reveal exhaustion and exultation. On the far left stands Harrer, who later wrote The White Spider, an account of the ascent which inspired generations of climbers. In the middle of the group is Heckmair, the most experienced member of the party. In his hand is a Bhend ice axe.
Following World War Two, the British Everest expedition, lead by Colonel John Hunt, contracted with Alfred to supply crampons, ice axes and ice hammers, and New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary, and Nepalese climber Tenzing Norgay, carried Bhend ice axes on the first ascent of Everest, in 1953. A photograph taken by Hillary shows Norgay standing on the summit, cloaked in an insulated jacket and overboots, holding a Bhend ice axe triumphantly over his head. Bhend ice axes were also used by the Swiss expedition of 1956, lead by Dolf Reist, which succeeded in making the second and third ascents of Everest, and the first ascent of Lhotse.
These climbs turned Bhend ice axes into a legend, and production reached its peak in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when Alfred produced nearly one-hundred-and-fifty ice axes per year. Then, in the 1970’s, demand for Bhend ice axes gradually declined. This was due to several factors. First, climbing methods changed, and old techniques, such as cutting steps, were replaced by modern techniques, such as swinging ice tools overhead. Second, as the market grew, large-scale production replaced craft. Bhend ice axes remained popular among a small group of climbers, particularly Swiss mountains guides, and among collectors. Alfred continued to produce ice axes, in small numbers, until a few years before his death, in 1994.
Alfred’s son, Ruedi, trained as a metal worker, and learned how to forge ice axes from his father. He was also a climber, and in 1973 he traveled to Alaska, and summited Denali, using an ice axe and crampons he made himself. He hoped to visit the Himalaya, but his plans changed, and he returned to Switzerland, and began working at Bhend Metallbau, a small shop, on the ground floor of the family home, which produces light industrial and construction goods.
When his father died, Ruedi was not sure that he wanted to continue making ice axes. His bussiness was successful, and he did not know if there was a place for Bhend ice axes in the market. He was also concerned about liability. Bhend ice axes could not pass modern safety tests, and he was afraid that a broken shaft or loose head might expose him to a damaging lawsuit.
Fortunately, Ruedi found support in the local community, including mountain guide Edi Bohren, who was the first person from Grindelwald to climb the North Face of the Eiger, in 1978, with a Bhend ice axe. It’s surprising that nobody from Grindelwald had ascended the North Face before, but it’s important to understand that the mountain casts a literal and symbolic shadow over the town, and the residents, who lived through the tragedies which occurred on the face, and were often involved in rescue operations, avoided the route. Bohren climbed the Eiger with a friend, telling no one, not even his parents, until he returned. He went on to become a longtime technical director of the mountain guides’ training program.
Bohren convinced Ruedi that there was demand for Bhend ice axes, and he resumed limited production. Now he makes ice axes only in winter, from January to March, when there is less work in his shop. Each ice axe takes approximately five to eight hours to complete, and, working in small batches, he produces about forty to fifty axes per year. He also refinishes about thirty axes per year. The old axes hang on a hook in the shop, waiting to be rejuvenated. In this way, Ruedi carries on the family tradition.
The ice axes
When I visited Bhend Metallbau, Ruedi showed me two ice axes, an old ice axe, made in 1880, and a new ice axe, made in 2010. The old ice axe was over one meter long, with a shaft of dark, rough-grained wood. The pick was chipped, and the head was dull gray, although the characteristic engraving was still visible: K. Bhend, Grindelwald. It was strange to hold an ice axe more than one hundred years old, and it was hard for me to imagine how the tool would have been used. I reasoned that the long shaft was held like a staff, and the spike was important for balance. The pick was straight, with small teeth on the underside, and the adze was flat and angular. Perhaps the pick was anchored in the ice, and climbers pulled themselves along the shaft, like a handrail, while the adze was used to hack platforms.
The new ice axe, in contrast, was about seventy centimeters long, and felt much like a modern ice axe. The shaft was made of blond, fine-grained wood, and the swing was light and balanced. Compared to the old ice axe, the head was smooth and polished, a graceful form, pleasing to hold in a variety of positions: pick forward, pick backward and so on.
The most striking feature of the new ice axe was the lack of teeth on the underside of the pick. Indeed, there seemed little to secure the pick in ice. This can be explained by the fact that a Bhend ice axe is, above all, a tool for cutting steps. There are several other features, in addition to the lack of teeth, which make the ice axe suitable for step-cutting. These include the smooth curve along the top of the head, the wide rounded blade of the adze, and the tip of the pick, which is flattened into a small horizontal blade.
Ruedi explained that a modern ice axe is designed to penetrate and stick in ice, while a step-cutting tool is designed to slice through and displace ice. He remembers testing various head shapes with his father on the glaciers above Grindelwald. The Bhend ice axe, therefore, is a refined form which has evolved from generation to generation. In the different versions of the axe, you can trace the progression of climbing techniques, from siege tactics employed during the early days of mountaineering, to step-cutting popular in the first half of the twentieth century.
I held the new ice axe by my side, and swung the head back and forth, trying to imagine cutting steps. None other than Yvon Chouinard, one of the pioneers of modern ice climbing, made a case for step-cutting in his classic book, Climbing Ice. He explained that step-cutting, in the right circumstances, can save a great deal of time, compared to putting on crampons. Apparently, if done correctly, step-cutting is fast, and climbers hardly need to slow their pace.
Switzerland, I understand, is one of the few countries where step-cutting is still part of guides’ training. I recently met a Swiss climber who learned how to cut steps during an introductory mountaineering course. It’s hard to imagine an organization like the American Alpine Institute teaching step-cutting. Once, working for a small school in Switzerland, I accompanied a group of students on an easy glacier trek and peak ascent. At one point, where the ice steepened, our guide cut several steps, using a short ice axe with an aluminum shaft and a blunt triangular pick. His technique was effective, and we followed without difficulty.
Nonetheless, I am not convinced about the practicality of step-cutting. The only time I can imagine cutting steps is perhaps crossing open glaciers in the summer, without crampons, when all the crevasses are exposed, and the gravel on the surface provides solid footing. It’s wonderful to explore glaciers this way. You can wander freely over the ice, peering down into the blue depths of crevasses, and studying myriad melt water streams, and large torrents which disappear into swirling moulins. Every so often, you might encounter a steep section where it would be convenient to cut a few steps, but I’m not sure that justifies owning a special-purpose tool. On the other hand, I’m sure that my perspective is limited by my lack of experience, and I’m not surprised that many Swiss guides prefer Bhend ice axes.
A Bhend ice axe begins life as a block of steel which is forged into the rough shape of the head. In the past, this process took place in the shop, however, the work is now performed by an outside supplier. Ruedi showed me several heads lying in a cabinet with assorted hand tools. They were dark brown, covered with a patina of rust, and bore little resemblance to the elegant finished product. The pick was a simple rectangle, the adze was a flat triangle, and the hole for the shaft was too small. When I saw the heads, I realized how much work is required to make an ice axe by hand.
The head is transformed into a recognizable shape with heat, tongs, hammer and anvil—the tools of a blacksmith. In a corner of the shop is a small forge, stoked with charcoal, and an old anvil, which rests on a massive block of wood. The anvil has several flat surfaces for different processes, a single hole for perforating metal, and the characteristic elongated point for making bends, burnished by years of use. Beside the anvil is an old hammer with a well-worn wooden handle. The Bhend Metallbau web page shows a picture of Alfred shaping an ice axe, standing in front of the same anvil, holding the same hammer, the flames of the same forge burning in the background.
After the head is hammered into rough shape, the hole for the shaft is enlarged, and metal strips are welded onto the sides. The shape of the head is perfected by grinding. This work was done by hand, but Ruedi has the luxury of machines. He said the work is easier now: the forging can be less accurate, because he can grind more. However, the final shaping is not easy. The head is defined by flowing lines and complex curves which are difficult to reproduce. Ruedi does use a thin piece of plate steel which fits under the head as a guide, but the rest is done with hand and eye.
Alfred was a master of forging, and it’s clear that Ruedi does not consider himself an equal. However, watching him work, standing in front of a belt sander, quickly flipping the head one way and the other, periodically holding it up to the light before pressing it back to the grinding machine, as bursts of red and orange sparks cascade onto the floor, it’s obvious that he’s a superlative craftsman.
After grinding, Ruedi quenches the tip of the pick and the blade of the adze in oil, to harden the metal. Then he fits the wooden shaft. The shafts, like the heads, come from an outside supplier. They are made from Ash, carefully selected, and aged for two years. Ruedi prepares the shaft, then fixes the head in place with rivets, which pass through the metal strips, and through holes drilled in the wood. At the bottom of the shaft, he attaches the ferrule and steel spike.
The remaining steps involve sanding and polishing. Again, Ruedi uses machines, and the metal gradually attains a deep luster, gleaming like mercury. The rivets are sanded flush with the metal strips, and, to give you an idea of the quality, when I studied the new axe, it was nearly impossible to see the rivets, so perfectly were they placed, and so carefully were they polished. Finally, the familiar logo is engraved in the pick, along with the name of the owner. The Bhend ice axe is complete.
Naturally, I wonder if Bhend ice axes will be able to survive as souvenirs for collectors, or tools for a small number of Swiss mountain guides. I am tempted to suggest that Ruedi add teeth to the bottom of the pick, or make the angle more aggressive. This would certainly improve the versatility of the axe, and I don’t think it would effect step-cutting performance too much. But that is missing the point. Ruedi thought about producing modern ice axes with aluminum shafts, but he reasoned that he would need to move mass production, a direction that he did not want to follow.
The Bhend ice axe is a tool for crossing glaciers and cutting steps. It’s a piece of climbing history and a connection to the past. It’s an expression of four generations of the same family. And it’s a reflection of values that are disappearing around the world. The Bhend Metallbau web page bears the following words: “We are a traditional family bussiness. We put our heart and soul into our work, and we stand behind the quality of our products. We would like to make the steel glow for you.” These sentiments are common, but they are rarely true. In this case, the ice axes speak for themselves. A Bhend ice axe glows.
Ruedi Bhend is now sixty-eight years old. He is already past retirement age, but when I visited the shop, I found him at work, grinding a small number of heads. I suspect he will continue making ice axes for many more years, as his father did. His son, Urs, is trained as a metal worker, and has practiced making ice axes. In little more than a decade, the Bhend family will celebrate one-hundred-and-fifty years producing ice axes, a truly remarkable achievement. I hope the tradition remains alive in the future.
Der Pickel fur die ganz grossen Berge, Christine Kopp, Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Zurich, Switzerland, February 28, 2014, http://www.nzz.ch/lebensart/reisen-freizeit/grindelwalder-handwerk-mit-geschichte-1.18252490, accessed March 5, 2014.
Die Eispickelschmiede Bhend, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany, August 23, 2013, http://www.br.de/radio/bayern1/sendungen/rucksackradio/sonstiges/Die-Eispickelschmiede-Bhend100.html, accessed March 5, 2014.
Geschichte, Marco Bomio, Bhend Metallbau GmbH, Grindelwald, Switzerland, http://www.eispickel.ch/geschichte.aspx, accessed March 5, 2014.
Faszination Eiger, Schweizer Illustrierte, Zurich, Switzerland, 2013