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Innovation: Climbers get hi-tech edge with improved equipment

THE SPATE of tragic accidents in British mountains has created the impression that mountaineering is an unjustifiably hazardous sport.

Paradoxically, the truth is that technology is making climbing safer. Tens of thousands of walkers and climbers take to the hills each weekend, most of them in complete safety. Given the numbers involved and the nature of the environment, the real surprise is that there are not more deaths.

The increase in safety is partly due to the way in which technology has been applied to improve equipment standards in the past 10 to 15 years. Jacqueline Greaves was deservedly praised for her courage in surviving two nights in poor weather in the Cairngorms. But it was the quality of her equipment that gave her the necessary edge.

When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Everest in 1953, they used ice axes very similar to those used in the 1920s, and tents based on pre- war designs. Their clothing was made of natural fibres, and hardware that is now commonplace did not exist.

Rock climbing and mountaineering are the UK's fastest- growing sports, with an estimated 700,000 devotees. The rapid growth in the market is encouraging manufacturers to invest in the research and development needed to adapt a range of discoveries, giving modern climbers an enormous choice of clothing and equipment.

Artificial fibres have been used by companies such as Duofold and Polartec to develop fleece fabrics that are lighter, quicker to dry and warmer when wet than natural fibres.

Gore-Tex, a material that 'breathes', made of polytetrafluorethylene backed on to a face fabric, has been continuously improved since its invention in 1969. Used as a top layer, with fleeces and thermal underwear, it draws sweat off the body and expels it through the climber's clothing, while giving complete protection from the elements. When the climber eventually stops moving, there is much less sweat around to chill or freeze.

Tent design has also moved on since the ascent of Everest. The tent used by Edmund Hillary weighed about seven kilogrammes. Now stronger, waterproof tents weigh as little as two kilogrammes. These weight savings are partly due to materials such as the Watershed fabric, introduced recently by Wild Country of Derbyshire.

The improvement in fabrics builds upon the fundamental innovation of geodesic tent frames by the architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller. In collaboration with the American manufacturer The North Face, Fuller developed the Vector Equilibrium tent, which absorbs energy across a skeleton of light alloy poles, offering greater strength in high winds.

New materials have also altered climbers' footwear. Traditional leather boots inevitably became wet, then froze, increasing the risk of frostbite. In the 1980s, plastic mountaineering boots were introduced, reducing weight, increasing warmth and significantly reducing the incidence of frostbite.

Ropes have also improved since the invention of the Kernmantel, or core sheath rope, by the German company Edelrid in the 1950s. Kernmantel rope has a protective outer coat, enabling the core to be softer and more loosely woven than hawser-laid rope. More energy-absorbent, it allows climbers to take bigger falls in greater safety.

Ropes are now treated to make them waterproof. This reduces weight and obviates the nuisance of frozen ropes. The Scottish manufacturer Cairngorm is currently developing a chemically treated rope that will warn climbers if it is dangerously stressed by changing colour at the point of stress.

Alloy karabiners, the clips used to attach pitons and other protective devices to the rope, are hot-forged so that the metal is thicker at critical points. Although lighter, the clips are stronger.

The Welsh manufacturer DMM has just extended this principle to ice axes, making ice climbing easier and safer.

Perhaps the most ingenious protective development for climbers is the Friend, a camming device invented by Ray Jardine, a former NASA scientist, and developed in the UK by Wild Country.

The cams are placed in rock cracks and the rope is clipped to them to secure the climber. A trigger mechanism expands and contracts them to fit the various sizes and shapes of the cracks. They are also less damaging to the rock than older types of protection, such as pegs, which must be hammered into cracks.

Rock climbing began as a branch of mountaineering, but has now overtaken that sport in popularity. There has been a surge in the standard of climbing in the past decade, driven by the invention of 'sticky boots' by the Spanish manufacturer Boreal. These have soles made of a rubber similar to that on racing car tyres - in fact, the rubber originally came from recycled aircraft tyres.

Because they are softer and literally stickier, these boots allow rock climbers to stand on sloping ledges and tiny indents.

Climbing in high altitudes has become safer since the end of the Cold War, when supplies of the light, strong metal titanium, formerly swallowed up by arms manufacturers, became cheap enough for more mundane applications such as climbers' oxygen tanks.

The tanks were a great help to Rebecca Stephens, who became last year the first British Woman to climb Everest. She could not understand why less fit climbers kept overtaking her, until she discovered how light their oxygen equipment was.

Other safety improvements at high altitude derive from a better understanding and treatment of the illnesses climbers succumb to through the shortage of oxygen.

The Gamow bag, a portable pressure chamber made from Kevlar - the material that is used to make bullet-proof vests - has saved the lives of many climbers suffering from cerebral and pulmonary oedemas.

Ed Douglas is the editor of 'Mountain Review'.

(Photograph omitted)