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)

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
ebooksNow available in paperback
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst Re...

Argyll Scott International: 2x Service Desk Analyst

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst Re...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Execution Trader

£30000 - £250000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global Rolling Spot FX, Comm...

Citifocus Ltd: ACA - Financial Reporting

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Chartered accountant (ACA or CPA), must be...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game