2017-08-02

DIY: Alpenstock

Recently I've done a lot of research in to mountaineering gear. First I wanted to figure out what modern gear is out there and what is best for what, and second I wanted to understand historical gear as possibly useful information in building a non-synthetic gearset for some basic mountaineering.

Not long ago I posted http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2017/07/crampons-what-to-buy.html. But, this is only half the story, there's also the modern ice-axe.

Now, if you start reading you'll quickly learn that historically people actually carried 2 different tools: an axe, and an alpenstock. The modern ice-axe is actually a conglomeration of those 2 tools in to one. What people used as an axe varied a lot from what I've seen in photos, but basically it was something like a rock-hammer (often a one-handed sledge-hammer with a spike welded to it), or a literal axe.

Alpenstocks though were pretty consistent, It's really just a good strong pole with a metal spike at the bottom.

Alone the alpenstock could be used for normal walking. On steeper hills you'd plunge the spike in to the icy-snow and use it for stability and self-belay like a modern ice-axe. When things get really ice you could use the metal tip on the alpenstock to slowly chip out steps in the ice... it's slow, but it works (particularly before crampons were popular). The axe was carried for more serious mountaineering as it made this last process a lot faster.

Everyone carried an alpenstock in the mountains in Europe, to the point that I've seen historical jokes about people being unwilling to walk around town without them. Fundamentally they are very very similar to the modern collapsable hiking pole (which you also see people with walking down bike-paths today), but tougher and capable of taking significant side-loads (as in a self-belay).

As a result, when Alpenstocks had the ice-axe head added to them combining the two tools in to one for convenience, at first they were still long enough to use as a normal hiking pole. It wasn't until later when people started mostly storing the ice-axe on their pack, and only taking it out for the mountaineering bits that ice-axes got short. Improvements in crampons and the popularity of ice-climbing also helped drive this change.

All in all the alpenstock is really an in-between. It's better than a modern hiking pole for sketchy mountainsides, but it won't let you self-arrest like a modern ice-axe, only self-belay, and it's far slower for chopping steps. I feel like this makes it ideal for things like thru-hiking where it can be a hard call whether to carry an ice-axe at all or not... So I wanted to make one and give it a try.

Here's my first attempt:


Ideally the wood would probably be a touch hard-to-split hard-wood like hickory, but I really wasn't sure how this would work and wanted to just try something and see how it worked in practice. I forget exactly but I believe this is spruce, which is at least better than normal pine.


Step one was to re-inforce the shaft so it wouldn't split. The whole idea of this tool is to stick in to the ice and pull *sideways*, meaning the torque applied by the spike on the stick will be significant. I didn't have any of my favorite linen twine to spare, so I used some simple cotton button thread instead (we'll see how it holds up). I wrapped the shaft carefully, using a standard whipping tie-off (make a loop of thread, wrap around that towards the loop end of the thread, but leaving it sticking out, when you finished stick the end through the loop, pull the other end of the loop still sticking out the other side and tighten).

Then I drilled a hole as deep as I was able using the bits I had on hand. I used a bit notably smaller, trying to guess what would hold the steel well, but not put too much splitting force on wood shaft.


Next I took a 12" spike (a giant nail) and eyeballed how much I wanted to stick out. I decided on ~5", then added that to the depth of my hole by measuring against the drill. I then cut off the sharp end with a hacksaw.

Next I carefully filed the cut side of the spike rounding it so that it would start to slide in to the spike in to the wood shaft. Then, setting the top of the handle on the ground and against a backstop (so it tilted a bit), I hammered the spike in. This took a bit of effort.

I took a file and took off the flat spot I'd created at the tip of the spike. I didn't sharpen it yet, as for now I'm going to use it for normal hiking and not driving it through my foot if I slip would be nice. I may sharpen it a bit more before trying it on more technical terrain.

Lastly, looking at the thread I realized it would get busted up almost immediately as soon as I hit a rock with the side of the pole. So, I figured I'd try and reinforce this a bit. I took some normal elmers glue (basically hide-glue) and rubbed it in to the threads, let it dry, then repeated this 5 or so times, building up a tough layer over the threads that I hope will protect them.

I'm really not sure how well this will work. I don't usually use hiking poles when I just go hiking, I'd rather work on strengthening my knees and sometimes Angie and I decide to run (as we did off of Mt. Shavana recently); so, this will have to wait until our next backpacking trip to get a proper test. I'll update this post of course with the results.

Update:
I recently used this on a 20 mile hike to cross a fairly serious and steep snowfield with no crampons in the Grand Tetons.

It worked, but not ideally. I think I'm going to round the base of the wooden shaft a little bit to help it slide in to the snow more easily, as how well it works in softer snow is decided mostly by how deep it will sink in to the snow.

I used 2 techniques depending on the snow. Sometimes I stuck it in on the downhill side for balance directly in line with gravity, allowing 2 steps before stopping to move the alpenstock. At other times I stuck it in perpendicular to the slope on the uphill side. The second felt more secure, as I could swing it in with both arms and sink it deep in to the hillside, but I could only take one step at a time, as two put me too far offbalance backwards, as the shaft was in my way. The second is the technique I would use if I was really nervous, and on a really steep incline, but not slipping is often most useful and the first sometimes felt better for that.

Of course, please do not take this as an endorsement of a safety device, you are responsible for your own safety out there, this is just me experimenting and sharing what I've found. If you make one, and dye using it, that's on you. Be careful out there.

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