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The Evolution of Pitons in Rock Climbing

Using Pitons for Anchors and Protection

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Eric Bjørnstad on the summit of the Totem Pole during the 1973 filming of The Eiger Sanction movie.

Eric Bjørnstad poses with a pile of pitons on the summit of The Totem Pole in Monument Valley during the 1973 filming of The Eiger Sanction.

Photograph courtesy Eric Bjørnstad

Pitons are simply metal spikes of various sizes, lengths, and widths that are hammered into cracks in a rock surface. The climbing rope is then attached to the piton by clipping it into a carabiner or quickdraw which is clipped to the eye of the piton. Pitons are also called pins and in Great Britain they're called pegs. The act of placing pitons, especially when aid climbing, is called nailing.

Pitons Used in 1492

Pitons, pronounced "pee-ton," are one of the oldest tools used for technical rock climbing. Their use dates back to at least 1492 when Frenchman Dompjulian de Beaupré used metal spikes, along with grappling hooks and ladders, to create a route up steep limestone cliffs on the 1,000-foot-high Mont Inaccessible in the Vercors Alps near Grenoble. Dompjulian reported that the route was "the most horrible and frightful passage." After the ascent was verified by King Charles VIII, Dompjulian descended and renamed it Léguille, now called Mont Aiguille.

Beginnings of Pitons in 19th Century

As the sport of climbing evolved in Europe, 19th-century climbers began relying on pieces of metal hammered into rock to use for aid on impassable sections and for use as rudimentary belay and protection anchors in the Alps. A precursor of the piton was a small clawed hook that was carried by Edward Whymper, who did the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, for use in surmounting short headwalls.

Piton Use in the Dolomites

It was, however, the big walls in the Dolomites in northern Italy that were instrumental in the development of the piton by Italian climbers. In the early 20th century, Italian guides began venturing onto the huge unclimbed faces, which required new techniques and vision to safely climb them. In 1910 Angelo Dibona and Liugi Rizzi guided Guido and Max Mayer, both experienced German climbers, on the first ascent of the 2,600-foot north face of Cima Una. They used pitons as well as basic aid climbing techniques to ascend the big wall.

Three Advances in 1910

Also in 1910, German climber Otto Herzog developed a steel carabiner for rock climbing that was modeled after ones he had seen used by firemen; Hans Fiechtl began making pitons with a forged eye rather than a ring; and Hans Dülfer developed a belay device, a way to utilize anchors for belaying and attaching climbers together to a face, and rudimentary aid climbing techniques like the tension traverse.

Ellingwood Uses Pitons in 1920 First Ascent

Pitons were used in the United States in the early twentieth-century, particularly by Albert Ellingwood, a Colorado climber who learned the craft of rock climbing in England as a Rhodes Scholar. Ellingwood used three pitons or what he called "spikes" on the first ascent of 13,113-foot Lizard Head in 1920. He wrote in his 1921 account of the ascent: "Hoag, who was carrying the rucksack, tied three spikes into the rope and I pulled them up-long, thick spikes, somewhat like those used for steps on telegraph poles. Driving one in the crack about waist high to step upon." Besides using the pitons for direct aid, Ellingwood also used them on the route, now rated 5.7, for protection and as rappel anchors. Ellingwood also placed a piton when he did the first ascent of Ellingwood Ledges (5.7) on Crestone Needle in 1924.

Stettner's Ledges

After that, other American climbers placed pitons for protection and direct aid including Joe and Paul Stettner on their first ascent of Stettner's Ledges (5.7) on the lower east face of Longs Peak in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.

A Bent Piece of Iron

Pitons were also used in the 1930s by Bob Ormes, Bill House, and Gordon Williams during several attempts to climb Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico. On Ormes' 1937 attempt, he led up a basalt dike, now called the Ormes Rib, but took a 30-foot leader fall when a foothold broke. He had hammered in two pitons. The top piton, pounded two-and-a-half-inches into a crack, held the fall, but bent the piton in half. After the fall the party retreaed but Ormes kept the piton. He later wrote about his attempts to climb Shiprock and the fall in an article entitled "A Bent Piece of Iron" that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1939.

70 Pitons on Shiprock

In October, 1939, a team of four California climbers-David Brower, John Dyer, Raffi Beayan, and Bestor Robinson-spent four days making the first ascent of Shiprock. The team carried 1,400 feet of rope, 70 pitons, 18 carabiners, two piton hammers, as well as expansion bolts. They placed four bolts, two for anchors and two for protection, making their ascent one of the first in the United States to use these mechanical anchors. Their tactics and extensive use of pitons for protection, direct aid, and anchors began the next era in American climbing-the Golden Age of Yosemite.

John Salathé Forges Hard-Steel Pitons

Yosemite's Golden Age was fueled not only by a lot of talented climbers but also but a blacksmith named John Salathé (1899-1992) who was a latecomer to rock climbing. Salathé, a Swiss immigrant, didn't start climbing until age 46 and quickly became obsessed. He became one of the first American climbers to see the possibilities of big wall routes that used lots of aid climbing, so the use of pitons became important to him. Most climbers in the 1940s used soft iron pitons which we difficult to remove without mangling them. Salathé began making hard steel pitons, made from Model A car axles, that could be hammered and removed repeatedly. His pins were marked with a diamond surrounding a capital "P;" a logo that Yvon Chouinard later used on his pitons to honor John Salathé.

Salathé's Pitons and Yosemite Big Walls

Some of the 1940s Yosemite routes that employed Salathé's pitons include the first ascents of the Lost Arrow Spire; the Southwest Face of Half Dome done by Anton Nelson and Salathé in 20 hours with 150 piton placements; Lost Arrow Chimney to the Lost Arrow Tip by Nelson and Salathé; and, of course, the first ascent of the famous Steck-Salathé route on the North Face of Sentinel Rock. The Steck-Salathé, climbed from June 30 to July 4, 1950, was a visionary Yosemite route, done with boldness, commitment, little water and food, and 18 pitons, 15 carabiners, and 12 bolts. These three routes done by Steck and Salathé marked the true beginning of Yosemite big wall climbing and the refinement of the art of pitoncraft in a valley filled with some of the planet's biggest walls.

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