Thursday, July 31, 2014

Old timey climbing and mountaineering

Telecanter posted up some public-domain vintage illustrations of rock-climbing and mountaineering, illustrating a number of stalwart climbers in precarious positions...

So in my real-world adventures, I climb - on nice dry rock- I tend to stay away from slogging in snow or alpine climbing.  The equipment and techniques have improved a bit,

...but those old illustrations show the rudimentary technique and equipment of the time, much of which evolved into modern climbing techniques, and a few which are still in use. And they can be very informative for players whose characters' "climbing equipment" is equivalent. That is, hemp rope and a few metal spikes.

Getting up:
"Ascending and descending vertical surfaces is the ability of 
the thief to climb up and down walls. It assumes that the 
surface is coarse and offers ledges and cracks for toe and hand 
holds." - AD&D Player's Handbook, 1st ed.
15th level thief
Climbing, be it on a natural or artificial surface, will generally take after one or more general methods:

Slab or friction climbing, where the surface is less than vertical, but holds are sparse, causing the climber to rely on the friction of their footwear and their balance to move upward:

Face climbing, where holds in the forms of ledges, edges, and or pockets may be available:

Crack climbing, where fingers/hands/ feet/etc are cammed into cracks to climb:

And chimneys, where the entire body can be levered into the gap.

The top vintage illustration shows a climber bracing himself and belaying his partner, who is climbing behind him.  Belaying is simply taking up or letting out rope for a climber and having some method to apply friction to stop a fall.  For those without a mechanical method to apply friction, the rope is looped behind the body for a hip belay.  To apply friction, the rope is wrapped around the body (the kidneys providing the braking surface...) Alternatively, the rope can be looped behind the ankle for a boot belay, where the leg is supported behind an object driven into the ground.  (For instance, climber Pete Schoening arrested the fall of six companions using a boot/iceaxe belay while on K2 in 1953).

A very hip belay...

Anchoring a rope may be the objective so that others can ascend.

A rope may be anchored by a grapple (sketchy), with one or multiple driven spikes (always use at least two for a secure anchor),

or tied around a large immobile object (column, tree, large block).


Once a line is fixed, other characters may ascend it, but if they are not physically strong, or are heavily encumbered, some mechanical aid is necessary. (Really, no one can ninja-climb a rope for any significant height.)

One of the simplest tools is a hitch, like the prusik knot:

Having played with various ascending hitches, I can assure you that progress is slow, especially if the climber isn't particularly adept at coordinating the two hitches.  Multiple climbers may ascend at once, but care must be taken to assure that the anchor point or ropes themselves don't give.

Getting across:

Traversing is pretty self-explanatory - we've all seen it - crossing the narrow ledge, either by walking or hand.  Perhaps one character traverses a wall next to a chasm to get a rope across for the remainder of the party, or secures a hand-line on the way across to make the traverse easier for the non-climbers.

If a thief or similar strong climber can take a rope across a gap, or a rope can be grappled across a chasm, characters can also cross via a tyrolian traverse, where they hand-over-hand along the rope, with some link to connect the climber to the rope:

Alternatively - if the rope can be affixed above a gap, or along one wall adjacent to the gap, characters may swing or wall-walk across via pendulum methods:

Getting down:

You've reached the top, or perhaps you stand at the precipice (or hole).  Time to go down.  Modern rappelling (or abseiling) is relatively controlled and comfortable (although I always cautioned students that this how most rock climbing accidents occur).

So easy, a dog can do it
How did alpinists descend prior to harnesses and rappel devices?

A character may be tied to a rope and lowered via a hip belay, or through some improvised braking device.  This would allow some use of hands, holding weapons or illumination, or manipulating objects.

Or, meet Hans Dülfer and his Dulfersitz technique, developed in the 19th Century (there are earlier techniques developed in the 18th century, but less effective).  Like the hip belay - you used your own body as the braking surface. The climber straddles the rope, then brings the rope up around his back and over his shoulder, and holds on to it with the hand near the hip. Clothing worn would often have reinforcing leather on the pants and shoulder and back of the jacket to resist abrasion.  Not the most stable or comfortable technique, but it allowed a controlled decent prior to the development of more modern harnesses and techniques. Dangers include losing control of the braking hand (the climber's right hand in the photo) or getting flipped and losing the rope from around the leg and/or body. Both hands are occupied for stability and control, so no fighting or manipulation is allowed unless the character can tie herself off or otherwise stabilize.  Illumination would need to be suspended below the character.  Obviously, packs and encumbrance would need to be lowered separately.

Jaunty headgear required
So this is certainly not a how-to-climb guide by any stretch of the imagination, nor is it comprehensive in possible techniques (I've left out most aid climbing) but hopefully it gives a few illustrations on how characters might negotiate hazardous terrain, and some of the challenges and limitations faced.

No matter how good you are, 
you'll never be as good at this goat...
Feel free to ask questions/clarifications in the comments.

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