When Grivel invented and began making the world’s first modern crampons, based on the designs of Oskar Eckenstein, over 80 years ago they manufactured from the best quality steel that could be found; old railroad ties were cut up, reheated and forged by hand. Now manufacturing processes have been modernized and better quality steel is available. The crampons themselves have changed little in terms of design and function, with the exception of Laurent Grivel’s history-making invention of the twelve point crampon in 1932. The steel Grivel uses for crampons today is harder than in the past. This has been dictated by the change towards almost exclusive use of the front points over the years. Harder steel forms a rigid, rail-like structure underfoot; this penetrates ice more efficiently and does not have to be sharpened as often. The disadvantages are that it tends to skate off rock more than a softer steel does and it is more brittle. Today we begin with 3mm thick strap iron that we buy in an annealed state; that is, it has been heated and then cooled in a controlled manner that renders it soft enough to work. We choose this particular material because it is very sturdy, it starts becoming brittle at a much lower temperature (-20°C) than normal steel, which changes at –5°C, and it is close in composition to stainless steel so is less affected by corrosion. The line of crampons uses the new technology, which is exclusive to Grivel at this time, called “3 Dimensional Relief Stamping (3DRS)”; this process increases the strength and rigidity, not only of the crampon’s frame, but of each individual point as well.
In the mid-1800s the Grivel family, blacksmiths working in Courmayeur, began actively influencing the history of alpinism from their little factory at the foot of Mont Blanc. The Grivels, a family of Walser origin, had already established a fine metal-working reputation with the agricultural tools they manufactured in an area that became known as Les Forges; this part of Courmayeur carries the same name today. Because many alpinists passed by the factory on their way to the mountains, an important exchange of ideas began taking place. In direct response to the demands of both mountains and mountaineers the Grivels made modifications to the normal workman’s pick axe. Thus, without a true inventor, the “piolet” was born. The heads of these ice axes were hand-forged of the best quality steel available, heat-treated to provide greater resistance and the slag was removed by tumbling them in a water-driven revolving barrel. The heads were then polished and fitted onto solid ash handles. The demands of the mountains have evolved somewhat over the past hundred years and modern ice axes reflect these changes, but the tool’s basic premise remains the same. Several years ago, Grivel “rediscovered” forging as a process of the manufacture of modern ice axes. Machines have taken the place of a blacksmith’s gnarled and powerful hands but the results are the same; the steel fibres are uniformly aligned to provide the maximum possible strength in a particular thickness, the heads consist of one piece of steel (rather than a multiple piece, welded head), and these tools are aesthetically very pleasing to see and use.