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Hammers and Tools and Picks, Oh My!

I had the incredible opportunity, while researching the Climbing Dictionary, to read about, speak to, email with, and even meet some of our sport’s greatest gear inventors and designers. As long as it took me to write the book, I can only imagine the untold hours, days, weeks, months, and years that went into creating and refining modern specialty gear. Think of what an ergonomic mixed tool, an ultralight carabiner, a form-fitting harness, or a micro TCU would look like to a climber of 150 years ago, with his hemp rope and hobnailed boots and alpenstock — magic, like the difference between an abacus and an iPad.

One pioneer has been Kris Walker, part of the powerhouse Bill Forrest/Kris Walker team at Forrest Mountaineering, a climbing-gear outfit that operated from 1968 to 1988 out of Colorado. The book details both men’s many contributions in the entries for “harness,” “haul bag,” “Titon,” “cam,” “daisy chain,” “Copperhead,” and so on. But they have also been consummate hardmen on the rock and in the mountains, with their 1971 ascent of the Forrest/Walker on Colorado’s highest big wall, the 2,200-foot Painted Wall in the doom-depths of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. So when Walker sent me a photo of some original Forrest Mountaineering hammer hardware, I felt I had to share it.


Forrest Mountaineering Mjollnir Ice and Rock Hammer, and Wall Hammer. (Photo © Kris Walker)

Above, on the left, is the original, first-off-the-line Mjollnir Ice and Rock Hammer (see the entry for “ice tool”), which came out in 1975. As Forrest described it, ”It was the first ice tool to use interchangeable picks,” a breakthrough that solved the problem of thin steel ice picks snapping out at the ice (!). Before the Mjollnir, ice hammers and axes had been forged from a single piece of steel that was then heat-treated for toughening. But alas, the picks, being thinner, would cool much more quickly than the heads, making them shatter prone. “The idea to screw the picks on belongs to Kris,” Forrest wrote me. “I came up with the idea of heat-treating the parts separately and then pinning them together…[and] picks have been screwed on ever since.” You can see the screw attachments and a second pick in the photo above; Walker says that the Smithsonian has asked to include the Mjollnir in its “Tools of Man” exhibit. So next time you swap out a pick, think of these guys.

On the right is the original, first-off-the-line Forrest Wall Hammer, which Walker brought along on the Painted Wall (May 1971). It was also Walker’s companion on three other major Colorado first ascents: The first was Water Hole #3 (July 1970), an 11-pitch climb on the right side of Longs Peak’s the Diamond, an FA solo Walker, then only 19, made over three days with two bivouacs. The second was Christoper Robin (July 1971) on the same part of the wall, eight pitches up overhanging white rock right of D1 that has since become The Joker (V 5.12b); Walker again climbed by himself, taking two days and bivying one night on a nice “chaise lounge” ledge halfway up. The third FA was made with Walker’s cousin Walt Walker, a climb they called Tail of the Tiger (July 1972) that has become the modern-day free climb King of Swords (V 5.12a). The climbers spent two days and one night on the wall, always with the trusty hammer.

Steve Levin and I climbed the King of Swords (Tail of the Tiger) ten or so years ago on a rare, cloudless high-pressure July day. Even with modern equipment—big cams, RPs, ultralight draws, a little Camelbak for our water, energy bars—I remember being shit scared, both by the unrelenting nature of the often-wide, smooth, parallel cracks as much as the unremitting exposure, straight down past a thin strip of the Broadway Ledge into the North Chimney and thence onto the snows of the Mills Glacier. One feature lower on the climb is named the Torture Chamber, and here you must grovel up a nearly unprotectable, overhanging flare in decomposing, white kitty litter very unlike the good rock on the Diamond’s left side. You clip a shaky old pin or two along the flare—Walker’s original pro, perhaps—before it pinches down at the top then opens into a cranky offwidth. Your reward here, before lauching into 5.11 OW at 13,500 feet, is a bomber cam!

I can’t imagine what it would be like to cast off into such a feature, even if aiding, for the first ascent. But armed with a hammer you’ve helped design, a key notion would be self-sufficiency: the knowledge that you and your tools are equal to the job. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good definition for climbing.