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Travellers' Axe - Project Gutenberg eText 14861


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From: THE ART OF TRAVEL or Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries by Francis Galton First published in Great Britain by John Murray, London in 1872.

"Axes.--The axes made in England for the purpose of being taken out to Switzerland, may be divided into two classes, namely: travellers' axes, intended to be used for chipping a few occasional steps, for enlarging and clearing out those imperfectly made, and for holding on to a snow-slope,--and guides' axes, which are the heavier implements required for making long staircases in hard blue ice. We have had three models prepared, of which diagrams are appended; the first two represent the lighter axe, or what we have termed the travellers' axe; and the third, the heavier instrument required for guides' work. Diagram No. 1 represents a light axe or pick, of a kind somewhat similar to that recommended by Mr. Stephen, in a paper published a short time ago in the 'Journal.' It has, in the first place, the great advantage of lightness and handiness, while its single blade, to some extent, combines the step-cutting qualities possessed by the two cutters of the ordinary double-headed axe, though the latter instrument is on the whole decidedly superior. The small hammer-headed axe, though the latter instrument is on the whole decidedly superior. The small hammer-head at the back is added in order to balance the pick, and in some degree to improve the hold when the axe-head comes to be used as a crutch handle. This form, it should be understood, we recommend on account of its lightness and of its convenient shape. Diagram No. 2 represents a travellers' axe, slightly heavier than the first; and as this is the shape which appears to us the best adapted for mountain work of all kinds, we desire shortly to state our reasons for recommending it to members of the Club.

In the first place it is absolutely necessary that one of the cutters should be made in the form of a pick, as this is by far the best instrument for hacking into hard ice, and is also extremely convenient for holding on to a snow-slope, or hooking into crannies, or on to ledges of rock.

For the other cutter we recommend an adze-shaped blade, and we are convinced that this is the form which will be found most generally useful, as being best suited for all the varieties of step-cutting. The hatchet-shaped blade used by the Chamouni guides is no doubt a better implement for making a staircase diagonally up a slope, but on the other hand it is exceedingly difficult to cut steps downwards with a blade set on in this manner; and as mountaineers rarely come down the way by which they went up, if they can help it, it is obvious that this objection to the Chamouni form of axe is conclusive.

We recommend that the edge of the blade should be angular instead of circular, although the latter shape is more common, because it is clear that the angular edge cuts into frozen snow more quickly and easily.

The curve, which is the same in all the axes, approaches to coincidence with the curve described by the axe in making the stroke. A curve is, in our opinion, desirable, in order to bring the point more nearly opposite the centre of percussion, and to make the head more useful for holding on to rocks or a slope.

The axe shown in diagram No. 2, though slightly heavier than No. 1, is not of sufficient weight or strength for cutting a series of steps in hard ice. To those gentlemen, therefore, who do not object to carrying weight, but who desire to have an axe fit for any kind of work, we recommend No. 3. As this is exactly similar in shape to No. 2, differing from it only in size, we have not thought it necessary to give a separate diagram of No. 3.

As to the mode of fastening, which is the same in all three axes, we should have felt some diffidence in giving an opinion had we not been fortunate enough to obtain the advice of an experienced metal-worker, by whom we were strongly recommended to adopt the fastening shown in the diagrams, as being the method generally considered best in the trade for attaching the heads of hatchets, or large hammers likely to be subjected to very violent strains. It will be seen that the axe-head and fastening are forged in one solid piece, the fastening consisting of two strong braces or straps of steel, which are pressed into the wood about one-eighth of an inch, and are secured by two rivets, passed through the wood and clenched on each side. The braces are put at the side, instead of in front of and behind the axe, because by this means, the strain which falls on the axe acts against the whole breadth of the steel fastenings, and not against their thickness merely.

We believe that this is the firmest method of fastening which can be adopted, and that so long as the wood is sound, it is scarcely possible for the head of the axe to get loose or to come off; and it has the further advantage of strengthening the wood instead of weakening it, and of distributing the strain produced by step-cutting over a large bearing. It should be added that these axe-heads and fastenings ought to be made entirely of steel.

The dimensions of the axe-heads are as follow: -- No. 1. -- Length of blade measured from the wood.. 4 1/2 inches.

          Breadth of blade at widest part..........1 1/2   "
          Weight, including the braces............13 1/2 oz.

No. 2. -- Length of blade measured from the wood.. 3 1/2 inches.

          Length of pick.......................... 4 1/2   "
          Breadth of blade at widest part......... 1 3/4   "
          Breadth of pick......................... 0 1/2   "
          Weight, including the braces............15 1/2 oz.

No. 3. -- Length of blade measured from the wood.. 4 inches.

          Length of pick.......................... 5       "
          Breadth of blade at widest part......... 2 1/4   "
          Breadth of pick......................... 0 5/8   "
          Weight, including the brades............21 1/4 oz.

We much desired to recommend to the Club some means by which the axe-head might be made moveable, so as to be capable of being put on and taken off the handle quickly and easily. We regret to say, however, that we were unable to discover any plan by which this can be effectually done. We examined very carefully the numerous and formidable weapons which have been sent in by members for exhibition, most of which had elaborate contrivances for fastening on the axe-head. These were all, however, liable to very serious objections. Some were evidently insecure; with others it was necessary that the axe-head should be surmounted by a huge knob, which would prove a most serious impediment in step-cutting; while in the best and firmest which we found, the axe-head was attached to the pole by means of nuts and screws projecting at the side or over the top of the axe. This latter method of fastening seems to us awkward and possibly dangerous, as the nuts, from their position, are very likely to become loose or to get broken off, and cannot, except when dangerously loose, be fastened or unfastened without a key or wrench--a troublesome article, certain to be lost on the first expedition.

The Handle of the Axe should, we think, be made of ash. We recommend this wood in preference to deal, which is lighter and nearly as strong, because in choosing a piece of ash it is easier to select with certainty thoroughly sound and well-seasoned wood; and in preference to hickory and lance-wood, which are stronger, because these woods are extremely heavy.

The handle should, we believe, be of a very slightly oval form, as it is then more convenient to the grasp than if round. As to the thickness of the wood, we are satisfied it ought nowhere to be less than 1 3/8 inch, since a pole of that diameter, made of ordinarily good ash, is the smallest which cannot be permanently bent by a heavy man's most violent effort; although we have seen some pieces of unusually strong ash of a less thickness, which proved inflexible.

We recommend, then, that the oval section of the handle should have a shorter diameter of 1 3/8 inch, and a longer diameter of 1 1/2 inch, and that the thickness should be the same from one end to the other. The length of the handles for Nos. 1 and 2 should be such that they will reach to just under the arm at the shoulder. The handle for No. 3, which is intended to be used exclusively as an axe, should be between 3 1/2 and 4 feet long. The lower end of the handle should be strengthened in the usual way by a ferrule, and armed with a spike.

The spike should be from 3 1/2 to 4 inches long, clear of the end of the handle, and should be prevented from moving by a slight rivet passed through it near the upper end after it is fastened in. The exact form of the spike and ferrule are represented in the diagram.

We have further to recommend for axe-handles an addition which is liable to suspicion as an entire innovation, but which, we are confident, will be found valuable at those critical moments when the axe is required to hold up two or three men. It has happened that when the axe has been struck into the snow a man has been unable to keep his hold of the handle, which slips out of his hand, and leaves him perfectly helpless. To guard against this mischance, we propose to fasten a band of leather round the handle, at a distance of a foot from the ferrule at the lower end. This leather should be about an eighth of an inch thick, and will be quite sufficient to check the hand when it is sliding down the handle. It should be lashed round the wood and strained tight when wet.

Alpenstocks.--What we have said about the handle of the axe applies in all respects to the Alpenstock, except that the length of the latter should be different, and that the leathern ring would of course not be required. It is generally thought most convenient that the Alpenstock should be high enough to touch the chin of its owner, as he stands upright; but this is a matter on which it is scarcely possible, and, were it possible, scarcely necessary to lay down an absolute rule. [End of extract of report]

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