What Is a Piton? (Its Place in Rock Climbing History)
A piton is a steel wedge that is hammered into a crack in the rock and used to secure a rope for climbing. The history of the piton is intertwined with the early history of mountaineering and rock climbing and the ethical dilemmas facing the sport as it developed.
They were used as the primary form of protection in rock climbing and in mountaineering until the 1970s when modern forms of climbing protection and the "clean climbing" ethic became more widespread. The use of pitons in rock climbing has become rare in modern times, restricted to the cases where they are the only option. Modern climbers now almost primarily use protection that can be removed. But the piton played a huge part in rock climbing history.
Europe: Early Rock Climbing and the Piton
Rock climbing at first became popular in Europe during the growth of Victorian mountaineering but only as a means to summit mountains. Mountaineers began developing techniques for ascending difficult rock walls and protecting themselves with ropes and gear. But the rock climbing techniques didn't turn into a sport itself until people began climbing just the sake of climbing in the 1880s.
As people pushed the limits of what rock faces could be scaled, they sought out ways of securing themselves in case they fell. The simplest way to this was to use what is called "natural protection". Natural protection refers to anything along the route that can be used to secure a rope without harming the existing environment.
Pitons were developed to give the climber something to nail into the rock that would support a rope to catch a climber in case of a fall. Climbing with these was safer than inserting rocks with ropes tied around them (called chockstones) into small crevasses and hoping they would be able to hold the load of a fall.
As the use of pitons grew in European countries with a growing number of climbers, people started questioning the ethics of the practice. Pitons are inserted into the rock and then left when the climb is over. This seemed acceptable to some but mountaineers and rock climbers have a deep appreciation of the natural beauty of the mountains so many of them chose to resort to natural or no protection.
Rock Climbing (And Pitons!) Come to America
When the crazy love of rock climbing came to North America, Yosemite played an instrumental part in shaping not only the culture of American climbers but the gear they used. Climbing in Yosemite was inherently different than in most places in Europe because the rock is primarily granite. So not only are the rock features different so the climbers had to adapt new techniques but the form and material of the gear needed to change as well. Yosemite granite is much harder than the soft European limestone, so Americans needed pitons made out of steel.
Climbing Protection and Ethics
The once widespread use of the piton has greatly diminished thanks to the idea of "clean climbing". The clean climbing ethic is the ideal held up by a large portion of the climbing community that climbers should not add or take away anything from a route in order to climb it. This means no permanent fixtures in rocks in order to protect climbers from falling, they have to figure out another way to do it.
Modern climbing gear makes this feat much more manageable. Cams, nuts and hexs used by traditional style climbers are removed after a climb is completed. Find more clarification on the traditional style of climbing below.
How to Place a Piton
Pitons in Modern Traditional Climbing
There are two main categories of modern free climbing: traditional climbing and sport climbing. The difference between the two sports is how protection is placed. In traditional climbing the gear is placed by the first climber and then removed by the climber that follows. In sport climbing there are permanent bolts placed along the climb that climbers clip into to protect from falls. Since bolts can be placed almost anywhere and are more secure, there is no need for pitons in modern sport climbing.
Pitons in Modern Aid Climbing
Aid climbers use gear to help them ascend a rock face, as opposed to free climbing where climbers are only allowed to use their own body to make moves up the wall. A few different types of pitons, including knifeblade pitons and angle pitons, are still used in aid climbing. Knifeblade pitons are thin enough that they don't damage the rock so many clean climbers consider them acceptable for use.
The Legacy of The Piton
For most, the piton is a symbol of the history of rock climbing and its origins in early mountaineering. It started as one of the only means of safety for people embarking on long dangerous routes. As rock climbing grew in popularity climbers began worrying about their own impact on the environments they loved to climb in. So the clean climbing movement took hold and pitons became a more obscure piece of gear but still hold an important piece of rock climbing history.
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