16th C. Climbing/Mountaineering



Chamois Hunters from "The Triumph of Maximilian" Chamois Hunters from "Theuerdank"

Mountain climbing and Mountaineering as a sport - to go out and climb a mountain just to climb a mountain became a recreational activity in the late 19th century. Before then if someone went out to climb a mountain it was done for reasons other than just to climb to the top, for personal fitness, or whatever other reasons people climb mountains today. Prior to the 18th century mountain climbing was probably done for servaying and mapping, mineral hunting, and as early as the 16th century - hunting for Chamois, a kind of European Mountain Goat.

My interest in climbing began at a very early age. When I was very young my family had a camp on Philips Lake at Lucerne-in-Maine, which is an area that once had a lot of glacial and other geological action which left behind many steep granite ledges and very large boulders - which I grew up climbing around on while hiking in the woods, or playing on right next to the camp; for a time my parents were professional SCUBA divers so I was frequently taken down to the coast where I would run around and climb on the rocky precipices over the ocean, looking for caves or cool stuff... but I never really got into climbing as a sport with all kinds of fancy gear. I sort of stopped climbing things when I got more into kayaking and historical re-enactment. Since then I had never really thought much about climbing until I found a facsimile copy of Emperor Maximilian I's book "The adventures of the Knight Theuerdank", which has many woodcuts of the Emperor and his cohorts climbing around on ledges while hunting Chamois. Combine that with the very strong possibility that Eliana and I are going to be buying a house down in Lucerne-in-Maine and I suddenly found myself thinking about climbing again.

So, I decided to add to my hunting kit (which up until now has been any of the period clothing I'm shown wearing in pictures, a 16th century sporting bow by Master Iolo, hunting horn and baldric, otterskin forage bag, and a couple blades) of circa 1520's Holy Roman Empire to upgrade it for Chamois hunting. I started out by making a 16' pike, which I have since realized is not quite right for this project (but hey, now I have a pike, which I needed for my Landsknecht portrayal). The above woodcut of Chamois Hunters from "The Triumph of Maximilian" has some pretty good details of items I need to make or find:

Chamois Spear: ten to twelve foot long ash pole with a detachable socketed knife-like head, and pointy (probably steel) butt cap. In the full version of the Triumph of Maximilian Chamois Hunters (linked to through the image at the top-left of this page) - note that the hunter on the far left has his spear point sheathed with the bi-knives of his large hunting knife, the other hunters all have the tips on their spears and the only other one who provides a clear view of the hunting knife sheath is second from the right, who has an empty sheath where the other hunter with a detached spear point has something which looks very much like the tip of a chamois spear. With the spear point removed the pole could more safely be used for climbing. I have a 16' pike which I have tried climbing with, it works but is a little long, and having a steel point on the top makes it a little scary to climb while near the top of the pike.

Climbing Hook: Someone sent me this photo of 16th century hunting equipment on display at a museum in Germany. The hook-like objects to the right are said to be used for climbing on rock ledges while hunting for mountain goats. I am close to having a recreation of one of these ready to try.

Boots and Climbing Irons: The Triumph of Maximilian chamois hunters have their climbing irons hanging from their belts and details are not easy to make out. This is the only image I have of early climbing irons so I do not have a lot to go on for a recreation. Some scant details of the bindings can be found on the various chamois hunters in Theuerdank, which combined with a bit of expirimentation have helped me figure out what so far seems like a good way to bind them to my boots. I've finished one pair of prototypes for these, as well as an interpretation of the low fold-over style huntsmen boots that the "Triumph of Maximilian" chamois hunters are wearing. These first pictures are of the boots after I finshed them and wore them around the house a bit, but before trying to climb anything. I've since tried them out a couple times and was suprised how well the irons dig into the rocks and do not seem to slide much. I'm looking forward to trying them some more and seeing how they break in. I'll post new pictures here as I get them.

Knapsack: Looking at the "Triumph of Maximilian" chamois hunters (well, mostly the one on the far left) I first thought that his pack looked like a fairly simple drawstring sack with shoulder straps - but after looking at it a bit more I started to notice some odd things going on with the seams and folds. I think it really looks like two smaller sacks that are stuck to the back of a larger one, the tops of all three being bound together at the top. I played around with that idea anc came up with a very easy to make design for a four compartment knapsack comprised of three canvas bags. Now what would I have been carrying in it? I'm not quite sure about all of that yet, most of the food, first-aid, and hygene related stuff I take camping has been the modern stuff that I would take on kayaking trips. I see this bag as more of a day-bag that can carry enough stuff so I could spend a night in the woods if I got lost or, more likely, hurt. It is also small enough to fit in my pack basket, with room to spare for extra clothing and bedding.

Hunting Trousse: yeah, its a big hunting knife, with a couple smaller knives or pokey things. The cool thing about the set these guys have is that the sheath has a spot to stow the tip of the Chamois spear. To portray a chamois hunter, I really need the socketed knife/spear point. Having the rest of the trousse would be cool too. Right now I have have a messer made by Popinjay's (though I reworked the handle quite a lot, and made the scabbard), and a couple of other blades, but nothing quite as appropriate as a hunting trousse. I think somthing as large as a messer could get in the way while climbing.

Snowshoes: I don't really need these for climbing, but they would be a useful thing to have in the winter, and the Triumph of Maximilian chamois hunters have them.

Huntsmen Clothing: This will be a complete set of clothing based on details of the Triumph of Maximilian chamois and bear hunters, as well as numerous hunting scenes from Theuerdank. It will consist of green doublet and hosen, a green hood with a large mantle, a wool or fur felt hat, and maybe a light grey pair of hosen to match my grey skirted-doublet and grey hood/coif. I am currently working on the green hosen, next will come the matching doublet.

There are a lot more Chamois hunting related imagery in "Theuerdank" ( an album of images from Theuerdank, this is something I am scanning, uploading, and adding to in my free time and my home computer is curently down so I have not been able to work on this much lately), but none of them show very good details of the gear they are using. What the woodcuts from Theuerdank do show is people using the simple climbing gear of their time - There are many images of hunters using their spears to help with climbing in mountainous areas, sometimes you can pick out little details of the climbing irons and maybe get an idea how they are held to the feet... these images, combined with joining some friends in climbing Mount Katahdin in August of 2008, are what peaked my interest in 16th century climbing and mountaineering.

Below, in reverse cronological order, are links to pages of photos of this stuff in use (the fun stuff!) as I see how it works, find out what does not work, etc... as I said, the fun stuff.

Some photos of this project from the Summer of 2009.

Some photos of climbing using an ash pole (actually a 16' ash pike),
along with some notes/observations or whatever, October/November of 2008

A link to some photos from our Mount Katahdin adventures, August of 2008