Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Abalakov thread

March 24 is the anniversary of the death of Yevgeniy Abalakov, the Russian mountaineer who died in 1948 at the age of 41. As Soviet mountaineer No.1, he was the first to climb Stalin Peak (renamed Communism Peak in 1962, Ismoil Somoni Peak in 1998). On February 17, 1943, Alabakov was part of a group of military mountaineers who worked their way through mine and ice fields on Mt Elbrus to throw off Nazi flags and set up Soviet ones. This symbolic event crowned the 15-month-long battle for the Caucasus.

These days the name Albalakov is more often associated with Yevgeniy's older brother Vitaly - also a mountaineer and regarded as the 'father' of Russian climbing. Vitaly Abalakov made many difficult ascents including Lenin Peak in 1934. He also did considerable work on climbing equipment development and most mountaineers will be familiar the Abalakov thread, his most famous invention, This simply consists of two holes being drilled into solid ice to form a v-like channel. Tape or cord is then threaded through and tied together to form a loop, which is then used for belaying or abseiling.

I was introduced to the thread on a recent ice climbing trip and must admit to feeling extremely nervous at the thought of putting my trust in what is essentially a bit of tat wrapped around some frozen water. It was soon demonstrated just how strong the belay actually is, although I'll leave it up to mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick to give a full explanation.

Of course with great inventions there can be conjecture as to who came up with the original idea. It has been said that it was actually the American climber Jeff Lowe who developed the technique which may explain why in certain parts of the globe the anchor is known as the V-thread. Good historical background can be found in this
article from Glenmore Lodge.

I was hoping to find a great article about one of the Abalakov brothers unfortunately there were only a few mentions in the archive. The following article mentions Vitaly but I reproduce it merely to illustrate what elite Scottish mountaineers were wearing circa 1974.

(The Guardian, July 15 1974)

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