Nuts' Story: 2001, a Nut Odyssey

by Stéphane Pennequin

A long, long time ago, when God created our good old earth, He had already thought to throw various stones into the bowels of the mountains, but we are not sure that God had demonstrated some interest in rock-climbing. So the idea of deliberately placing stones in cracks to act as chocks and protect climbers was credited to Morley Wood during the ascent of Pigott's Climb on Clogwyn du'r Arddu (North Wales) in 1926. With this fundamental gesture the Nuts' Story began!

Britain displayed in the 1920s and '30s, a certain aversion towards pitons, not for environmental reasons but in respect for a rigorous, pure ethic. The use of pitons was perceived as disloyal and less glorifying. British climbers decided to banish them from as many of their cliffs as possible. Balance climbing was then seen as the only climbing style, which meant that a climber should be able to climb down what he had cautiously climbed up, a style that Paul Preuss pioneered and carried to extremes with his "no piton" ethic at the beginning of the century in the Alps. Many great climbs were established in this way, the protection being, at that time, mainly rope slings on natural threads, behind or around flakes and spikes.

During the '40s and '50s, most if not all the routes followed natural lines. In England, climbers used to select well-rounded pebbles of various sizes and shapes lying at the bottom of the crags and carry them up the climb in their trouser pockets. They also collected granite stones from Wales and took them to the Derbyshire gritstone or limestone "edges"; posing a ticklish enigma for the geologists of the future when they discover these alien rocks. Closer to us, in 1954, Joe Brown and Don Whillans used chockstones in the very difficult crack of the West Face of l'Aiguille de Blaitière. The French climbers Paragot and Bérardini did not know this technique and thought, during the second ascent, that the English were mutants! Climbers at this period used hawser laid rope which was available in sizes of quarter-weight (roughly 5 mm diam.), half weight (roughly 7 mm diam.) and full-weight (roughly 10 mm diam.). To make them stiffer and easier to thread around the chocks, these line nylon slings were sometimes dipped in sugar water and boiled.

In the mid-'50s, the Stone Age melted away and a new era was born: the Iron Age. The technique of using inserted chockstones was greatly extended by the introduction of artificial metal chockstones, particularly normal machined nuts. Hughie Banner thinks that Jack Soper is responsible for the idea of jamming machined nuts. John Brailsford believes however, that it is extremely difficult to credit anybody with the first use of machined nuts because, as with most of these things, it was the spontaneous practise of many people with an engineering background that was so commonplace in UK climbing circles at that time. Very early nuts had not even the threads filed out but it did not take long to realise the inherent danger posed by the sharp thread edges. So the thread of the nuts was bored out and the ends smoothed to prevent chafing and cutting of the cord. The nut runner worked on the same principle as the chockstone but it had the added refinement of having the sling threaded through the hole of the nut - a great advantage over carrying a pocketful of loose pebbles, then threading them, often "in extremis". Threaded pipe fittings and expanding metal wedges were also used with great effect. Dave Gregory remembers that he and Jack Soper used to pick up machined nuts beside the Snowdon Railway Line, a line that links up Llanberis to Snowdon, Wales' highest peak. This little steam train, now one hundred years old, gets very close up to the mythical Clogwyn du'r Arddu, Cloggy for regulars. They had a joking superstition that if they found one nut on the way up to the crag they would be successful in their project for the day. The climbers' hardware was then developed to use all kind of "chockable" objects coming from various origins or made, generally during working hours, by climbing engineers.

Early drilled-out machined nuts. The big nut (top left) was found beside the Snowdon Railway line. The nuts drilled with lightening holes were made by Harry Smith.

"The climbers' hardware was then developed to use all kind of "chockable" objects" nuts belonging to Ray Greenall (of the Rock and Ice).

John Brailsford (by Evelyne Brailsford)

In 1961, a blacksmith from Sheffield, John Brailsford, then a teacher of engineering technology, created the ever first purpose designed nut, the Acorn. Three sizes (1 inch, ¾ inch and 5/8 inch) were turned on a lathe from extruded aluminium alloy. John Brailsford also tried Tufnol (a resin bonded fibre used by Rolls Royce or Hoover for making light weight, silent gears) and brass for their different properties of hardness. Since the Acorn had a machine nut sitting on its top and threaded on the same sling, this " nest of nuts " offered two options, the machine nut or the Acorn. They were probably the first nuts to be marketed in England, by the Roger Turner Mountain Shop in Nottingham.

Most of the difficult cracks which were climbed by hand-jam and layback techniques needed however a wider nut. After measuring some of them, John Brailsford (again!) made models in balsa wood in the form of truncated, oblong pyramids. A Derby company, Coronet Tools, specialising in aluminium casting made six prototypes in L.M. 6 in which John Brailsford drilled two holes and created a radius to join these holes. In the sixties, the testing of ropes was based upon Maurice Dodéro's works. Dodéro used components which related to the carabiner then in use - a 10 mm diameter standard. John Brailsford realized that, if he could increase the diameter over which the rope passed on the top of the nut, he would greatly reduce the risks of cutting the rope sling at this critical point of contact. A star was born: the MOAC! Joe Brown, Don Roscoe (of the Rock & Ice Club), John Brailsford himself and his regular partner, Doug Cook, used them and found they worked at a level of safety not enjoyed before. In 1962, the first batch of MOACs was cast in Manchester and the guide, Peter Gentil, hand-finished them. Mounted on 9 mm rope, other sizes could be obtained by filing them down to reduce their thickness. Originally, Alan Kimber, a Scots-based friend of John Brailsford, thought about calling the new nut Johnny, which also is a slang term for a condom... Ellis Brigham, owner of a chain of outdoor shops in UK who sponsored the die cast first production run, also owned a climbing equipment import company, Mountain Activities. Therefore the name MOAC was chosen for this nut, that many British and American climbers still carry them for sentimental reasons.

A Moac (above), and an Acorn, and below: Clog made Acorns on wire and tape.

Charles Curtis was probably the first to make wired nuts. He first climbed on Cloggy in 1959 and collected his first authentic "nuts". At this time, he was studying Chemistry at Sheffield. He graduated in 1961 and moved to the Geology Department where he started making his Little Mesters in his workshop. Charles Curtis had not seen wire used for artificial chockstones but, at the Sheffield University Mountaineering Club, many members were speleologists who explored the caves in Derbyshire, just a few miles away. They manufactured ladders from wire, and he convinced them to give him some samples. His first attempt was a dismal failure. A mould was made and molten aluminium poured on to a knotted wire, which caused it to lose its temper and strength. Attempting the second ascent of Vector, a Rock & Ice route at Tremadog with Peter Crew, Jack Soper fell off on to one of these nuts while trying to layback the top crack which was full of mud.

Little Mester

The device exploded, the wire had been weakened by the heat of the metal. The next step solved the problem completely. Aluminium blocks were cast or cut and then drilled from the top (single large hole) and then the bottom (two small holes). The wire was inserted, tied and the knot pulled back down into the larger hole. He then set the knot in place with epoxy resin (araldite). Charles Curtis made sets of different sizes, the smallest being limited by the knot size. Large ones were made relatively thin. Altogether, no more than twenty were made. The name is a local Sheffield name - a dialect version of the Little Masters- the name given to the local craftsmen who had built the cutlery and silverware industry in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the spring of 1963, John Earnshaw of the Phoenix Mountaineering Club was formulating in his own mind the need for, and the possibility of improving in some ways, the safety protection needed for some climbs. After numerous sketches and rejections, he decided on the style and the shape of the Spud, as it has always been known. The origin of John Earnshaw's choice of name for the device came about as follows. At the time of the invention, he had no access to machinery but one of his climbing protégés, Terrence Murphy, was an apprentice engineer and he volunteered to make a prototype. Everyone may of course already know that, in Ireland, potatoes are known as "murphys" and, in England, they are called "spuds". Because of Terrence's invaluable help, John Earnshaw named his invention Spud in his honour.

John Earnshaw Spuds. The small aluminium wedge in this photo was donated by John Earnshaw. It is an aluminium version of the iron Spuds threaded on the bit of rope.

He had no means of testing the device scientifically but, with help, he did the testing by jamming the Spud in a crack near the top of a climb in Ravensdale. He hurled a kit bag full of stones over the cliff to check if the device held fast. After several successful proving experiments he decided that the Spud was indeed safe to use.

In 1964, Trevor Peck, a wealthy businessman who owned a hosiery factory in Leicester, also became involved in nut manufacturing. He paid particular attention to producing an object less costly than the MOAC. Peter Biven and his brother Barrie introduced Trevor Peck to climbing in 1951 and the three of them formed a formidable climbing team for many years. The credit goes to Trevor for dreaming up the chock. His Crackers were made from knurled round steel or Duralumin bar cut to the required length. He used steel wire, stronger than small diameter rope, for the smallest sizes. The earliest ones, in which the wire ends were locked and silver soldered into a copper sleeve, were definitely in use in 1962. It was only in 1967 that the wires were swaged with the Talurit ferrule system. There was also a nylon version of the Cracker, the Ny-Chock on tape. Trevor Peck deposited the first patent for nuts in 1965. This was later refused since there was already proof that the MOAC predated the Peck device and left the door open for other innovators. The Peck Crackers were not very successful in England but the American climber Royal Robbins, returning from a trip to England in 1966, took back to the USA not only a few samples but also his experience of the art of placing passive protection. In his excellent book, Advanced Rockcraft, a superb photo by John Cleare shows Peter Biven using a Cracker on the Coal Face at Bosigran. Unfortunately, Trevor Peck passed away prematurely in 1969 and was not able to develop his company, Peck Climbing Equipment.

In 1964 or was it 63, in a cottage in the Peak District, then home of Tony Howard, a hobby was born which was later to become a company of international repute. With his friend Alan Waterhouse, Tony Howard marketed sets of Wedges under the brand name of Troll. Not far from there, Paul Seddon, master of his castle in his own small enterprise Parba, was asked in 1965 by Ellis Brigham to manufacture new nuts to be sold in his store in Manchester. Paul Seddon cut his prototypes in a 25mm by 20mm bar of aluminium alloy that he was going to use, by a coincidence, for a future piton...

Above: Peck Climbing Equipment:a very rare early Cracker presented to the Museum by Shirley Smith in 1996. It has the wire ends locked and
soldered in a copper tube.
Above: Prototype Peck Crackers and Ny-Chock given to Doug Scott and Guy Lee for various projects, such as the big aid climbs they did on Strone Ulladale in Scotland, Trolltind Wall and Baffin Island. Presented by Guy Lee, December 2000.
Above:Production models of Peck Crackers, Chocks and Ny-Chock.

Angled at 14 degrees and drilled transversely with a simple 8 mm hole, these nuts were delivered, also under the name of Spud, to Ellis Brigham in October 1965. Later on, Spuds of different sizes were manufactured. Paul Seddon did not stop there. In 1968 he produced what were probably the first nuts for wide cracks, the Big-H, which were cut from an H-section extrusion. Later in 1967, at Troll, an extruded bar in the shape of a " T " gave birth to the Tee Chock. In 1970, Paul Seddon teamed up with Tony Howard and Alan Waterhouse and became the third "troll".

Above: Troll Wedges

In 1966, in the long-abandoned cinema of Deiniolen (Wales), Denny Moorhouse and Shirley Smith, two original personalities, created the most mythical factory of climbing hardware, Clogwyn Climbing Gear, known as Clog for short. At that time, a day on which they produced 24 nuts was reckoned to be a good one! At the end of that year, Denny Moorhouse made his first Hexagons which inspired many later on. The size 6 was called Jumbo, the size 7 Mammoth! In few years, Clog became the generic word for nut in the language of climbers around the world. In the early 70's, Troll and Clog marketed a full arsenal of passive nuts covering a wide range of crack widths.

Above: Troll Big-H

Above: Clog Hexagons
Above: Clog Wedges

Above: Troll Tee Chocks 1st generation (1967), 2nd generation with lightening holes, 3rd generation with countersunk holes.
Parba Spud
Above: Parba Spud (1st batch, 1965) and Big-H (engraved Parba & Joe Brown, and presented by the legendary climber)

When writing this story, one cannot hush up the Scottie. George "Scottie" Dwyer was the first Welsh mountain guide; he was also the creator of an amazing device in... 1946! George Dwyer never used it on the crag since it would no doubt have been considered as unethical at that time. But, from the historical point of view, this complex device, grandfather of the American space age Slider, predated the main nut development by 15 years.

The Scottie (photo by Ken Latham)

In the United States, Royal Robbins, armed with a brand new set of chocks bought in 1966 at the Joe Brown Shop in Llanberis, was spreading the good word, trying to convert the less enthusiastic by climbing, over and over, difficult routes using only nuts. With his wife Liz, he made two first ascents in Yosemite in 1967, in this fashion, Boulderfield Gorge and Nutcracker. Nutcracker really put nuts on the map, showed what could be done with nut protection alone, and put moral pressure on the climbing community to follow suit. He played also a key role with articles on the subject in Summit, like the famous Nuts to You in 1967. Preserving the Cracks, compiled by Tom Frost in 1972 in the American Alpine Journal, clearly stated the problem. The repeated use of hard steel pitons was damaging granite cracks in an irreversible way. The nuts offered climbers from across the Atlantic the possibility of cleaner and less traumatic ethics for their playground. Doug Robinson treated this subject most seriously in the Chouinard Equipment Catalog 1972 in the excellent The Whole Natural Art of Protection. Yvon Chouinard was maybe the biggest manufacturer of pegs in the USA at that time but also achieved the second ascent and direct finish of Nutcracker with... Royal Robbins!

Summit, March 1973. (drawing by Sheridan Anderson)

Chouinard: Regular Hexentrics

Chouinard: Stoppers

In 1971, Yvon Chouinard threw on to the market the Regular Hexentric invented by himself and Tom Frost. A much improved Hexagon, it was however still symmetrical and did not allow more than three different settings. The real revolution landed in 1974 with the Polycentric Hexentric which, this time, allowed four settings. A Norwegian, Tomas Carlström, had given the idea to the Chouinard / Frost team some time before. Trying to make copies of Chouinard symmetrical Hexentrics himself, Tomas Carlström took two old Clog Hexagons and machined them. But since his tools were not very precise,he was first disappointed by the asymmetrical chocks he had made. Then, eureka(!), he discovered that they worked in one more position than the original Chouinard Hexentrics. In 1972, Chouinard increased his hardware line with a set of seven Stoppers which were to be the subject of many improvements during the following years and become in the USA, the reference for the pyramidal nut. In 1973 and 1975, he produced the Tube Chocks which covered the four to six inch offwidth cracks and the Crack'n-Ups that protected the ultra-thin vertical cracks. With Chouinard Equipment, the Americans had all the necessary tools for their new ethic, all nuts or hammerless.

In the USA, other manufacturers made their way into this new market. Bill Forrest was building in 1969, what was later to become the ultimate aid climbing weapon, which actually was at that time a nut, the Copperhead. A small copper cylinder was swaged around a single wire. Bill Forrest kept the system of the simple wire for two of his other creations: the Foxhead in 1970, a pyramidal nut in aluminium alloy or in plastic, and the Arrowhead in 1974, a very slim copper nut. The Forrest nuts also existed in an S version (short wire), being more convenient as aid climbing devices.

In 1973, Kris Walker and Bill Forrest developed the Titon, a T-shaped nut, in steel for the small sizes and in color anodized aluminium alloy for the big sizes. In response to the article The Whole Natural Art of Protection from Chouinard, in 1974 Forrest Mountaineering proclaimed all the assets of the Titons in Chock Talk in its Catalog and Guide to Natural Climbing. This prolific manufacturer would also go on to develop a line of P-Nuts (1982), a slice of steel mounted on a length of wire cable, and the Triton (1985), which may be used as a nut, a belay plate and a rappel device. His Roll-Your-Own (1984) will remind US climbers that, somewhere in Germany (Elbsandstein), people also climb very clean. At C.M.I. (Colorado Mountain Industries), the Hexachoks resurrected the Hexagons' design but these were lightened to a maximum degree and had a 1/8'' web in the centre producing an effective " I " Beam. With this manufacturer, we found again in 1975, the H-shaped streamlined aluminium alloy extrusion, to produce a set of twelve Beamchoks very nicely finished in blue, of which the biggest was eight inches long.

" ... like a tight-rope walker, the climber is moving feverishly five meters above his very last protection, an RP number 3... ". He who reads such lines immediately feels his palms becoming sweaty. The man behind these two initials is Roland Pauligk. Living in Mordialloc, a small town in the South suburbs of Melbourne, he emigrated from East Germany in 1960, one year before the construction of the Berlin wall. Since the mid seventies, in a small workshop in the back of his garden, the boiler maker Roland Pauligk makes with an extreme meticulousness the ultimate tools for hair line cracks. Troll and Chouinard already produced small nuts but a silver soldering process allowed the RP's to be far narrower and even thinner, whilst maintaining maximum wire strength. He mainly sold his micro brass wedges in camp sites during his climbing trips around the world (Yosemite, Cloggy, Chamonix, Dolomites). The breakthrough came when Rick White, who was a top climber, did " Gumtree " at Mt Buffalo hammerless in 1975. The smallest RP was a size 1. After the ascent he said to Roland you need a smaller one size 0, as the 1s were only half in a couple of critical placements. There were virtually no peg scars on " Gumtree "; it had only two previous ascents both in December 1972, the first and Rick's repeat a week or so later. The critical placements were between crystals. There was no write-up by him, probably just climbing news reports by others. Rick said RP's were part of every Australian climbers rack in the early to mid seventies and beyond, which significantly boosted the orders. He showed them to Yvon Chouinard in 1977, which led to his range of micro-nuts! Roland Pauligk is the representative of an Australian quiet way of living and he has never wanted his business to grow too much, so the manufacturing of his superb toys goes on when... the weather is not quite settled.

In the USA, in 1979, after extensive research Gaylord Campbell marketed two series of nuts superbly crafted and color anodized the Wedgefasts and the Saddlewedges. A notch on each one of the two big sides guaranteed the Saddlewedges a better stability. In 1986, D.M.M. (Wales) would bring back this idea for the famous Wallnuts but, ten years before, in England, Tom Proctor had already thought to scoop the widest faces of his larger Clog Wedges. Awesome work was done by Gaylord Campbell to increase the radius over which the sling passes and to improve the perfection of the path of the sling into the nut. The instruction booklet supplied with each Campbell Mountaineering nut was, by itself, a little wonder and a masterly course on chockcraft.

Of all the simple geometric shapes to choose from, only the cam was not selected for a nut at that time. This was without counting on Greg Lowe, called Inventor Extraordinaire by Glenn Randall in the magazine Rock & Ice in 1986. In 1972, Greg Lowe, assisted by his brother Mike, refined the concept of the cam by introducing the constant angle, as a fundamental element for the stability of future nut placements. In 1973, he created his first prototype Tri Cams but they only came on the market in 1981. The only solution in specific situations, the Tri Cams are the most fun to use, stimulating the climber's ingenuity. In 1976, C.M.I. brought onto the market the Kirk's Kamms, a single thick block of cam bound to a single wire by a swaged stainless steel ball. The ball itself at the end of the wire was also marketed as the Blue-Bells and could be used as a small nut. With the Camlock in 1977, S.M.C. (Seattle Manufacturing Corporation) built a hybrid device from a Hexentric and a Tri Cam, better adapted for non-flared cracks.

1 Chouinard Tube Chocks.
2 Chouinard Crack 'n' Ups.
3 Forrest Copperhead, Foxheads, S- Foxheads,Blue Plastic Foxhead and Arrowheads.
4 Forrest Titons and a rare Chimney Chock, the Chimney Chock is the one on the middle of the top of the photo.
5 Forrest P-Nut, Roll-Your-Own and Triton.
6 CMI, prototype and Beamchoks.
7 RP prototypes and Wedges.
8 RPs.
9 Wedgefasts and Saddlewedges.

10 CMI, Kirk's Kamms and RoKJoX.

11CMI, Blue-Bells.

12 SMC, Camlocks.

Let's come back to England where, in a small village in the Peak District, Mark Vallance, creator of Wild Country, improved considerably the most classic pyramidal nut. "Rare are the cracks showing the same profile as the nuts". Starting from this statement, in 1978, Mark Vallance thought of changing the two large flat sides to create the maximum possible point contact with the rock. Using some Forrest Foxheads as prototypes he tried a large number of combinations to obtain finally the first curved nut, marketed early in 1979 under the name of Rock. No matter what the angle formed by both sides of a crack, the Rocks have always a three-point contact instead of only two for the pyramidal nut. By coincidence, at about the same time, Geoff Birtles, the Editor of High Mountain Sports magazine, worked with Tom Proctor on a closely similar design. They offered Mark Vallance the name Rocks which was what their device was called.

Another English maker, Faces, from Matlock, went even further a few years later, with his Gemstones (or Gems). Curved from top to bottom but also from back to front, this complex shape keeps three point contact in flared cracks.

With Hugh Banner (today HB Climbing Equipment), the problem of the flared crack is tackled from a different angle. " A real goldsmith of the bronze nut ", he created the HB Nuts in 1983, later renamed the HB Offsets. Cracks in rocks, particularly small cracks encountered on difficult climbs, are often narrower at the back than where they emerge on the surface. To deal with this inconvenience, the Offsets have a double-transverse taper which allows subtle placements in flaring slots and old piton scars.

Above: Wild Country Rocks (1st, 2nd & 3rd generation, 1979, 1987 & 1988)
Above: Faces Gemstones.
Above:HB Offsets.

A small selection of the collection in the Nuts Museum!

Far from wanting to be exhaustive, this article only offers a wide selection of nuts, as the keystone of a different approach to climbing. We have, through lack of space, neglected the French, the German, the Spanish, the Swiss, the Italian, the Russian manufacturing... Other nuts remained sleeping upon the drawing table of an inventor or abandoned in a trunk full of prototypes. Others reached the Patent Office but never married the crack of their dreams... At the end of the '70s, with the work of Ray Jardine, inventor of the Friend, the nut became "active" or, if you prefer, spring loaded. No one could ignore Greg Lowe's Cam Nut, marketed in 1972, Lowe who had already built in... 1967 the Crack Jumar! But that's another story...

The Nuts Museum is very comprehensive, but it is still short of a few item. For a full list please go back to the Nuts Museum.

Also click for:
More Nut's Stories
Clockwork Friends and
Early Equipment Catalogues


Nuts' Story: 2001 a Nut Odyssey was first published High Mountain Sports, June 2001, No.233.
It was translated by John Brailsford.

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