Learning from the past

Last updated 14.04.2020GastautorGastautor
Horst Fankhauser

Things didn’t always used to be better, but a lot was certainly very different than today – especially in the mountains. There was less talk of sustainability, yet its core principles were lived. Sometimes this was a conscious decision, sometimes not – and sometimes it was simply because natural materials were the only things available to make clothing, equipment and packaging. What can we learn from earlier generations? We set off on a journey to find out what it means to live in harmony with nature, accompanied on our travels by a mountain guide who has spent more than half a century out and about in the mountains.

„That’s what we wore back then to go hiking“

Breeches, long socks, leather walking boots and a lumberjack shirt – plus a rope made of hemp next to him in the grass. The photo of Horst Fankhauser looks like something from the “vintage” section of a sports clothing catalogue. It was, in fact, taken in the early 1960s. “That’s what we wore back then to go hiking,” explains Fankhauser with a smile. He remembers his first alpine adventure aged nine together with his father. He would go on to climb mountains in the Himalayas, the Andes and other parts of the world – including, of course, at home in Tirol.

Horst Fankhauser today…

…and as a young man.

The 75-year-old mountain guide, who is still a keen rock climber, has invited us to his home in Neustift im Stubaital. We are standing in the room he uses to store his equipment, between aluminium carabiners, friends and belay devices. Fankhauser reaches into a box and pulls out a few “dinosaurs” – old, heavy carabiners made of iron. They have no screw or slide mechanism to prevent the rope from slipping out. Instead, a simple clip-in system suffices. “When the first HMS carabiners came along – those ones with a wide, pear-shaped top section – and aluminium became the material of choice, we all started using those,” he says, adding that, back then, buying new equipment was a rare luxury. “Our principle was to keep using something until it broke – or until there was a new invention which was really revolutionary.” Synthetic ropes are another example of a breakthrough which pushed the sport of climbing forward. These replaced the old 12mm hemp ropes which would become extremely stiff in freezing conditions. “Then there’s the 12-prong crampons,” laughs Fankhauser as he pulls out a pair of old 10-prong iron ones he used many decades ago. Instead of the modern clamp system, a leather strap was used to attach crampon to boot. Indeed, Fankhauser was actually involved in developing the new system that replaced this leather-and-metal buckle mechanism. He would go on to use it for his ascent of Manaslu (8,156 metres) in 1972, having manufactured a prototype together with local toolmakers. “These days, people often don’t really think about which equipment they actually need. Instead, it’s all about following the latest trend and having what the others have,” says Fankhauser. For 30 years, until 2004, he was in charge of running one of the mountain huts in the Stubai Alps owned by the Austrian Alpine Club. He remembers vividly that many hikers would arrive at his hut armed to the teeth with ice picks, crampons, ropes and everything else needed for a high-alpine glacier tour – despite the fact that the refuge was situated at just 2,147 metres above sea level. “They looked like they were about to climb Mount Everest.” With this in mind, Fankhauser has always been an advocate of keeping things simple: take no more equipment than necessary, but – first and foremost – take the right equipment.

Material changes

As we flick through Fankhauser’s many photos, it becomes clear that the type of clothing worn in the mountains has changed significantly over the decades. He can often be seen with a broad smile kitted out in breeches, a shirt and a woolly jumper knitted for him by his mother. Sustainable and regional before the words even existed. “If I’m absolutely honest, the breeches were a bit of a fashion statement back then,” he admits with a wry smile. The traditional outfit is a far cry from today’s light and breathable clothing, where materials such as Gore-Tex and Hyvent combine performance and recyclability. “The stuff we wore back then was also functional in its own way,” explains Fankhauser. Wool, for example, is highly breathable, dries much quicker than cotton and does not trap odours like modern synthetic materials do. And what about when it got too hot? “Simple! Roll your woollen socks down to the ankles and keep on going.” In winter, most people wore mittens made of thick felt. In wet conditions, a second glove made of canvas would sometimes be added for insulation. When it came to footwear, it was very much a case of one size fits all – the same pair of leather walking boots would be used for any type of terrain, from forest trails and boulder-strewn moraines to scaling sheer walls of rock and ice.

So does Fankhauser pine for the good old days? “Certainly not! The advances in equipment over the last decades have been a great step forward,” he explains. Would he head into the mountains again in his old gear, kitted out with iron carabiners and wood-handled ice picks? “Sure,” he smiles, “but only for a laugh.”

Typical hiking and climbing attire at the time.

Glacier sunglasses, knickerbockers, leather boots – the outfits of the past still have plenty of style today.

Minimising waste and carsharing 1.0

For many decades, Fankhauser – who qualified as a mountain guide in 1966 – accompanied groups of hikers to various peaks in the region and back again. So which developments and changes has he seen over the years? “Mostly positive ones,” he says. “In the past we would go out several times in summer to collect the rubbish which had been left around the hut. Today we hardly need to do that at all.” The same applies inside the hut. “In the past people would generally use the bins inside the hut to get rid of their rubbish, but we were left with the tricky and expensive task of transporting all this rubbish down into the valley. In the end we decided to get rid of the bins altogether.” The result? “People make less rubbish and take any refuse they do have with them when they hike back down into the valley.”

When it came to travelling in the mountains, the options available to walkers and hikers back then were more limited – and often more environmentally friendly – than today. Not everyone had a car, so more planning went into each hike and people clubbed together to give each other lifts to and from the starting points. “We would often travel by train because it was easier and or made more sense for the hike we had planned,” explains Fankhauser. Instead of day trips or weekend adventures, tours were generally longer. “We would often spend a week at a single hut and use it as a base to explore the mountains in the area. We certainly didn’t check what the weather was going to be like in Italy the next day and then pop over the border for the afternoon.”

Horst Fankhauser has an impressive photo archive.

Ham sandwich wrapped in newspaper – double recycling

Instead of energy bars and electrolyte drinks, Fankhauser always had a few cheese or ham sandwiches with him in the mountains. There was no plastic wrapping – they would simply use whatever they had at hand. “It didn’t matter – old newspaper, greaseproof paper, whatever we could find,” he says. “And when we then disappeared behind a rock a little later, the paper was used all over again – that’s what I call recycling!”

Fankhauser never found himself wondering whether plastic, aluminium or glass is the best for transporting liquids in the mountains. The reason? “I never take water with me. There are plenty of mountain streams, snow fields and glacier lakes along the way.” So what does he do when is thirsty and there is no water to be seen? “Take a little stone, put it in your mouth and suck on it,” he says. “This generates saliva – problem solved.” He admits that on some occasions he did used to take a bottle with him – not a plastic one, but a thin aluminium one with a cover made of felt. Fankhauser shows us a photo of the bottle, which he inherited from his father. Its contents? Not water, but diluted red wine with a spoonful of sugar.

When it comes to the food and drink served at huts in the mountains, much has changed too. Fankhauser has mixed feelings about the wide range of culinary delights on offer today. “I think it’s a bit over the top to have a menu with 30 different options on it.” At the same time, he acknowledges that things have moved on from the days when huts were just basic refuges designed to protect hikers from the elements. Fankhauser himself has an idea for an energy-saving compromise: hikers should be able to book half-board at every hut with a limited range of food options to choose from each evening, for example one meat dish and one vegetarian dish. In the mornings they could make a packed lunch from the breakfast buffet and fill their flask with hot tea. Job done. This, explains Fankhauser, would significantly reduce the amount of food and supplies that needs to be delivered to the huts – as well as the amount of rubbish to be disposed of afterwards. “There is definitely room for improvement when it comes to supplying the huts with food and materials,” says Fankhauser. Another area with potential for greater environmentally-friendly behaviour is energy. Instead of block-unit power stations, which require large amount of rapeseed oil to be delivered to the huts, mountain refuges should aim to use more hydroelectric power

Materials, technology and fashion – a lot has changed over the decades. However, one thing has remained the same: Horst Fankhauser still loves the mountains. In winter he explores the peaks on skis, while in summer his favourite activities are hiking and climbing. Where once he could be found carrying heavy ropes and carabiners, today he travels light with synthetics instead of hemp and aluminium instead of steel. Water, however, is still drunk straight from the source.

Fankhauser looks back with pleasure on his past mountaineering adventures.

Five quick tips on what we can learn from previous generations

  • Don’t always follow the trend when it comes to clothing and equipment. Only buy new gear if you really need it or if there is a significant innovation which will make a big different to your experience in the mountains.
  • When it comes to clothing, stick to natural materials such as wool – at least as a layer between the base and the outer.
  • Share your car with others – or travel by train whenever possible.
  • Looking after the environment is about more than just taking your rubbish home with you. Keep your eyes open for regional produce when ordering food at the huts.
  • Use old paper instead of plastic bags for your snack. Or try a sustainable alternative from Tirol: a beeswax cloth

Photos: Matthias Ziegler and Horst Fankhauser

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