The stories

Cultivating Traditions

There is only one man in the entire world producing the legendary Bhend ice axe.

This is an incredible story. It is about the 140-year history of the Bhend ice axe from Grindelwald which is prized by mountain guides from all over the world. 
We hear of the fascination with the north face of the Eiger, the mythical bond between man and mountain and above all, of the four generations of Bhends who have supported mountaineering far beyond its golden age of alpinism. But what about the future of the Bhend ice axe?

“Actually I am doing exactly what my great-grandfather did,” says Ruedi Bhend. By this he means the now legendary ice axe which also helped those who first conquered Mount Everest in 1953 to their great success. What also connects Ruedi with his ancestor, Karl Bhend, is that he practises the generation-spanning traditional craft only as a sideline. 
Amazing for a success story like that of the Bhend axe: Once intended for those wealthy customers who “could afford the mountains”, the mountaineering tool with its characteristic ash wood has become a collectors' item. What exactly happened in between, after a heyday in which the ice axes were shipped all over the world, is “difficult to say,” says 69 year-old Ruedi Bhend a little reluctantly, because he is someone who is sparing with words. He does not look his age at all because being close to nature in Grindelwald keeps one young. But he looks exactly as one imagines a man from the Alps: a bit stoic, dutiful and extremely good-natured - and one who would rather commune with the mountains.

Mountain myth

The ice axe – along with rope and crampons – is part of the basic equipment of any mountaineer. But how did great grandfather Karl, who was no mountaineer himself, first come up with the idea of producing ice axes? According to Ruedi Bhend that had to do with the growth of Grindelwald following the first explorations of the north face of the Eiger. We are talking about the golden age of mountaineering. Grindelwald, in 1880 a small village where you scraped a rather meagre income from farming, was given a new, better economic opportunity with the increasing crowd of mountaineers and tourists.  Karl Bhend, a gifted blacksmith, saw in the ice axe the chance of additional income in quieter periods.

Wealthy visitors wanted to make the climb as comfortable as possible. Some were even transported all the way up on litters. With this new type of ice axe crafted with its handle made of ash wood, Karl Bhend made it easier for mountaineers to cut steps to help them advance. The crucial feature is the shape of the tip. The Bhend ice axe was originally an all-round tool as, measuring 1.20 metres long, it could also be used as an alpenstock. By contrast, modern ice axes are less than half as long.

The major breakthrough with the Bhend ice axe

Only two generations later did Ruedi Bhend's father make production of the ice axe his main occupation. With an affinity to mountaineering himself, he even produced his own crampons. Times were good for him, so good in fact that he equipped the  Everest expedition led by Edmund Hillary with everything from ice axes to crampons. An incredible achievement both for Hillary and Alfred Bhend which probably also marked the high point of the Bhend ice axe. “My father also used to supply a lot to Japan,” recalls Ruedi Bhend of Alfred who passed on the craft to his son. Now, he makes 40 ice axes every year between January and March. Each of his finished axes takes between 5-6 hours of work. However, you still need "a good eye for the curves of the axes," says Ruedi Bhend. And that requires skill and a bit of practice for there is probably no app for this yet. Ruedi Bhend's handiwork is of the highest quality. 

Passion creates tradition

In the Bhend workshop in the centre of Grindelwald hang a number of ice axes by his father and great-grandfather, the oldest of which is 120 years old. Through the wide workshop window you can see the mountains. Can he imagine living anywhere else? “Hardly. I couldn't live without them.” Beach holidays are not Ruedi Bhend's thing. He prefers to go skiing in winter and hiking in summer. 
Unlike his great-grandfather Karl, Ruedi has even done so on Mount McKinley in Alaska, together with seven friends from Grindelwald. Naturally they took ice axes and crampons with them from Grindelwald. 
Ruedi Bhend is very modest but even this assessment he would rather leave to others. His passion is reflected in the perfect precision work of the axes. When asked whether this is perhaps a bit to do with a sense of duty he says, “Of course, a bit. But I like doing it. If it was a must I wouldn't do it.” You take him at his word. 
But, despite all the sense of tradition, Ruedi Bhend is nevertheless a modern thinker, reflected also in the fact that the Bhend ice axe has its own website.

Although Ruedi Bhend's son is learning the craft, no decision has yet been taken over the future of the Bhend ice axe. “You cannot force anything,” says Ruedi. Even though he appears to be reconciled to the course of events, he is also clearly feels strongly about it. He says that generally the young lack a bit of enthusiasm. Assuming responsibility is also no longer so automatic nowadays. 
For between the great-grandfather's Bhend ice axe and now, the globalised world has fast forwarded. To make money from the ice axe, they need to expand but the high level of financial investment for this is not worth it for Ruedi Bhend. “We must therefore nurture the old as well as being open to new things,” says Ruedi Bhend. A man who is able to communicate with the mountains knows what he is talking about.

Text: Sandra Pfeifer
Photos: David Payr //

Oct. 13, 2016

Read the stories