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Tool Users: Fifi Hooks

Posted on: May 9, 2016


[Photo] Mike Lorenz. Ashby Robertson Collection (verticalarchaeology.com)

In 1969 Eric Jones ventured up the Bonatti Pillar, a tawny-granite spire that rose half a kilometer into the sky on the sheer West Face of the Petit Dru. Alone and ropeless, he moved over the rough stone with bare hands and double boots. Around him, the snowy domes and rock pinnacles of the French Alps shimmered in the spreading air.

Now and then, when Jones needed to make an aid move, he slotted a fifi hook into the eye of a fixed piton. A cord, fastened to the top of an etrier, ran from the hook to his Edelrid chest harness. Once past the piece, he tugged on the cord and released his gear, returning to fluid—and untethered—motion.

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The fifi, an often-overlooked tool that formed a key part of Jones's soloing system, derived from more than a century of experimentation. Some early mountaineers (and Alpine shepherds) had used the metal ends of alpenstocks to snag rock protrusions and tree branches for assistance on steep terrain. In the 1871 classic Scrambles amongst the Alps, British climber Edward Whymper had included an illustration of a kind of grappling hook that he'd fashioned to anchor one end of a rope to any available features.

Modern fifis evolved from similarly shaped hand-forged iron hooks. By the mid-twentieth century, as aid climbing became more accepted in Europe, more alpinists ventured onto steep and difficult rock walls. In the 1959 book On Ice and Snow and Rock, the French alpinist Gaston Rebuffat described how using fifis instead of carabiners to attach etriers to gear allowed aid climbers to move more quickly and continuously. Rebuffat compared the upward motion of removing the fifi to that of tugging on a reluctant canine's leash ("whence the name," he explained).

The original homemade fifis with their heavy weight and sharp hooks could easily injure a falling climber. Lighter alloy commercial hooks had appeared in European catalogues in the 1950s. The size of a half dollar, with rounded noses and a deeper curve, they were less likely to tear at skin or clothing, and they provided a better sense of security.

Over the years, climbers found a variety of purposes for these and similar-looking tools. A 1964 Fisher and Sons catalogue shows a large fifi-shaped hook, used in conjunction with a box spring, to release a rope automatically when a climber unweights it after the completion of a single-strand rappel. Pierre Allain (the famed first ascensionist of the North Face of the Dru), had created this device and named it the "décrocheur." Although he often relied on the gadget himself, many others were too terrified to try.

During the 1970s, climbers began tying fifis to the front of their harnesses so they could clip into daisy chains or gear more directly; thus, they could rest their arms and hammer pins more easily. On overhanging walls, as Yosemite historian Steve Grossman points out, "a properly adjusted fifi sling would allow an aid climber to stand in the top steps of their aid sling...[and] extend the distance between individual placements."

Nonetheless, even modern fifis have their drawbacks: if you release tension on them, especially when top-stepping, they can dislodge and cause you to fall. Some climbers complain that the hooks still catch on slings, cams and clothing. But this latter problem can, at times, be surprisingly useful.

A quarter of the way up the Dru, Jones slipped and plummeted for twelve to fourteen feet to a narrow ledge, landing on his feet. Unable to regain his balance, he tilted backward in space. Just as gravity pulled him into the void, he stopped falling. The fifi hook, still tied to him, had wedged between the eye of a piton and the rock.

Forty-seven years later, Jones recalls that he and his friends tried reconstructing the fall dozens of times. "We couldn't get the fifi to catch. It came off every time. But it certainly saved my life that day."

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