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Fernand Petzl, caver and inventor, dies at 91


 

by Unknown

June 05, 2003

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

Fernand Petzl founded Petzl - in many people's opinion the premier cave equipment company, based originally on his own tinkering to produce gear for his own use. He passed away May 31st 2003. Fernand was a world-class caver, and co-discovered and explored the "Dent de Crolles" in the 1930's and the "Gouffre Berger" in the 1940's - then the deepest cave in the world.

We learned with sadness the death from Fernand Petzl, at the 91 years age, of the continuations of a long disease.

Craftsman and speleologist

Speleologist and craftsman, Fernand Petzl joined in the 1930s the team led by Pierre Chevalier, whose objective was the exploration of the famous cave network of the “Tooth of Crolles.” In 1947, Petzl set the world record for underground development and depth (in new cave exploration, then the longest and deepest cave explored). In addition to this performance, exploratory speleology was then largely symbolic – the evolution of artificial and human tools and methods, means implemented to succeed; and Petzl was in charge of the evolution.

At the time, everything still needed to be invented, particularly with regards to techniques of progression, to explore always further, and to overcome the difficulties. Fernand Petzl, very active on many fronts, arranged and constructed prototypes adapted to the ambitious objectives: easy to reassemble and use equipment, removal of obstructions, passage of cascades, etc... It was a question of inventing, of development, of testing and trusting in it, of believing, and of adapting all the innovations to advance the sport. With his companion Brenot "Kiki", to which we owe the first named metal claws "monkeys", these will be the developments that are remembered in caving histories in the future - the firsts all around.

Since 1942, Fernand Petzl was interested in testing the first nylon ropes for caving and climbing. An impassioned speleologist, he took an active part in another great exploit, the exploration of the pit “Berger” (world record depth of -1122 m, in 1956).

Birth of a company

The company takes form in the 1970s... Imagine an artisanal workshop of 75 square meters (7200 square feet) located at the foot of the “Tooth of Crolles,” close to Grenoble. At the beginning, the workshop was a place of meeting. One learned the new discoveries there from the underground medium, one manufactured there the articles and one sold them. Fernand Petzl produces tools for the foundry and unceasingly creates, with his friends, his sons.

In 1968, Bruno Dressler presented three products to him: ancestors of the chute (system of fixed flask pulleys) and of the blocker-on-cord (ascenders?). He took these as a starting point for the process, reverse engineered them, and then developed the new finished products. These, the first tools of the revolution in the techniques of descent and ascent on rope, are ready. The speleologist discovered his autonomy, and the new prospects for exploration that the new tools offered.

The products were created in the first years by intuition, a little randomly from the requests and the technical challenges. The headlamp is a good example: There remained quantity of plastic parts used for lighting caves (flashlight components, previously carried), and to store them became a headache. The "family" invented the headlamp with some of these spare parts then. Each product was carried out with what was economically easy to find: The first rubber bands of the ZOOM lamps were cut out in rubber bands of brassieres, the boxes of packing recovered in the trade to make the shipping parcels for orders...

Petzl’s credits include such common speleological and climbing inventions as the electric headlamp, the shunt, belay plates, the first harnesses, etc...

(Translated from an extract of a message written by a speleologist for the EFS and PETZL.)

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What is Petzl all about? Who was the tinkering inventor that changed how we explored rock – both subterranean and later, vertical above-grade? From the older, now defunct Petzl.com webpage (retrieved from the WayBack Archives):

“PETZL (the company) began in France in the 1970's.

“Picture a craftsman's workshop located at the foot of the Dent de Crolles (a high cliff in the pre-Alps, near Grenoble). Fernand Petzl, son of a German immigrant, produces tools for the foundry. Caving is his passion and his life is devoted to inventing. Puttering with his friends and sons (my brother and me), he comes up with the tools that will revolutionize techniques for climbing or descending ropes. Back then, the shop was a rendezvous where you could get the news on the latest discoveries in the caving world, as well as buy the new Petzl gear that was made there. Without really knowing where we were going, we created products by intuition, responding to the demands and technical challenges we faced. The headlamp is a good example: we had a large inventory of plastic parts on hand for our caving light, and stocking them had become a real Chinese puzzle. In order to find another use for them, we developed the headlamp. Every product was produced with materials that were easily available. The first ZOOM headband was cut from elastic made for brassieres; boxes bought on sale became the packing for the products.

“The ZOOM headlamp. The ASCENSION and SHUNT. The STOP descender. The COEUR anchor. ECRIN helmet. JUMP harness. GRIGRI belay device. SPIRIT carabiner. Behind each product, there have been dozens of inventions. We're particularly proud of these products because they have managed to change - and improve - the way sports like caving, mountaineering, rock climbing, and canyoneering are practiced.”

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The original release, in French, follows:

Nous avons appris avec tristesse le décès de Fernand PETZL, à l'âge de 91 ans, des suites d'une longue maladie.

Artisan et spéléologue

Spéléologue et artisan, Fernand Petzl rejoint dans les années 30 l'équipe conduite par Pierre Chevalier dont l'objectif était l'exploration du fameux réseau de la Dent de Crolles. En 1947, le record du monde du développement souterrain et de la profondeur est largement mérité. Outre la performance, la spéléologie vivait alors l'évolution des moyens artificiels et humains mis en oeuvre pour réussir.

A l'époque, tout était encore à inventer en matière de techniques de progression pour explorer toujours plus loin et surmonter les difficultés. Fernand Petzl, très actif sur les nombreuses expéditions, bricole et réalise des prototypes adaptés aux objectifs ambitieux : remontée de puits par la base, désobstruction, passage de cascades etc... Il s'agissait d'inventer, d'essayer, de tester, d'y croire, et d'adapter toutes les innovations pour avancer. Avec son compagnon Brenot "kiki", auquel on doit les premières griffes métalliques nommées "singes", ce seront les mises au point des amarrages scellés au plomb, des premiers mâts, etc.

Dès 1942, Fernand Petzl s'intéresse aux tests des premières cordes en nylon. Puis il se lance dans la fabrication en nombre des échelles. Spéléologue passionné. il participera activement au nouvel exploit que fut l'exploration du gouffre Berger (record du monde -1122 m, en 1956).

La naissance d'une entreprise

L'entreprise prend forme dans les annees 70... Imaginez un atelier artisanal de 75 m2 situé au pied de la dent de Crolles, près de Grenoble. Au début, l'atelier était un lieu de rencontre. On y apprenait les nouvelles découvertes du milieu souterrain, on y fabriquait les articles et on les vendait. Fernand Petzl réalise des outillages pour la fonderie et crée sans cesse, avec ses amis, ses fils.

En 1968, Bruno Dressler lui présente trois produits : les ancêtres du descendeur (système de poulie à flasque fixe) et du bloqueur sur corde. Il s'inspire du procédé, dessine, puis met au point les nouveaux produits. Bientêt les premiers outils de la révolution des techniques de descente et de remontée sur corde sont au point. Le spéléologue découvre son autonomie et les nouvelles perspectives d'exploration qu'elle offre.

Les produits furent créés dans les premières années par intuition, un peu au hasard des demandes et des défis techniques. La lampe frontale en est un bon exemple : il restait quantité de pièces plastiques utilisées pour l'éclairage spéléo et les stocker devenait un casse-tête chinois. La "famille" inventa alors la lampe frontale. Chaque produit était réalisé avec ce qui était économiquement facile à trouver : les premiers élastiques des lampes Zoom ont été découpés dans des élastiques de soutien-gorge, les boîtes d'emballage récupérées dans les commerces pour faire les colis des commandes...

A l'actif de Petzl. on peut citer entre autres, la mise au point de l'éclairage spéléo avec piezo électrique, le shunt, les plaquettes, les premiers harnais, etc...

Extrait d'un message rédigé par une spéléologue pour l' EFS et la société PETZL.


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