Ice Climbing Technical Gear:
Tools and Crampons Primer
by RJ Fleming
The purpose of this article is not to recommend, denigrate or market any particular ice gear or makers, but to explain the overall basic design, use and reasoning behind the myriad of tools and crampons that exist. A little history is also injected into the design story, and hopefully this information will help any ice climber interested in making informed choices relevant to expected use. Certain tools may be cited as particularly well-conceived or functionally lacking, but those opinions are exactly that and may not reflect other climbers’ experiences or personal views. The following is based upon more than 30 years of ice climbing experience by professional mountain guides and ice climbers, using more than two dozen tool models to date, both enjoying and occasionally regretting the choices. Most tools are adequate to address the situation, and success depends more upon a climber’s skill and climbing technique than the equipment. Many veteran ice climbers would agree that they could probably climb most ice routes today with the tools they used 25 years ago, even in light of some good changes in weight, shaft design and pick strength. Don’t get overwhelmed with all that is available – most modern ice tools are solid, pretty efficient and capable of getting you up anything your technique allows.
Basic Ice Tool Design and Use
Semantically, ice tools and ice axes are not interchangable terms and represent different beasts designed for different uses, although they are sometimes mis-attributed or confused as similar. Ice tools are designed exclusively for steep ice climbing and, while occasionally used in a traditional ice axe manner on mixed routes, are suited to the more technical requirements of the activity. Ice tools must penetrate varying ice mediums from softer, more aerated and opaque ice to cement-hard, black ‘mountain’ ice found on higher mixed routes that often contain varying amounts of minerals and rock in one form or another. This later medium can be much more dense and difficult to penetrate than the more plastic types of ice found in frozen waterfalls and runoffs, and can prove to be the defining nemesis of any tool and pick combination. Therefore, one basic similarity of many ice tools is that they are often modular, have removable leash systems, offer replaceable picks, and sometimes offer adjustable hand grip positions.
One of the most important structural aspects of any tool, after being generally indestructible, is its pick options in terms of cutting design, strength, angle and the possibility of replacement. Example: on the older but excellent Grivel Machine tool, two picks were offered: the Cascade and the Mixte. The Cascade is slightly thinner, lighter and designed solely for use on water ice, and rates the strength designation of ‘B’, which is the CE rating meaning ‘Basic’. Unfortunately, on thin ice, when one of these lighter ice picks strikes hidden rock they can be bent or broken, introducing excitement to the climb. The Mixte pick is slightly thicker, heavier, stronger and designed for use on ice and rock, when used correctly as in hooking, levering and jamming (not attempting to actually penetrate rock); it therefore has the higher CE strength industry designation of ‘T’ for ‘Technical’. Pick angle, or the ability to alter or change picks and their angles, is tool dependant. Some tools offer picks of different angles to address different steepness and techniques, so you must decide if you are going to be ‘hooking’ the steepest Grade 5s much of the time, or want a slightly less aggressive pick angle suitable to more modest routes.
Mountaineering ice axes have a generally uniform pick angle designed for a basic swing, which is not actually used that often in general mountaineering. Ice axes are used more often for stable progression on snow/ice slopes of lower angles and various mountaineering belay techinques. In contrast, ice tools are swung continuously overhead to stick into hard ice and hook placements to hold body weight. Therefore these have picks usually angled steeper than a generic axe (even recurved), a head weight compatibly balanced (theoretically) to maximize penetration/purchase, and more aggressive teeth to facilitate holding power.
Shaft Length and Shape
Ice tools integrate a shaft shape providing a more ergonomically correct swinging or hooking motion to foster penetration when using a natural motion associated with steep ice climbing. Tool shafts are mostly shorter than ice axes, often from 45-55cm with exceptions, since axes are used more for belaying, anchoring and walking support on snow slopes and are often 55-75cm or more in length. Ice tool shafts have reverted back to longer lengths from the short ice ‘hammers’ of the 1970-80s, when the modular Forrest Moljnar, Lowe Hummingbird and ‘Terydactals’ were among the more popular tools. Many of these had up to three pick or tube options, all had short (35cm) straight handles and were quite efficient but lacked reach. Still, they worked well and any good climber could do almost anything with them. On solo ice climbs it can be reassuring to carry a light, modern Grivel version of such a hammer as a back-up in the event of a broken pick or dropped tool.
Most tools share a similar shaft shape which is appropriate and compatible to most climbers’ natural swing. There are, on the other hand, a few models with such elaborate shapes or angles that they may prove to be mildly uncomfortable or downright unusable. Additionally, an exaggerated joint in the shaft makes it difficult to slide the hand up the shaft when ‘short shafting’ the tool, a technique used occasionally. Again, sexy is not necessarily efficient, so try to put aesthetics aside and use a tool before buying it to avoid owning an uncomfortable, poorly performing tool that is nearly impossible to re-sell to an experienced climber.
Weight and Balance
Tool weight and balance is another important consideration: obviously too heavy is bad and too light can be as well; balance is critical. Ideally a properly weighted ice tool will penetrate easily with a moderate swing, and can be placed with a single swing or two, depending upon ice conditions (and technical ability). One noticeable characteristic of a poorly designed tool is an overall, badly balanced tool that feels cumbersome, unwieldy or possesses a head that is too heavy or too light (a few tools even allow head weight modification by removing or adding small weights). Bad balance makes using the tool a chore, whereas a good tool feels natural to swing and provides direct feedback to the body while doing its job. A tool designed to be very light, with exceptions like a Grivel Monster, is often simply too light to stick into ice with efficient, moderate swings and requires more forceful application. This can require more swings to offer security, which defeats the purpose of saving weight by requiring more physical effort or additional work to place it. Basically, avoid or be suspicious of super light tools unless you first rent or borrow one and see if it actually does the job. A climber can wear her/him self out flailing away with a light-headed tool instead of easily placing a properly weighted one.
Most tools have serviceable grips and some even have an exceptional design. Black Diamond, Charlet/Moser, Grivel and others have done a good job of getting the grips right. When BD first cranked out their technical ice tools offering adjustable grips they made the mistake of not making the overall size of the grip large enough for gloved climbers with large hands. They quickly addressed this issue and increased the sizing; if you have large hands be sure to see if a tool grip fits you properly. The Charlet Moser Nomic tool is exceptional for steep ice climbs and is a favorite with us, however it is not the best choice for mixed routes in mountaineering due to its limited ability on less steep terrain.
Some of the best tools incorporate finger grooves in the grip to provide more comfort and more stability; index finger ‘triggers’ are also available or an add-on option on a few. Such innovations have made many grips more comfortable and easier to hold, providing a big advantage over smoother shafts requiring a very tight grip (tiring) or a leash to alleviate forearm overuse. Be sure to hold, swing and hang from any tool to see if the grip fits, and only do this testing while wearing the glove configuration you will use on ice routes. The feel of a tool without gloves is almost irrelevant, and can lead to an expensive purchasing mistake.
Lastly, by adding skateboard friction tape to ice tool shafts (tape remnants for this purpose are often available for free at skateboard shops), you can gain an excellent grip to the shaft when ‘short shafting’ the tool on less steep terrain, using remasse technique, etc.
Ice tools are either ‘leashless’ or come with wrist leashes that are usually removable with a clipping system. Leashless tools usually cannot have a leash added easily and are more use specific, meaning steep waterfall climbing, dry tooling or competitions, and do not offer less experienced climbers certain helpful advantages.
Leashed tools can be used with or w/o the leash, so they make a good choice for most climbers while offering advantages for those learning the sport. For one, the leash keeps the tool from being accidentally dropped – an obvious plus. Next and foremost, a properly rigged and adjusted (with gloves on) leash provides a great deal of grip support, alleviating muscle fatigue and allowing the skeletal system to share the burden of weight support rather than depending solely on forearm muscle strength. From a learning viewpoint, with leashed tools new climbers neither drop tools nor wear themselves out over-gripping tools, a common error made when learning. Leashes allow more security and confidence, more resting possibilities, the ability to ‘suspend the tool from your wrist while grabbing rock, and so are a good option to consider. When buying leashed tools, however, it is imperative to operate the clipping system (again, wearing gloves) before deciding, since you may discover certain clipping systems are too difficult to use in a real life, gloved situation. Once purchased, continue to practice in gloves until it is second-nature to use the clip; hanging and freezing is no time to discover the clipping system leaves much to be desired. A climber must be quick and proficient attaching and freeing oneself from tools, and/or getting in and out of a leash. One advantage to buying matching tools is that they use the same clipping system, allowing you to change hands and tools on traverses or at other times, indeed a nice ‘plus’.
Final Thoughts on Selection
Good tools are not cheap, but used properly they will last a long time, and your safety will depend upon them. While it may be possible to find deals on used ice tools, it is important to be able to see and inspect a used tools before buying, a situation that could be difficult if buying on Ebay, for example. Even if you have already used a model and know it is what you want, it could be damaged, have a worn out pick or worse, a pick that has been sharpened on a grinding wheel. This ruins the temper of the metal and makes the pick breakable (Note: wheel sharpening is a common practice is some outdoor shops). Discoloration in the metal is one sign of this abuse, but most times you will not be able to tell by looking, so perhaps buying a used tool and a new pick is another route to consider. If you have not used a model being offered for sale, it could be a poor choice: you will know nothing about its balance, grip fit while wearing gloves, pick strength and design, curvature and weight.
The bottom line is that it is recommended that you try a few tools as a starting point, while deciding if you need tools for pure steep ice, want to go leashless from the start, etc. If leashless is your choice, check out models like the Petzyl/Charlet Moser Nomic, Black Diamond Fusion and Reactors, Grivel QuantumTech and MatrixTech (*Caveat: models and names change often, so you’ll have to see what new gear is currently offered). If you want leashes, check out the Black Diamond Cobra, Grivel TechWing and TopWing, Charlet/Moser Quarks for a few. You may discover a fair number of used Quarks on the market. If you use them and like them you might be able to pick-up a pair reasonably priced, since many people bought them after they were aggressively marketed, and they do everything well.
Finally, if you can control your adrenaline try not to buy anything until you have used different tools for a bit. You will learn a great deal in a single pitch with each tool. Also, tools change, so why buy something until you have rented some of the best new tools on the market to try them out? Some merchants may even deduct your rental amount from the price if you buy new tools from them.
For Steep Ice Climbing
You can buy excellent crampons for anything these days, however it is recommended you not buy used ones for steep ice – go with new ones like Black Diamond Sabertooth Pro or Grivel Rambo 4, etc. On steep ice crampons the front points matter most, and the models specified above have replaceable front points, so no worries there, plus you can change them from double to mono-points as well. As opposed to older, rigid frame crampons, most modern crampons do not break easily and all provide an excellent platform when used with modern rigid boots.
For General Mountaineering
Among the better choices are Black Diamond Sabertooth Clips, Grivel G12 and AirTech (NOT AirTech Light, however- too light and fragile for serious work). Charlet/Moser and several others also make good models so it is hard to go wrong here. Just consider how you expect to use your crampons (glacier walking or mixed routes) and look for the design characteristics that best address your needs.
If you buy used crampons for general mountaineering they should be as new as possible and not too worn. Once the bottom points start getting worn down they are less and less safe – you can sharpen points but not increase their length, and short, worn points will snowball quicker, slip easier and could get you killed. Also, the anti-botts of both BDs and Grivels are well made and help keep the crampons as free of snow as possible. Note: Crampons MUST have anti-botts, w/o exception. If the crampons you are considering buying do not have anti-botts included then you must fit the proper plates to them and recognize this as part of the basic cost.
Super-lightweight crampons: In general, it is recommended to not buy any aluminum model crampons. These lightweight models have two basic purposes: 1) for amateurs injudiciously seeking the lightest crampon made, or 2) for someone requiring the lightest crampon possible for short time use or back-up, like competitors in racing events. Regardless of manufacturers’ claims, aluminum crampons can tear up with a single use on any serious route. These are for glacier walking primarily, and we do not know a single guide who uses them or considers them serious equipment. If a crampon is needed, then it must be dependable.
Price: Like most things, you get what you pay for, and since crampons are your only connection with life other than your tools, don’t scrimp. The models listed above are strong and dependable, have serious bottom/front points and strap systems, and are capable of handling anything you want to do. Remember, in mountaineering, your crampons must be able to climb rock all day if necessary, and a broken one will occur in a rapid-pulse situation and cause unnecessary drama.
Follow-up Note: Recently there is a rumour that it has become illegal for a French outdoor shop to sharpen, fix or re-sell their rental ice tools and crampons. We were informed of this fact by two French sport merchants, so we assume it to be fact. Swiss and Italian stores have not yet reported such restrictions so hopefully they are not legally constrained in this manner. The point is that stores which do not, or cannot, maintain sharp crampons and ice tool picks are not legally capable of providing gear in the best usable condition. Additionally, some stores admittedly use grinding wheels to sharpen their many crampons and ice tools, so the temper of this gear is likely ruined and more easily breakable than gear sharpened properly by hand and uncompromised by excessive heat. The condition of such important equipment is something to consider when renting gear (or buying used gear), so be advised.