Winter and Alpine Hardware Review – Part 1: Classic Ice Axes and Crampons
- Thursday 10th February 2022
By Bruce Goodlad
Ice tools and crampons are your connection to the mountain no matter the style of Scottish winter or Alpine pursuit you wish to engage with, you will need an ice axe and a pair of crampons. In the rush to get the latest, most exotic, tools it is worth remembering that for general mountaineering and general Alpinism a classic mountaineering axe like the Black Diamond Swift or the Petzl Summit Evo will be a far more versatile and effective tool. When paired with a pair of classic 12-point crampons like the Black Diamond Sabretooth, Grivel G12 or Petzl Vasak these will carry you up routes and to the summit of mountains all over the world.
As you progress on to more technical terrain, where you may consider a second tool, this may be the point to consider more technical equipment, both ice tools and crampons. We are going to look at a variety of kit today focusing on ice tools and crampons but covering a few protection considerations and all the kit featured is equally at home in the Scottish winter or Alpine terrain.
Let’s start by looking at Classic Ice Axes and Crampons, kit suitable for easier grade winter climbing and classic Alpine routes, this kit will carry you up most routes to Scottish grade III and Alpine D. It’s not until you move beyond these grades that using more technical equipment will make routes feel more secure. Click here for Winter and Alpine Hardware Review – Part 2: Technical Ice Tools and Crampons
Classic Ice tools
Classic mountaineering tools for Alpinism and easy climbing.
These generally have a straight or slightly curved shaft, the pick is designed for ease of placement on easier angles snow and ice and self-arrest. The adze is for chopping stances and digging out belays. My personal preference is for a tool about 60cm in length, this means that when moving on exposed ridges it is easy to touch the ground with the tool and use it for balance. At 60cm it is fine for easier climbs and when you store it between your shoulder blades with a rucksack on when you need to free your hands on a mixed route it isn’t too long to get in the way.
Black Diamond Swift
This has become my favourite mountaineering axe over the last few years, the forged single piece head is a beautiful piece of engineering that inspires confidence. The sharp corners on the adze make cutting steps and ledges incredibly easy and shape of the pick allows for clean first-time placements but isn’t too steep to impede self-arrest. The axe comes complete with a sliding handle, this is excellent – most of the time I keep it out of the way just under the head then if I am moving into climbing mode then it is easily moved to the bottom of the shaft where it gives excellent support.
The kink in the shaft allows for a comfortable hand position while holding the head and allows a clean plunge of the shaft into the snow, it also keeps the knuckles clear when in climbing position. The ferrule is made of solid stainless steel with a big eye should you want to clip in a karabiner. Available in a variety of lengths the 57cm is my favourite but I have also used the 50cm on technical ski tours where I wanted the security of a full weight axe but didn’t want to ski with a 57cm.
Petzl Summit Evo
Petzl (the evolution of Charlet Moser for those who can remember that far back) have been making ice tools since they were invented, which you can tell when you start to use the Summit Evo. A hydroformed shaft allows for a light but strong tool that is easy to hold, the bottom of which is rubberised making it easy to grip and a bit warmer if you are moving for extended periods in climbing mode.
The shaft has a kink in it like the Swift allowing for a comfortable position and clean placements. The pick is not as inclined as the Swift which I felt didn’t give such a secure placement on steeper terrain (though it is fine in most situations) and the adze I found a little on the small side. Available in a variety of sizes I have tried the 59cm and 52cm and thought the 59cm was brilliant for general mountaineering and then the 52cm comes into its own if you want a shorter tool or want to pair it with a technical hammer on easier North Faces or the likes.
Black Diamond Venom
This is the least technical of the climbing tools we tested, available as a hammer or an axe. We thought this was the perfect companion to a mountaineering axe for easier North Faces or more technical ridges. Its first test outing was on the Midi Plan Traverse above Chamonix last autumn where its versatility was proven. The tool has a similar shape to the Swift allowing it to be plunged effectively in soft snow or easily used to create snow anchors.
The bottom of the shaft is rubberised and there is a sliding handle like the Swift. This was particularly good on routes where you wanted the tool some of the time but not others, with the handle moved to the top of the shaft the tool could be comfortably slipped between your shoulder blades. The modular head allows you to change the pick either as one wears out or for a more aggressive shaped model. We loved this tool and found it perfect for technical Alpinism up to D and Scottish Grade III.
Classic 12-Point Crampons
These are the everyday tool of an Alpinist and winter mountaineer, 10 points facing down for grip then two front points for steeper terrain. The front points have a flat surface to give traction in snow though will not penetrate as well in hard water ice. I would use these in most Alpine situations and Scottish routes up to grade IV.
Speaking of Grivel, the G12 has got to be one of the longest-serving and best mountaineering crampon, it’s great all over the mountain, the downward-facing points are slightly longer than on some other 12-point crampons, this can sometimes make them feel a bit unstable on rock but in the Alps in summer this means that the points cut through the soft afternoon surface snow and bite into the frozen snow and ice underneath. I can think of a number of occasions when the people I'm with are sliding about whilst I was using G12s and I'm cramponing along quite happily. If you buy a pair of these you won’t regret it.
Black Diamond Sabretooth
I have had a funny relationship with the Sabretooth over the years, in classic summer Alpine terrain I have often found the downward points a bit on the short side so have been a bit wary of them. Then I went mixed climbing in them in the autumn and my relationship with them changed completely. The slightly shorter points gave me a feeling of connection with the terrain and while at times I have found the front points a little long they didn’t affect performance (certainly not my performance). These crampons are also light, the latest version features a slightly shorter front section which trims the weight down to 910g per pair whereas they didn’t really stack up against the other models being over 200g heavier in their previous incarnation.
A classic 12-point crampon this is as good as it gets when it comes to versatility in a crampon that is part of the Petzl Alpen Adapt, which means that you can swap out the front part of the crampon for the more technical Sarken (twin vertical front points) or Dart (Mono or adjustable duo front points).
As a 12-point crampon it is hard to beat giving great security all over the mountain. One feature I particularly like is how easy it is to change the front attachment point between straps that I would use with a B2 mountaineering boot or a wire toe bail that I would prefer on a B3 or even a ski mountaineering boot. As a result, this is the crampon I always take when doing more technical ski mountaineering where I need something more secure than an aluminium crampon. If the systems approach interests you then check out the Vasak.
Nuts and hexes – the big difference in winter is that you will often be hammering these into iced-up cracks to make sure they are seated correctly, as a result they will be pretty bashed and abused by the end of a season so don’t be afraid to have a winter set and a summer set.
Cams – you need to be really careful using cams in the winter, any ice inside a crack can cause the cam to slip out, if it is loaded this failure is immediate and catastrophic. If you can’t clear the cracks out you will need to use a hex or nut instead.
Ice Hooks – these are on the edge between ice and rock protection, originally designed for use in thin ice, too thin for a screw, they actually really come into their own in the Scottish environment where they can be hammered into iced or turfy cracks where nothing else will fit. They can be difficult to remove but if they are that difficult to remove they were probably quite a good runner. Black Diamond Spectre and the DMM Bulldog are the most common models, DMM make a smaller model called the Terrier as well.
The latest innovation in ice screws is the use of aluminium shafts with a stainless-steel tip, this saves a lot of weight which, if added up across a whole rack, can be a significant saving. There is a downside, of course, they do need a lot more care, the threads on the tube are easily damaged meaning they won’t be as easy to place and I have had cracks in the tubes, and the stainless steel section coming detached from both Black Diamond and Petzl models.
Having said that they are awesome and I carry two all the time when ski touring and mountaineering on a glacier. I just leave on the teeth guard and the mesh on the tube. If I need to use them it’s really easy to pull them off. When ice-climbing, I take the weight penalty and use stainless steel screws for their durability.
Most screws come in a variety of lengths and I find the 16-19cm lengths the most versatile then at least one 22cm one for making V threads and belays then a shorter model about 13cm for shallow placements. I would only consider a screw now with a fold-out handle as they are so much easier to use and faster to place.
Personally, I still think the Black Diamond Express is the best ice screw on the market, closely followed by the Petzl Laser Speed, it’s worth carrying at least one Grivel 360, the tube is every bit as good as the others and the folding handle means they can be placed in awkward ice. The folding handle on the 22cm ensures you will get the deepest possible V-thread placements.
With the aluminium models, I didn’t think there was much in it but I did prefer the two holes in the head of the Black Diamond model. Blue Ice has also started making an Alu/Steel screw which looks really interesting. The shaft is slightly thicker than the other manufacturers so you could use it in existing holes, worth checking out.
If you are going to make a V-thread then you will need a hook, you can use a bent wire coathanger, however, the Petzl Multihook is excellent and fits down the inside of an ice screw then with a bit of cord can be clipped into the carrying karabiner so you won’t ever forget it. The Grivel Candela does the same job but it is a bit long to fit in anything but a 22cm screw.
Finally, it’s worth using an ice screw carrying device, this makes one-handed placement easy, as you can unclip the screw easily from your harness then screw it into the ice, there are models available from Black Diamond, Petzl, DMM and Grivel.