Winter and Alpine Hardware Review – Part 2: Technical Ice Tools and Crampons
- Saturday 12th February 2022
By Bruce Goodlad
In the second part of this two-part review, we look at equipment suitable for harder winter climbing and Alpine routes.
You can view Winter and Alpine Hardware Review – Part 1: Classic Ice Axes and Crampons by clicking here.
As we move into the vertical frozen world the shape of our tools becomes more critical to our security and ease of movement the shape will allow us to climb some incredible features that were not imaginable when I started winter climbing 30+ years ago. The advent of leashless climbing has revolutionised the sport, initially thought to be the preserve of the strongest climber they were quickly adopted by climbers at all levels. They are just easier to use making the placement of protection easier and hence making the climbing safer. The only downside is when trying to plunge the tools with radical shapes into snow when trying to climb over a cornice. If this is a concern check out the new iteration of the Petzl Quark which has a very clever solution.
A more steeply inclined pick will give greater security, a curved shaft will prevent you from bashing your knuckles and the shape will allow you to gain better placements on complicated ice formations. These shaped shafts allow you to hook into holes and old tool placements in a way that was not possible with straighter shafts. Generally, the steeper the terrain the more radical the tool, however, the tools with extreme shafts are not so good on easier angled terrain. It’s all about the right tool for the job.
The same can be said for crampons, vertically aligned front points and mono points have changed climbing and the models reviewed will take you anywhere you would want to go, they all come with anti-balling plates as standard now which makes moving around the mountains much more secure.
Black Diamond Cobra
Weight: 617g (Adze) RRP: £340
To any lovers of carbon fibre, this must be the sexiest ice tool in the market, the quality of workmanship in making the carbon shaft then glueing on the head is superb. It has to be one of the finest pieces of engineering I have seen in an ice tool. The shaft has a great curve that works really well on ice and mixed terrain, the shape of the shaft allows the tool to be easily gripped when daggering. The carbon shaft is much warmer to hold than the usual metal shaft. Available as a hammer or axe I would have liked the option to have a slightly larger adze for Scotland. The tool comes complete with a two-stage grip, a good spike and a hole for a leash.
Black Diamond Viper
Weight: 570-595g RRP: £210
If there was a comparison to be made the Viper goes head-to-head with the Quark as an all-round versatile tool that can be customised to suit your needs. The shaft uses hydroforming to create variable thickness which allows a variety of hand positions. There is a flick lock handle that can allow for adjustment of the trigger rest on the shaft, this is really nice but if you add grip tape to the shaft you have to accept a limited range of adjustment. The head is smaller and neater than the previous Viper (will accept old blades apparently), the bolt system is the same with the notch in the bolt being sized so that it can be tightened by a pick on the hill. Though I have never had a pick work lose yet on a BD tool. The hole in the head is really big, this makes clipping the tool onto your harness or belay really easy and while a small thing adds to the usability of the tool. The spike at the base is nice and big so easy to use leash.
When on the hill the Viper performs exceptionally well, it has a great swing and the Titan pick has a perfect balance of durability and stickability. Those of you who want slightly more ice focus could look at the Ice pick, which is thinner with a finer profile for increased performance on hard ice.
The handle on the Viper is really comfortable with nice rubber shaping, the hand rest is slightly smaller than the previous model but it still works great and can be removed for a more mountaineering focus when you may want to plunge the tool. When climbing, the shaft shape gives great reach and hold and we found it gave great performance on all types of terrain. A fantastically versatile tool that is perfect for Scottish winter and cascades up to WI 4.
Weight: 786g RRP: £200
The Apex is a great versatile tool, at home both on the steep icefalls and longer mountain test pieces. We found the handgrip to be particularly comfortable and the absence of a formed index finger grip, present on many technical axes, made little difference to the precision of the swing or positivity in the hand when hanging on the steep ice. The curve on the shaft is very generous and we found that this made a big difference when the climbing got steep and ice started to bulge and cauliflower.
The swing and bite of the Apex are impressive and we soon found that positive single swing placements were easy making the climbing both efficient and confidence-inspiring. We were particularly impressed with the quality of construction, there are ice and mixed picks available as well as a couple of different adze/hammer combos. A great axe which anyone putting themselves to the test in the mountains or on the steep ice should consider.
Weight: 717-722g RRP: £230
The Switch is DMM’s most technical tool incorporating a more ergonomic shaped handgrip than the Apex. Although the Switch is slightly heavier than the Apex, we preferred the swing and bite of the Apex on the ice. As you’d expect from an extremely technical tool, the handgrip on the Switch felt very positive when things got very steep and the upper grip worked really well. The Switch is measured at the same length as the Apex, but strangely, it felt slightly longer when swinging for those full extension placements.
As you’d expect from DMM, the Switch is beautifully crafted and if your choice is between the Apex and Switch, it’s going to be a hard one as both tools perform admirably well in their overlapping applications.
Weight: 460-550g RRP: £215
The Quark is as near to a modular tool as we have in the review being really simple to strip for weight or tech up for more technical outings. These tools feel really light from the off without stripping anything out, then if you are heading for a more mountaineering outing it is really easy to remove the adjustable trigger finger rest. In reality, I found the tools so light generally that I couldn’t be bothered and just kept them in standard mode, with the addition of the folding ‘Griprest’. The tool is easily adapted so it can be plunged into soft snow in more mountaineering settings then easily deployed when the climbing gets more technical.
If you are focusing on steep water ice then you can strip out the hammer or adze to make a smaller head. The only downside to this is you might want a bit more weight on hard ice, you can add head weights to the pick, in fact, all the parts of the different Petzl tools are completely interchangeable so you have four choices of pick, two hammers and an adze.
The Quark has stood the test of time and is a superb all-round tool perfect for Scottish winter when the adjustable ‘Grip rest’ will make topping out in soft snow or over a cornice much more secure, I would just like Petzl to make a bigger hammer and adze to improve functionality on the mountains.
Weight: 605g RRP: £240
The Nomic set the standard for leash-less tools when it was released and the basic design is still intact, the latest version has a bigger handle and a metal grip on the base of the handle with a hole for a leash. It also has a hydroformed shaft, so it is really comfortable to hold the shaft in different positions. The handle has been reworked so the rubber moulding comes up the shaft to form the second/higher grip. The hand rest in both the lower and upper positions are excellent and the lower one can be adjusted to accommodate different hand sizes. The hammer supplied will work for hammering a piton at a push, but its profile is such that it would be really easy to damage the head of the tool, you can retrofit the Quark’s hammer and adze (available separately) for a more mountain focused tool.
We tested the Pure Ice Pic which is amazing, the last 5cm are finely tapered to give the easiest possible placements in even the hardest ice, those looking for a more all-round pick should have a look at the Ice, the shape looks the same but doesn’t have the same fine pick shape. The head weights have been redesigned as well giving a flared taper allowing for more mixed options or better traction in soft ice/firm snow (these will fit on the Quark).
The Nomic is a brilliant steep ice tool and excels on steep mixed terrain and dry tooling, when Petzl decided to rework the Nomic I was really worried they would ruin it but they have actually improved it in many subtle ways. One of the best tools out there.
Leashless climbing has been adopted by pretty much every climber and while you can still buy wrist loops it is at least 10 years since I last used one. Leash-less climbing allows you the freedom to swap tools and make moves with your hands and make it much easier to place protection both on ice and mixed terrain.
There is the obvious concern about dropping a tool which can be a pain in some situations but catastrophic in others, so it is worth considering leashes. These sprung pieces of webbing are surprisingly easy to get used to, they can be attached to the front of the harness then clipped to the bottom of the shaft. My personal favourite has a spinner between where it attaches to the harness and where the webbing divides to go to both tools, this means that the leash is much less likely to tangle. Personally, I don’t use one when cascade climbing but will use one when Scottish climbing and in an Alpine environment.
Black Diamond Spinner
This was the first spinner style leash that I used a few years back, with a few tweaks it’s now even better, the leash can be lark’s footed or clipped to the harness then there are two small locking krabs that are really neat. This is a great system that will keep your leashes free from tangles.
Petzl V Link
A really nice system from Petzl using a swivel system like the Black Diamond Spinner the only real difference is that Petzl use wire gate snap link krabs.
Grivel Simple Double Spring Leash
An excellent simple double leash from Grivel, delivered without karabiners but I’m sure you have plenty at home, there is no spinner system, so you have to be careful not to end up in a mess, but they are cheaper than any other model. You can add Grivel’s rotor karabiner to make a spinner system.
When we start looking at crampons we start with a classic 12-point crampon at one end of the spectrum and something that looks like a futuristic Meccano set at the other, the key choice is between classic front points or vertically aligned points (like an ice-axe pick) which can be mono or duo points. These vertical front points are more precise when climbing both on mixed and ice routes and use them on anything more difficult than grade IV in Scotland and waterfall route in the Alps where their penetration and security is amazing. The crampons below are all modular to a degree and there are more specialist lightweight mono points like the Grivel G21 and Black Diamond Stinger.
Petzl Alpen Adapt
It has always seemed bizarre to me that we would have multiple pairs of crampons that essentially have the same back section but a different front then the front section would be worn out and the back section had lots of life left in it. Well, Petzl has finally addressed this issue with their Alpen Adapt (you may have seen some early marketing called the Switch System).
The idea is really simple, the different parts of the different models of Petzl crampon are interchangeable and probably the best and most useful example of this would be to take the Vasak which is their classic and brilliant 12-point mountaineering crampon suitable for all types of mountaineering and easier climbing. When I want to climb some water ice or more technical terrain then I can easily swap this for the front of a Dart crampon which is Petzl’s most technical Monopoint crampon. Petzl has included this integration right across their range including their cord tech system where the front and back of the crampons is joined with Dyneema cord. I have used this a fair bit ski touring but I would question its durability in technical mixed terrain.
The link bars on the Petzl crampons have offset holes to allow for a precise fit, you can use a heel clip or strap system at the heel and wire or strap at the toe depending on the boots you are using. All the fronts of the crampons are available separately.
We can now have a look at the different options:
A classic 12-point crampon this is as good as it gets when it comes to versatility in a crampon (covered more in-depth in Winter and Alpine Hardware Review – Part 1: Classic Ice Axes and Crampons - click here).
A very similar point configuration to the Vasak but with two vertically aligned front points that have a slight T-section as they approach the body of the crampon ensures a good grip on snow as well as hard ice. These are a great crampon for those venturing from mountaineering into more technical terrain but aren’t mentally ready for a mono point.
A fantastic modular technical climbing crampon, the Dart can be set up as a mono point, duo point or offset duo by using a single bolt. These crampons are precise on rock and ice and will not be the limiting factor in your climbing this winter, their asymmetric shape was fantastic and the ease with which you could change out the front point or adjust the set-up really was superb.
I’m sure many of you will be jumping up and down saying you can do this with anyone’s crampons which is true, you could swap the front and backs of Grivel’s G12 and G14 crampons, but you would need to buy two complete sets of crampons to do this as the parts are not available individually.
These are an excellent pair of all-round technical crampons, they are basically a pair of G12s with adjustable vertical front points, these can easily be set up in bi or mono mode, so perfect for those wanting to try a mono but not commit to it. The flexible nature of the bar allows them to be fitted on a wider range of boots and makes them much more comfortable for walking. They are also available with a toe bail or straps. I used to have a pair of these to lend to clients for ice-climbing then found I kept using them myself, brilliant.
Black Diamond Cyborg
The Cyborg is to Black Diamond as the G14 is to Grivel, a really solid crampon with adjustable vertically aligned front points. Really easy to set up as mono or duo points, the micro-adjust on the heel ensures a good fit, the Pro model comes with a wire toe bail (check this compatibility with your boots, a wider version is available) and the clip has plastic straps at the front for boots without a toe welt.
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 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 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 have 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.