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Crampon Review – No 226 – December 2003

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Crampon Review - No 226 - December 2003

Power PointsEight crampons for steep-ice and mixed climbing

Test Results:

Black Diamond BionicCassin C14DMM TerminatorGrivel G14Petzl Charlet M10Simond Pitbull Speed RSStubai X-DreamTrango Hyper Harpoon

History of Crampons Timeline

My first experience with a monopoint crampon was way back in 1984. I was about 15 feet out from the belay when my partner suddenly called up, “Hang on, you’ve left something behind!” Searching for stable footing from which to investigate this curious announcement, I shifted nearly all my weight onto my right crampon — and almost pinwheeled off into the winter wind. Turns out that what I’d left behind was a front point, buried neatly in the ice. Beneath my boot, only a mangled stub protruded, ragged testimony to the ruinous climax of metal fatigue. Perhaps if I’d been a more curious or inventive person, this experience might have inspired me to explore some potential advantages of a single frontpoint. A light bulb might have snapped on, illuminating an ability to toe into tight pockets and hook short ledges or even vertical cracks. I might have deduced that it takes less energy for a single point to penetrate hard ice — especially since the possibility exists for stepping into pre-existing ice tool placements. Instead, the only thing that snapped was my point, and the only thing it inspired was utter panic. Somehow I finished the pitch, scratching and kicking like a clawless cat on a polished staircase. One thing I knew for sure: it was always going to be two beefy points for me. Two years later, Grivel and Charlet Moser simultaneously introduced monopoint designs, and today, that’s pretty much all I use. History is full of climbers better able than me to see into the future, climbers like Oscar Eckenstein, the Englishman credited with realizing the full potential of the modern crampon in 1908, and Laurent Grivel, the Italian smithy who, in 1929, added front points to Eckenstein’s 10-point version — and, of course, America’s own Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost, whose 1967 rigid design unhinged more than crampons. Innovators like these have exposed new thresholds of climbing possibilities. Exactly how they got to those thresholds is something of a “chicken or the egg?” conundrum: does gear evolve in response to new climbing styles, or is it the other way around? The only conclusive answer is that both are advanced through imagination. The current crop of crampons for steep ice and mixed climbing certainly reflects that inventiveness. Ten years ago, any one of these crampons would have perforated the competition. Today, it’s a real horse race. Crampon designers’ imaginations are working overtime: rigid vs. semi-rigid, straight or anatomic frames, mono and dual front point configurations. The only certainty is that nobody’s coasting. To make our evaluations, we asked the various manufacturers to box up their top vertical ice-and-mixed crampons and ship ’em to northern Minnesota, where the cold once popped a filling right out of my tooth, where the waterfall ice is flint hard, and where my climbing chums (we still use words like that up here) and I spent an entire winter putting crampons through their paces. Here then, is how the points were scored. Semi-rigid versus rigid frames. Once upon a time, all crampon frames were flexible. This was fine — even preferable — as long as the angle of the snow and ice stayed at or below 45 degrees. Even when ice pioneers started venturing onto the steeper gullies and chutes in the Alps and on Scotland’s Ben Nevis, they made do by chopping steps that cradled their hinged cleats. Chouinard and Frost imagined a faster, more elegant solution. They saw the promise of front points and understood that their potential was being limited by the energy-robbing vibrations of the flexible crampon frame. So, they fabricated a rigid design. In conjunction with their short, curved-pick ice axes, Chouinard and Frost’s rigid crampon ushered in the era of vertical ice, and the standards rose like Lazarus on fire.

Fast forward to the 1990s, when steep ice was still king, but a growing number of defectors were stirring things up, seeking out ever thinner, more discontinuous, and wildly overhanging smears. Crampons were still crucial, but this kind of movement was as much on rock as on ice. Mixed climbers needed front points, sure, but they also needed to edge, jam, and heel hook, which required more foot sensitivity and control and less penetrating power. In short, they needed less crampon — but not a return to the pivoting instep of old. Modern mixed techniques would be well served by something in between, something semi-rigid. A few manufacturers had already tested these waters by designing crampons that utilized a flexing bar rather than a hinge to connect the toe and heel plates. The original intent was to offer alpinists greater versatility in the mountains, but with the advent of the mixed-climbing revolution a whole new market opened.

By virtue of its flexibility, both in terms of performance and value (strapped to a stiff boot, a semi-rigid crampon becomes nearly as good as a rigid model for toenailing steep ice), the semi-rigid crampon has enjoyed steadily rising popularity.

The numbers say it all: in our 2001 review, only one out of the seven high-performance crampons we reviewed was semi-rigid. This time around, that ratio jumped to four out of eight. This doesn’t mean, however, that we necessarily favored semi-rigid over rigid.

For hard-ice penetration, the rigid designs are king; for versatility on terrain other than purely vertical, the semi-rigids rule (and thus we have selected an Editors’ Choice for each design). But on anything other than flint hard ice, with the right boot, we’re pretty much talking apples and apples. For delicate mixed climbing, the semi-rigid designs may deliver excellent control, but several of the rigid frame manufacturers also had some tricks up their sleeves.

Frame contour. In the 1970s, Chouinard’s original rigid crampon featured a contoured foot-bed that fit a boot like … well, like a boot. Sometime during the 1980s, however, manufacturers began to favor boxy, symmetrical designs — I blame the Lowe Footfangs, a paradigm-busting crampon that offered so many improvements, we didn’t even notice we were wearing cribbage boards. Today, however, many manufacturers have joined top bootmakers in anatomical thinking by creating rigid frames that mimic the outline of the foot. This ergonomic curve has powerful performance advantages: it is a more natural, comfortable, and less fatiguing climbing configuration (i.e. front points angled in line with the toes; side points aligned along the edges of the foot). These crampons act more like an extension of the foot, concentrating support and power just where it is expected and needed. To this same end, all the semi-rigid models feature a subtle curve along the instep connecting bar. (So subtle, however, that care must be taken to avoid strapping them to the wrong feet. Halfway up a vertical curtain is no place to discover that your front points are pigeon-toed. Trust me, I know.)

Most of the crampons feature “cookie cutter” frames, i.e. the downward points are extensions of vertical rails. There’s no arguing with the fact that steel is more resistant to flexing or buckling standing on end than laid flat. But the flip side is that cookie cutters — and particularly the rigid models — also have a strong tendency to ball up, sometimes even in only marginally sticky snow. To reduce the likelihood of being spit off slopes or ledges, anti-balling plates (commonly referred to as anti-bots) are available for most models.

Two notable exceptions to the cookie cutter motif are the Black Diamond Bionic and the Grivel G14. These crampons feature points folded down from a horizontal platform, which makes them far less prone to balling. Another premise offered by both companies is that the horizontal frame lowers the profile and places the boot sole nearer the ice or rock, resulting in greater sensitivity and control. In reality, however, neither of these crampons put us appreciably closer to the medium than any of the others we surveyed (except for the rare occasions when we managed to hook a flake or edge between the points).

A final important point regarding frame design: it is essential to getting the full performance benefits from boot and crampon that a crampon can be adjusted to fit properly on the boot. Before buying any crampon, test fit it to your boot(s) to ensure compatibility — lest you end up kicking yourself.

Front points. Regardless of what kind of frame they’re mounted on, all the front points we tested featured vertical blades (think ice-tool picks for the toes). This is one crucial design detail that old Laurent Grivel and even Chouinard himself missed the boat on (Chouinard considered it, but dismissed vertical points as too prone to shearing), but Mike Lowe seized upon with the Footfang in 1972. Vertical front points are top dog for slicing into ice with minimal fracturing.

For added strength, stability, and to resist shearing, vertical front points also incorporate some sort of horizontal element, typically a flaring hood that tapers to the blade, giving the point a T-shaped cross-section. The two exceptions are the Stubai and Simond crampons, with front points reinforced along one side only, resulting in an inverted “L” cross-section. We put all the current front points through the mill, and despite our best efforts kicking, clawing, scratching, and twisting, nothing broke and nothing bent. Point strength, it seems, is not a defining factor for modern crampons.

Adjusting to fit different styles, terrain, and conditions is the name of the game today, especially for front points. Plastic boots, leather boots, ice, rock, snow, all of the above — unless you are an intractable specialist, the more a crampon can be adapted to fit different needs and styles, the greater value it will offer. And there’s no better measure of this than a customizable front end.

For steep pillars and curtains, dual front points are doubly secure against shearing and provide a stable attack platform. Secondary points are also critical for stability and easing the strain on calf muscles. These are typically large and angled sharply forward so that by lowering the heels they will engage the ice and heft part of the load. All the crampons we tested came fully rigged for four-pronged assault. In addition, the extension and angle of the front points on all the models except the Stubai and Trango can be fine-tuned (requiring tools) to the terrain du jour. The points on the Black Diamond Bionic also adjust laterally (dual and wide dual).

More and more, however, precision and control for delicate climbing is what climbers are looking for in a crampon’s box of tricks. Enter the monopoint. If the semi-rigid frame has become associated with steep mixed climbing, the monopoint has married it and taken its name. Along with the advantages of being able to tiptoe onto nubbins, into tight corners, cracks, and pre-existing ice tool placements, a monopoint frees the foot to swivel on small holds, permitting more natural and fluid climbing movements. Better yet, an offset monopoint locates the point nearer the big toe, where power and balance are naturally concentrated.

Bindings. Up through the disco era, strapping on crampons was pure torture. A medusa of neoprene belts had to be loosened, threaded, tightened, buckled, retightened, rebuckled, etc. — typically with bare hands. Ice climbers eventually realized that starting a climb with numb fingers was backwards, and looked to the innovators to put things right. By the late 1970s, manufacturers borrowed a page from the ski-industry design book and produced “step-in” bindings (crampons with stout wire toe bales and a levering heel lock). The clamp-on crampon was a revolutionary step forward and is now the standard for steep and technical ice.

Nevertheless, we still found a surprising degree of variation upon this theme. For example, Grivel has incorporated some nifty loop-de-loops into their toe bail that help seat it cleanly and securely into the boot welt. In addition, most manufacturers (the exceptions being Trango and Black Diamond) have incorporated some sort of toe bale harness or keeper strap that offers an added degree of security. Grivel, Cassin and Petzl Chalet also offer alternatives to the toe bail in the form of a toe-cradling strap harness, which allows the crampons to be used with shallow welts or overboots.

When it came to heel bindings, we wanted deep, sharp, no-nonsense heel levers that incised firmly into the welts of a variety of boots. Also, we felt that in general, the little mechanical wheels for tweaking the heel bindings on the semi-rigid models were best adjusted at home, because in the field both the gizmos and the bare fingers required to operate them were prone to icing up.