I get more questions on ice tools and boots that anything else from the blog. Most of them on private email. Probably better that way as I am very biased on what I like to climb on. But I recognise my opinion is just that, an opinion. Guys like Bjørn-Eivind Årtun, Ueli Steck, Colin Haley, and Raphael Slawinski can climb just about anything that takes a tool and it isn't going to matter what tool. That should tell you a lot about the level of the modern technology that is available today.
That short list has two Petzl sponsored climbers and two Black Diamond sponsored climbers. Besides the benefits of being sponsored I'd bet you'll find they all really like the tools they are climbing on.
Call it the "Excalibur" syndrome. Get up a climb that was hard for you and your chosen tool will become "Excalibur", the magical sword that won't allow defeat. That happens to most everyone :)
There are going to be few who can remember doing Grade 5 ice with a wooden shafted, curved tool ace axe reading this. But it is possible. Now the tools generally mimic each other and the performance is so similar that the differences are simply in the small details.
The tool manufactures that I give any credit to at the moment are Simond, Petzl, Black Diamond and Grivel. Although I have a buddy, Carlos Buhler who is involved with E-tools which also should be included. More on them here: http://www.e-climb.com/
Of those mentioned, lately I have only climbed on Black Diamond's and Petzl's tools enough to comment.
I'm only talking technical tools, so easy enough to break them down into to several categories. And a few of these can easily over lap either category as the designs blend and merge to come up with even more useful technical tools. Ideally each generation builds on the previous design work of the previous tools available. Or at least it should.
General technical tools:
Quark, Viper, Cobra
Ergo shaped dbl grip tools:
Nomic, Fusion, Ergo, Reactor
Between the newest tools, boots, clothing and ice screws there really isn't any great challenge on pure ice today. It is safer and easier in every way to climb thick water ice today than it was even 10 years ago. Go back farther and it simple is not the same game.
The reverse curved picks that Simond (and Gordon Smith first used) introduced to the world in the late '70s with the Chacal have been improved and strengthened. Angles have changed a bit but that pattern is the only technical design in use today.
Jump ahead 30 plus odd years now and looking back from my own perspective. I think three design improvements have really changed how we climb. Those are picks tough enough to dry tool on, the bent shaft with huge clearance and the 2nd ergonomic grip.
My "hint" here is if you have yet to try a tool with all three features, don't put it off. The best are a big improvement on difficult technical and make climbing both mixed and ice much, much easier..
"The newest tools all mimic each other and the performance is so similar that the differences are simply in the small details."
Black Diamond's technical tools change slightly in the angle of the pick to the shaft in every model, with increases starting with the Reactor @ 28.5, then Viper @ 30.5, Cobra @ 31, Fusion II @ 32 and Fusion I @ 33.5. Thickness of the grip also changes with the steeper tools having slightly smaller grips for more precision. How those numbers compare to Petzl is a guess in many ways. Shafts may be exact copies of each other, and are for angle, but at what angle the picks attach to the shaft is an other matter all together. How the pick design changes between Petzl and Black Diamond is another issue. As I said the differences are subtle.
Subtle, and how that matters, is the reason a carpenter's framing hammer can be bought in 2 ounce increments, from 18 oz. to 32 oz. The details really do matter.
I look at actual details on these tools. Some of the details I can feel while climbing, others I can not. Pick design and pick angle I can. Most can. It may not matter to someone else but I can tell the difference between tools and between companies. Take away the bias and again, most can. Common to see a specific tool become the cherished object of desire during a beginner ice climbing class. There may be a reason for that having nothing to do with brand names.
I'm no longer a flat bellied stallion, so I look for the tools that make climbing easier for me.
That said the details don't matter to every one. Classic example. A pet peeve of mine is crampon fit. I know good crampon fit. At one time everyone who wanted to climb steep ice knew what a good crampon fir was because you had to fit the crampons yourself. The crampons could be fit as they were totally adjustable. Then along comes the clip on versions. Great idea that has seen its ups and downs.
I have 5mm of slop on the toe of a Dart and a new Scarpa Phantom Guide. That isn't going to change from a pair of Scarpa Phantom Guides and a pair of Darts between Seattle and London. I find that fit marginal at best. You have to really crank the heel levers and be very careful centering the boot when you click them shut on a lever lock to get them secure and centered.
In public a well respected British Guide living in Chamonix differed with my opinion and found the same fit, "good". While another poster on the UKC forum finds the fit between a 45 size Guide and the Dart "perfect". Obviously not an issue for them. Marginal at best for me, if I can move the crampon on the boot by hand after you flip the lever lock. Which I can. Moving a technical crampon like a Dart by hand and having 5mm of slop to do it I find total crap. But then it is only a "detail".
The "Devil's in the details". So I try to be attentive as to what I pass on here.