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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ice tools... part two

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: 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.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your posts and have one question. Have you ever tried or looked at the Grivel XMonster? It's a very unique design and has a really attractive price. I've always liked Grivel but is this tool too good to be true?

Dane said...

Grivel makes some amazing tools. If they were easier to get a hold of here in the States I'd play with them more. My understanding is the X monster was designed as a inexpensive mixed climbing "monster". And it works well there. I saw a recent video of an pair of X Monster being used on the MacIntyre/Colton this fall. So they obviously climb well. My longest climbing partner has a pair and they see some use but nothing like what his Nomics do. The cost was $200 for the pair..hard to pass up at that price.

I am not a fan of the flat 'spring" shaft personally or the head/pick attachment. Brillaint idea not the best execution IMO. Some of their other technical tools really rock I think. But the cash only goes so far when you are buying your own!

Sorry, not a big help I suppose on the X Monster.

Clyde said...

I think you're remiss in not including the Cassin X-tools. The interchangeable grips, picks, and head parts makes them very versatile. Otherwise pretty similar to the rest you mentioned. Grivel X-tools are cheap but that's the only thing going for them.

As for crampon fit, I've never been shy about taking a hammer to the toe bail while the boot is installed. A wee bit of banging can cure most problems.

Unknown said...

Hi dane. I'm shin-yeong
I live in korea (south korea)
I found your blog during serching internet. actually I need something help about ice tools. Could you advice for me please?
I began ice-climbing last year.
At first I borrowed my partner's ice tools. but this year I want
buying my own ice tools.
I consider between BD fusion(new model) and viper ice tool. Because ice tool is one of most expensive climbing gear in korea(because tax), and I don't have enough money. So I have only one chance.
two models have diffrent style and I don't have enough information about that. unexpectedly many korean climbers are little indivisuality. They used almost same ice tool(petzl nomic or quark)
so I coundn't find reveiw or article about other ice tool.
Could you advice about ice tools choice between leashless and leashed? if you do for me. I will give one's thank to your kindness

p.s : I'm really sorry about my english skill. I'm just restart english study a few month ago. if I have wrong sentense, grammer or spelling. please understand.

Dane said...

Greetings Shin-Yeong,

Your English is great. Way better than my Korean :)

Both The Fusion and the Viper are excellent tools. Both can be used leashless and very work well.

You'll want to climb leashless...easier, warmer and faster.

My suggestion if your budget is tight is buy the cheapest tool of this bunch, Black Diamond, Cobra, Viper or Fusion with Petzl either the Quark or Nomic, old or new models. You really can't go wrong with any of them...if price is the issue just buy the one you can get the cheapest.

All are great leashless tools.

This will be your second season of ice. All the tools I listed climb exceptionally well on all terrain.

We have a saying, "it isn't the arrow, it is the Indian". When it comes to the modern ice tools there really aren't any bad ones. After that it is up to the climber.

If your only choices are Fusion and Viper. I would get the Fusion if you want to do a lot of hard mixed but not a lot of mtns and water fall ice. It will climb mtns and water fall ice but maybe not the best tool for that.

The Viper (or Cobra) will climb any mtn in the world by any route and climb water fall ice easily. It will also work on hard mixed although the the Fusion or Nomic will generally make it easier. For your second season...unless you are climbing 5.11+ or harder rock .....I would suggest the Viper.

If you have a lot of hard mixed climbing locally and are a very good rock climber the Fusion might be the better choice.

Hope that helps.

Sam said...

Hello Dane, I know this is coming a few years after you posted. It was very informative. I'm new to ice climbing (but did some rock climbing many years ago) and have been picking up equipment as I was able to get it cheaply. I've spent many agonizing days wondering "am I getting good equipment?" I'm looking at the BD Vipers because I think they'll end up working for my needs (plus I think I can get them on a very good sale). I hope to be climbing all sorts of stuff as time goes on. But one question for the bottom post you suggested the Vipers. Is this still the case 4 1/2 years later

Dane said...

Sam, any of the tools currently available are light years ahead of what I started climbing with. Some just make climbing easier than others. Models haven't really changed much in the last 4 years.

I suggested the Viper because it was one of two tools the poster had access to. There are better tools IMO than the Viper. But the Viper is certainly "good enough".

Sam said...

Thank you so much for the info Dane! I also have access to the new BD Fuel ice tools. I apologize for the seemingly dumb questions...but being new to ice climbing, all the different items are a bit overwhelming. A number of people have complained about the lack of a hammer on them, and that seemed to discount them completely. What are your thoughts? I'm planning on climbing in NY in the Catskills, Gunks, and Adirondaks. But I'd like to climb out west in another 2-3 years (Ranier and such). Your thoughts on these 2 ice tools would be very much appreciated!

Dane said...

Sam, short tools aren't appropriate for Rainier and the like. Fuel are decent technical tools. They are basically the Fusion with the improvements I suggested a couple of years ago.

Viper, Cobra or Quark are better all around tools but you won't use them on Rainier either.

Claude said...

Hey Dane, appreciate all the work you've but into this blog. It has been a great resource as I get into doing more and more alpine.

I have a question: I've been looking for my first ice tools for alpine/easy mixed and have been offered two used pairs online, old cobras and old nomics for $140 and $250, respectively. I'm pretty excited because this seems to be a great deal assuming they're in decent quality. I was first interested in the Quark as it feels great to me in hand (as do the Nomics), but this is a pretty sweet deal.

I am not so keen on hard ice at the moment, being more interested in alpine, but I'm young, have buddies who climb hard ice, and climb 5.12 rock... so my interests might change in time. Should I just buy both pairs? If not, does the Cobra deal sound worthwhile for my purpose of use? Long alpine routes with low-angle/vertical climbing?

Cheers and thanks again for all your writing,

Dane said...

Hey Claude,

Too many versions/generations of the Cobra to make a blanket recommendation. Nomics would seem to be a good deal @ $250 how ever and a hard tool to beat.