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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A critical look at crampon fit and design (repost)

I wrote this April of 2010.  With the current thread on "your crampon fit" I think it worth revisiting for anyone that hasn't seen it.

Jan 2011

In the past 8 months we have seen the situation get worse not better imo.  Scarpa delivered both the Phantom Ultra and the Phantom 6000, the late summer and fall of 2010.  Exceptional boots no question but with some of the lowest profile soles in mtn boot history.  The Phantom Guide is not far behind them.  Scarpa wasn't the only ones off the charts on innovative boot design last year.

Next week is the 2011 Winter OR Show.  Products displayed there will first be delivered in the fall and winter of 2011.  It will be interesting to see what is new this year.  At the moment the only company I know working on the issue is Black Diamond who has a new bail (and a new mono point crampon!) in the works.

April 2010

There are many different crampon manufactures. I am not so much interested in manufacturer or style of crampon as I am in the actual boot to crampon interface, in other words the "fit" of the crampon.

If you have ever lost a crampon on technical ground you know the surprise and general helplessness that goes right along with it. That is if you live through the experience.

I've only done it once. For the sake of documentation I was attempting to show a novice climber what not to do and some how literally kicked my right crampon off. As I watched it tumble down the waterfall I too started to topple over and slide.

The only thing that caught me was the dumb luck of catching my tool's pick on his buried pick as I went buy. Thankfully his placement held and I didn't knock him off as well. Other wise? It would have been a 500'+ foot tumble and most likely death, certainly serious injury.

Humbling and just as sobering. I had soloed some difficult terrain in those same boots and crampons. To this day I am not sure if my set up was bad or just my adjustments on the straps.

I was damn lucky and it cooled my jets for soloing (or just climbing) ice for awhile.

Either way it is not something I ever want to repeat.

Not everyone will recognize the crampons in the picture. But in 1980 they were one of the models that were putting up the first of the WI6 routes. They were a rigid model by SMC. Chouinard's rigid design while revolutionary always had a durability/reliability issue. The earliest clip on Salewa/Chouinards were the crampon of choice for many of us who disdained the weight of Lowe's Footfang. Foot Fangs were a quick glimpse into the future of crampon and not all of it was good news imo.

Back then we used Beck neoprene coated nylon straps (also sold by Chouinard) to hold the crampons on. Clip on crampon bindings were still new to climbing. While that turned out to be a great idea 10 years years later. (mid 1980s) I had seen two different brands of a single crampon with the early clip on binding still attached before we hit the first ice field on the Eiger in '78. Crampons sitting in the rumble mid way up a big north face gives one a moment to pause and consider the consequences of that gear choice.

Part of the fit process on the older crampons (not Foot Fangs however) was to adjust the crampon to the sole pattern of the boot. And most importantly it seemed to me was to make the fit tight enough that you were unlikely to loose a crampon if you broke a strap or a crampon post.

The more rigid the crampon and boot interface the better the combination will climb. Actually let me go farther in that comment, the more rigid the boot sole and the more rigid the crampon the better the combination will climb on pure ice given a solid interface between the boot and crampon.

Looking at currently available equipment with 7 pairs of La Sportive boots (Spantik, Baruntse, Batura, Nepal Evo, Trango Extreme Evo, Trango Ice Evo and the Nepal Evo GTX all size 45) and 4 different brands of crampons ( Camp, Black Diamond, Petzl and Grivel and 7 models) ) it is interesting the observations you can make on crampon fit and how the difference in boot construction even between models in the same brand affect that fit.

With the popularity of mixed climbing I am actually shocked at the sloppy interface between boot and crampons across the board. I don't claim to be a "M" climber but I understand how to hook a tool on rock and what it takes to climb at Hafner or on hard alpine mixed.

If you weigh in at 125 and have a size 7 foot not a lot is going to ruffle your gear if it is fit right. Hit 200# and have a size 12 foot and you can easily do things to a crampon that a 125# M12 climber has yet to dream of. An example is a front bail that turns into a shock absorber and can literally bounce off the lip of a boot. That might get anyone a little cranky. Add to a bad design, as a way to fix, the other bad design...with bail "laces" and you go from bad to worse.

I replace the Grivel "round" bails with something else and simply cut the additional retaining straps off the front bail of the BDs.

On the mixed terrain pictured below I noticed more than once I was climbing on the "ring" of a Grivel front bail. Not a comforting feeling. Just as bad I think is the large diameter wire and over size bails that BD uses. Bails hitting rock before your crampons do is a bad thing. Yes most every boot will fit BD crampons but precise they aren't. Of the three big manufactures only Petzl seems to have the front bails fit squared away. But then Petzl has the only front bails I know of that break. So may be "squared away" is a not really the right word. Crampons need to stay on the boot. Black Diamond has never had a breakage problem. I'll take reliability first, thank you! Everything is a trade off. And that is just a quick look at the front bails!

DT photo credit to DanielH and DaveB.

To be fair the crampon manufactures are hamstrung when it comes to boot fit. What is really needed is a DIN norm for rigid soled climbing boots. Then every crampon manufacturer would know exactly what they have to design to/with. After all the hard-goods guys are only half the real product on ice/mixed. You have to clamp a crampon to a boot sole to make a usable tool. I have 7 pairs of boots, all the same size and from different manufactures. None of them fit the crampons I own exactly the same. Imagine the nightmare the crampons manufacturers go through every season as the boot technology and sole profiles change. Is it no wonder they build on the conservative side?

I'll repeat myself. We need a rigid sole mountain boot DIN norm.

I'll let you decide what is a good front bail/crampon fit for your style of climbing and what is not. My answer was to add Petzl bails to my BD crampons for a better fit and trust in the Petzl spiel that their bails are now reliable. It is a trim set up that fits all my boots well and drops a few oz. in the process.

There is nothing easy. cheap or guaranteed in all of this. I understand that. But I also get to point out the bad designs and ask that it be done better. More of us should! Speak up!

These are just shots of the front bails. While some front bails might not be the best set up, we should also be looking at the bottom of the crampons. To be specific just what the crampon covers on the bottom of the boot.

Most of us don't want to be climbing in "fruit boots" with no heel piece and only front pointing. It is a good direction for design to get lighter gear as long as we don't forget its real use. As important as the attachment system is and how much clearance the bails have from the boot, the real reason we use crampons is to "stick" us to ice and snow. How many points you have going down is even more important as those going forward if you want to climb with the least amount of effort on difficult terrain.

To my way of thinking the more down points the better. I'd rather have the weight and additional of traction that is the end result of skipping down points in a design. To lose weight, crampons have also lost "sole". By that I mean the crampons have lost surface area on the front half of the crampon generally. Less and less of your boot is being covered by the crampon. A quick look at the old Chouinard/Salewa rigid shows a crampon that almost perfectly covers the entire sole outline of the boot. Makes climbing on the crampon precisely, a lot easier.

More importantly we use a alpine/ice climbing crampon to "cut" steps when you want to rest from a front pointing position or help clear out a chopped ledge by kicking. How the down points are positioned and how many of them are on the crampon define how you can use your crampons to accomplish "cutting". Down points facing backward tend to skate your foot off when driving the foot forward with power to "cut" and don't allow you to kick efficiently to clear a step or a ledge.

(My perspective from Jan 2011 is there are some really messed up crampon designs from all the major players.  It is like the knowledge simply dissappeared as to what is really needed here )

The next selection of pictures is a grab bag of old and new crampons. Double click the photos and take a look at the difference in boot sole surface area coverage, the number and location of the down spikes and their obvious resulting traction or lack of traction.

The difference between lever lock heel bails is small but not without need for comment. Black Diamond and Grivel use a fairly large plastic lever. Both are comfortable on the back of a soft boot like the Trango Series from Sportiva. The Petzl lever? No so much. Painful in fact. Bad enough that I don't use the Petzl lever on anything but the heaviest boots. Nepal Evos and my dbl boots don't have an issue with the Petzl levers but I can't wear them on any of my Trango Series boots. It is just too painful.

Grivel and Black Diamond also use their retaining straps to give an extra safety feature by locking the levers in place with the added leverage and a tight strap. Not Petzl however. Hard to image a worse design for a crampon lever lock than what Petzl uses. Not only is the lever hard to get off when required but the retaining strap will "retain" the crampon only if you are extremely lucky. The "safety" strap DOES NOT retain the lever against your boot. Take a look at the last picture in the next series. The lever down is with a TIGHT safety/retaining strap in place and you can still flip the lever into a down and  unlatched position. Both Grivel's and Black Diamond's heel piece will retain the lever in the correct up position until that "safety strap" is unbuckled or cut completely into. It is a simple leverage issue. Petzl missed that. Black Diamond and Grivel did not. Weak......on Petzl's part. However you can fix the Petzl rear bail to make it more reliable. You'll have to cut the adjustment ball on the top of the lever and then thread the safety strap through the top of the flip lever. Solves the problem but why are we required to fix it?

Their is an easier answer.  Thankfully both Black Diamond and Grivel heel levers and locks will fit easily on the Petzl crampons. You can order up a pair from BD's customer service for a small fee and they snap right on.

With miles of ice climbing it is easy to look both backwards and forwards. The majority of pure ice lines were climbed with basic boots, ice tools and crampons. Some times I laugh at what we are using now and not in a good way. Most pure ice lines could be climbed with a club with a nail through it and hob nails.

What we have now for ice tools, boots and crampons makes ice climbing trivial in comparison to 30 years ago technology. The newest ice climbing gear is stellar in comparison so while I may sound like I am simply bitching, I am not. Ice tools are amazing these days. I am the perfect example of just how good they are. No question I am climbing harder ice now than I ever have because of the current hand tools. But boots and crampons have fallen behind the advances in ice tools. And in many ways boots and crampons have fallen behind some of the 30 year old technology! My 30 year old plastic boots and chromoly crampons will climb pure ice as good or better than anything available currently and they weight LESS!

Lucky for the manufactures that almost any crampon will work, as will almost any boot.

Call it a wake up call to the industry. And a invitation for you to join me in asking for better products. If nothing else take a critical look at your own gear and sort it out as required.

I'd like to see lighter weight boots and lighter weight crampons. Both with better over all traction all the while keeping the ability to front point with less effort. I'm not asking for much :)

To do that it is going to take a rethinking of basic designs and may be a critical look back to look forward.


Anonymous said...


I have been climbing with the Petzel Dartwin with a pair of La Sportiva Nepal Extreme boots for about three years (before the Dartwins my crampons were G14s, BDs, etc.). I have never had a problem with the crampon popping off (thank God!), to date. There appears to be no flex or movement when the crampons are on the boots.

The one issue that I found with the Dartwin (and the Dart), you need to make sure the linking bar is properly engaged or the crampon will come off.

I never gave much though to how the retaining strap is positioned on the heel lever, but your comments make sense. Is there a specific BD model you need to request to use on the Dartwin?

Thanks for the great write-up. Your comments made me think about the fit of the crampon to the boot you are using with them. I plan to replace my Nepal Extreme boots next climbing season so I will make sure I think about the compatibility with the Dartwins or any new crampon I purchase.


Dane said...

Hi Larry,
I have used the Nepal Evo and Dartwins myself. Great combo with a perfect fit out of the box. Nice to have one once of a while. The BD heel levers that I have been using as replacements on most of my crampons are the new stainless ones. Just call BD mail order and ask for a pair. They'll set you up. $30 a pair I think?
That should be with in a dollar or two anyway. Good luck on the new boots. Hard to do better than the Nepal. Hope the blog helps.

Unknown said...


I read your blog and couldn't believe what I was reading. I purchase a new pair of Scrapa Freney XT's last year along with the grivel G14 crampons and have been making excuses to my climbing partners about how I must not have them dialed in to date. I fell last year and broke my ankle and my climbing partner told me he saw my front points pop off the column that I was climbing. I wrote that off at the time thinking I was just a dumb ass load! It's now a year later and I'm still struggling to "dial in my system". I can feel the lack of positive contact with the ice. Each time I climb and tune the crampon, I keep on coming back to the conclusion; the combination of the Freney XT boot and the G14's, regardless how I configure the crampon (i.e., dual vs. mono point setup) there is some design flaw in the overall basic geometry of this combination. The boot soles have an asymmetric sole and even with the bent crampon stem, it seems like the front points are rotated to far inwards. At the time, I thought the scarpa boots and grivel crampons were going to be the hot setup. Now I'm ready to sell both on eBay. When I read your blog and you said that you proclaimed that the older gear was lighter and climbed better, I felt I was vindicate. Just the other day I told my climbing partner that I felt more secure in my Koflach Verticals and Grade Point 8's that anything I tried recently. The combination I described was not the only boot system I tried last year. Now after reading your blog and analyzing each incident where my new system felt insecure, I should have trusted my gut instincts. I agree with you that today’s manufacturers are probably making some real good stuff. But because there are no industry standards, in a lot of cases the manufacturers are coming up short just to sell new gear to us gear heads. My buddy and I spent over two hours one night at a shop trying to get a good fit, only to leave the store that night without purchasing anything. The sales clerk even commented that she never had anyone come in to the store and take apart crampons, swap bails, and go to the extent we did to fit crampons. How about this...I came to the same conclusion about the BD' bail while in the store. We left the store with the sole purpose of contacting BD to see if they made was another set of bails for that model crampon. Again, going back to my previous experiences fitting crampons to boots, I was looking to fit my Super Guides with vertical oriented front points. I spent about an hour in the shop and found that the Charlet Moser Grade Point 8's worked on that boot. Two years later and now I have a pair of Koflach Verticals and I can even get the Grade Point 8's onto the boot. On a whim, I contacted Petzel, who now owned CM, and they were kind enough to provide me with replacement bails to accommodate the toe piece of the plastic boot. Again, the reason why I changed from the plastic boot setup to the lighter composite boot and crampon system was because I was forced to change crampons due to the fact that replacement front points were no longer available. That's it; I'm done rambling and bitching.

Riverview Outdoor Adventures

Paul said...

In reply to Barry, I'm not sure if the CM 'Grade Point 8' is the same crampon sold in the UK as Grade 8 but if so, I've had success putting cut down G14 points into mine. It might be possible to use other forged points in a similar way. It's a bit of a faff as you have to widen the slots in the aluminium base plate too. Boot fit is OK with my (size 41) Trangos. I'm no hardcore ice climber but I like the way they climb. Point projection might to short for some tastes, certainly as monos, but you might be able to find alternative points.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Dane,

Thank you so much for posting such a thoughtful and informative writing! Three of my climbing friends had the problem of G14 popped off their feet at different time and locations (in US, Canada and China). I thought they were all being careless. Now after reading your post, it seems that the popping off is a design problem.

Morten Johansen said...

Hi Dane,
Thanks for your awsome blog! I recently bought a pair of Petzl Darts to go with my La Sportiva Nepal Extreme EVO model. I bought them with out trying them on (used) and they had the side lever lock system. When I tried to fit them I just could not get a decent fit. The side lever lock was also way to fiddly. So I saw this article and dug out a old pair of Black Diamond Sabretooths I had lying around and nicked the rear lever from it. I sawed the sidelock lever off, and mounted the BD lever, and presto, had a super fit to the boot! Now I just need to get out there and test it on some ice.

kellpossible said...

Hi Dane,
thanks for your informative blog post. I've noticed the same design flaw with petzl crampon levers. It seems to me that perhaps they put the strap below the pivot point in order to prevent the lip of the lever from passing the lip of the boot heel, something perhaps more likely to happen due to vibrations/impact and a small amount of travel than the entire thing coming undone/opening (with a large amount of travel required to reach the tipping point) like in your picture.

A couple of questions I had were, is there any particular reason why you don't seem to use semi-automatic crampons with ski boots? I've been trying on a pair like these: with my Dynafits, and it seems like the metal from the frame/bail touches the metal pivot points where the boots normally attach to the ski bindings. Do you think this could be a problem/stress concentration? I guess it's probably already pretty reinforced for skiing purposes...

Dane said...

Same opinion of the Petzl heels. I replace mine with BD heels.
I like a solid crampon fit so don' use the semi-s. Just haven't found the need. Grivel G20/G22 in particular fits my TLT6 really well. Good luck.