I took for granted how easy it was to go climbing with a guide in the Adirondacks that does all the outfitting for you. I never had the complicated task of selecting the appropriate crampon for the trip. Those guys just handed me everything!
Then, before my trip to Alaska, I went to purchase my own pair — just in case. Do you want rigid or flexible, straps or clips, horizontal or vertical teeth? The options were overwhelming and the prices varied widely. Because of the specialization, the choices can be overwhelming. Let me try to get at some fundamentals of this gear to help you simplify your research.
Purpose of Crampons
Crampons were the improvement upon the hobnail boot – which was literally nails placed in the boot’s sole for traction. Oscar Eckenstein, a climber in the Scottish Highlands invented the 10-point crampon to give improved grip. The French and the Germans embraced them in the Alps and adopted their own style of using them – the French flatfooted their way while the Germans tended to step in with their toes. This was before front points, or “teeth,” so the proper technique needed to be practiced. The whole point of crampons until the advent of front points and Yvon Chouinard was to improve a climbers grip on icy and snowy surfaces. But when ice climbing was introduced, things got complex and the sport went in a new direction. Waterfall ice and “mixed” routes became pursuits in their own right.
While ice climbing crampons may be used for general mountaineering, and some of us have a tendency for overkill (for instance getting the all-wheel drive even when your car never leaves suburbia) they really are not necessary. If you expect or want to be prepared for the sole 40-foot vertical ice cliff you encounter on an escape route from your intended route, your general mountaineering crampons can still do the job.
Making Sense of the Choices
Figuring out which crampon suits you requires you to familiarize yourself with the gear and its functions. REI’s website provides a helpful page on this by Nancy Prichard Bouchard. Read it with an eye to what you will be doing in your crampons – not what you want to do. There is way too much used and unused gear on Ebay for this reason! Because of the specialization of crampons, you may need to buy the Grivel G-12s for your ascent up Algonquin Peak in January but then need something with more aggressive front points for the Ouray Ice Park in March.
I used several pairs from Black Diamond from the Adirondack rental shop, and most of them were the step-in (with a clamp at the heel) type or a combination of using the step-in and straps. Because I was mainly ice climbing, they all had front points and were made of steel, versus aluminum.
Steel is preferred and stainless is the Cadillac of materials, however aluminum may be suitable for “light” mountaineering. Aluminum, while less weight, it is not strong enough for unrelenting vertical routes when you’re standing on the teeth all the time.
Whether you are considering strap or step-in models, bring your boots with you to make certain they work right together. The crampon is an extension of the boot’s sole, and step-in crampons require the boot to have certain features to grip on and stay on. If the crampon you prefer does not work with the boots you own, consider budgeting for new boots to go with your new spikes.
Also, be sure to purchase a “tool box” or heavy-fabric cordura bag to fit just your crampons and maybe a few ice screws. The bag will protect your luggage, favorite fleece and shell from being impaled by your new gear while on the airline to Alaska.
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