Sunday, 14 November 2021

Thoughts On Ice Axes And Crampons For Hillwalkers

Descending from The Window on Creag Meagaidh

The first snow on the hills this winter has gone now but more is forecast. On a walk on the Cairngorm Plateau last week before the snow went I wore heavy duty microspikes (Hillsound Trail Crampons) as the snow was hard and icy. I had an ice axe as well but didn’t use it – the snow was not deep enough for it to be any use and trekking poles were better for balance. I wouldn’t have left it at home though as I could have needed it if there’d been any deep drifts to cross.

In fact, if there’s snow on the hills I always carry an ice axe and crampons or microspikes. Both are important for safety. Which is best depends on your activities. For hillwalkers with no aspirations for technical winter climber the simplest ice axes and crampons or spikes designed for walkers are fine, and that is what I’m writing about here.

Hillwalking on snow and ice is a mountaineering discipline and needs extra skills. Being able to use an ice axe and crampons correctly is a major part of this. Just carrying them does not make you safe. Using an ice axe to protect yourself from slips and to stop falls if they occur requires training and practice. Similarly, how to walk in crampons and how to use them on different slopes whilst not difficult is not something to try and learn high in the hills in a blizzard. A course at an outdoor centre or with an instructor is the best way to learn.

In the Cairngorms 

ICE AXES

Ice axes are rated CEN-B (basic)/UIAA Type 1 or CEN-T (technical)/UIAA Type 2. These ratings are decided by several tests to assess the strength of the axe. Unsurprisingly, CEN-T axes are stronger than CEN-B ones. Does this matter? Not for hillwalking and general mountaineering. B rated axes are fine for these activities and usually lighter and less expensive than T rated ones.

Picks

For hillwalking axes usually have a slightly down curving pick (sometimes called a classic curve), as this is good for self-arrest and for climbing steeper slopes where you swing the pick into the snow. Up curved picks are for technical climbing. A row of teeth under the pick helps it to grip.

Shaft

Until recently straight shafts were the norm for walking axes, curved ones again being the province of ice climbers. Now though some walking and general mountaineering axes have curved shafts. When climbing steep terrain using the pick above your head a curved shaft helps stop your knuckles bashing against the snow or ice. There is an argument that curved shafts give more leverage for self-arrest. I can’t say that I’ve noticed any significant difference when trying different axes and for hillwalking I would say straight and curved shafts are both fine. All axe shafts have a spike at the end for thrusting into the snow and this is the feature that gets the most use when hillwalking.

Rubberised coatings on shafts can make them warmer to hold and more secure to grip. These should be slim, so they don’t impede thrusting the axe into the snow. Some axes have indentations in the lower section for better grip.

Adze

The adze doesn’t get much use compared to the pick and the spike. If you’ll be doing much step-cutting – unlikely if you have crampons – or digging a snow shelter and you don’t have a snow shovel then a wide adze is more effective than a narrow one.

Material

Most ice axes have aluminium shafts and steel heads. The very lightest have aluminium heads. The latter are fine for occasional use and often used by ski tourers who probably won’t use an axe from one day to the next. However, aluminium isn’t as strong as steel and blunts more easily. For regular use a steel head is best.

Weight

Two other important factors are weight and length. The lighter your ice axe the less burden it is to carry. For hillwalking when the axe is held by the head almost all the time low weight is fine. However, if you’ll be doing much step-cutting or climbing using the pick then a light axe is more tiring to use.

 

In the Cairngorms

Length

Length is contentious. The trend in the UK (it’s not the same everywhere) is for short 50-55cm axes even for hillwalking. I prefer a much longer axe (60-70cms) as it feels more secure on easy angled slopes where a slip could still be dangerous as I don’t have to stoop to reach the snow with it, which feels particularly unstable when going downhill. I also find it easier to thrust a long axe into the snow to prevent a slip becoming a slide. Some say short axes are better for self-arrest. Maybe if that’s what was used when learning. I learnt with a long axe and am perfectly happy using one for self-arrest. I think an axe that reaches the ankle or even almost to the ground is best for hillwalking.

Whatever length or weight of axe you choose the most important factor is knowing how to use it properly. No ice axe is much use if you don’t know what to do with it.

Leashes

Leashes and wrist loops come with many axes and can be fitted to others. They mean that if you drop the axe it doesn’t disappear down the hill. However, they also mean that when changing direction you have to change the wrist loop from hand to hand, which can seem a nuisance if you have to do it often. 

My favourite ice axes. From the left: Camp Corsa (250g), an ultralight all aluminium 60cm axe I take when I don't expect to need an axe but just might (I once carried it coast to coast across Scotland on the Southern Upland Way in February and never used it once); Camp Nanotech Corsa (285 grams), same as the Corsa but with a steel tip to the pick and a steel spike, I use it when ski touring and backpacking; Grivel Helix (485g), a good 66cm general purpose axe with a plastic head cover for warmth and comfort that I take on day and overnight trips when I expect to use an axe; Petzl Glacier (410g), an alternative to the Helix, slightly lighter and slightly longer at 68cms. I can't decide which I like best. 

CRAMPONS

On hard snow rubber soles have little if any grip. It can be difficult to stay upright on the flat, let alone on a slope. Sheet ice is even more slippery. Put metal spikes on your boots and suddenly that slipperiness vanishes and hazardous terrain becomes easy and safe. Even after decades of wearing crampons every winter the first time I put them on in the autumn I’m still amazed at the difference they make. If there’s snow on the hills I don’t go without them. In fact, I reckon I use crampons or micro spikes more than an ice axe, as often there’s not enough snow for an axe to be any use but enough ice to make walking tricky and even dangerous. On one occasion I wore crampons the whole way to Ben Macdui and back without taking my ice axe off my pack as the whole Cairngorm Plateau was a sheet of ice. 

Alex Roddie cutting a quick avalanche pit to check the stability of a slope on Bynack More, Cairngorms

Footwear

Rigid mountaineering boots are usually recommended for winter hillwalking. If you’ll be doing anything approaching technical climbing then they are a good idea. I don’t think they’re necessary otherwise. Boots that have some forward flex are easier to walk in and less tiring on the feet. Many walking and general mountaineering boots will fit these. Indeed, some will fit just about any outdoor footwear, including trail shoes. I prefer boots though because I don’t like cold, wet feet and they allow me to kick steps if I’m not wearing crampons.

Whatever footwear you choose it’s important that your crampons fit them properly and that you know how to put them on securely. Practising this at home is a good idea. Trying to figure out the strapping system with cold fingers as a blizzard closes in is not a good idea. Crampons aren’t all the same shape, and neither are boot soles, so they need to be compatible. Checking the fit in the store when you buy new crampons or boots is the best way to do this. A properly fitted crampon shouldn’t come off when you hold it upside down with the boot attached and the straps undone and shake it.

Types of Crampons and Micro Spikes

Tiny spikes linked by chains and attached to footwear by stretchy harnesses are the simplest form of crampons. Often called microspikes they work okay on level and gently sloping ground and they are excellent on icy paths. The short spikes don’t grip as well as the longer ones found on full crampons but are easier for balance when the ice is thin. Once slopes begin to steepen microspikes become less effective and awkward to use. I carry them when I don’t expect to encounter much snow or ice but there might be the occasional patch I have to cross. Sometimes conditions mean I wear them for longer, as I did a week before writing this, when I put them on to cross an icy snow slope on the Cairngorm Plateau and then kept them on for the descent as they made walking so much more secure. The snow and ice cover was thin though.

Full crampons attach more firmly to boots and have longer points. They may be rigid or flexible. The first are designed for rigid boots and technical climbing and aren’t suitable for use with walking boots. Flexible crampons are made of two sections linked by a bar and can be used with flexible boots. These are known as general mountaineering, trekking, or walking crampons. The flexible linking bars come in different degrees of stiffness. With some crampons you have the option of more or less flexible ones.

Crampons usually have ten or twelve points though ice climbing ones may have more and simple walkers’ ones less (and some micro spikes more – I have ones with 18 points). Ones with points that angle outwards from the front (called front points) are useful for climbing steep slopes when you can just stick them in the snow for grip. Points should be spread out along the boot sole for maximum grip. The length of points is not a major consideration, but shorter ones are more stable when walking on rocks or bare ground, something often done in the British hills when the snow and ice is patchy.

Crampons with a view, Cairngorms

Materials

Most crampons are made from heat treated steel as this is hard wearing and the points stay sharp for a long time and can be easily sharpened. The lightest crampons are made from aluminium. These don’t stay sharp very long and aren’t as tough as steel ones. However, they are fine for most walking use.

Attachments

There are various ways of attaching crampons. Plastic cradles that mould round the heel and toe of a boot and are then held in place by a single strap can be used with flexible boots and are quite easy to fit. Clip bindings with a heel lever and a front bail, usually linked with a strap, are even easier to attach but will only fit boots with a pronounced welt at the toe and heel. They are also best used with rigid boots as they can spring off flexible ones. Some crampons come with heel levers and front cradles, a good compromise.

Balling Up

Soft snow can stick to crampons, leading to large clumps building up underneath them. This is known as balling up and makes walking uncomfortable and can be hazardous. The traditional way to get rid of this snow is to tap the side of the crampons with your ice axe. This works but may need to be done frequently. It can also be awkward on steep slopes when you need your axe for safety and balance. Much safer and more efficient are anti-ball plates, usually made of rubber or plastic, which fit underneath the crampons. All crampon makers offer these, and an increasing number are supplying them as standard. 

My favourite crampons. Clockwise from top left: Hillsound Trail Crampon Pro, 700g with ten steel points a little shorter than on many crampons and with a ratchet closed cradle harness that's the easiest to attach that I've used - ideal for most uses; Black Diamond Neve Pro, 600g 10-point aluminium crampons with wide bails to fit telemark and nordic ski boots (most crampons are too narrow); Grivel Air Tech Light, 590g aluminium 12-point crampons suitable for steeper slopes; Kahtoola KTS Steel, 690g 10-point steel crampons with short points and webbing straps, designed for flexible footwear; Hillsound Trail Crampons, heavy duty microspikes with 11 carbon steel points.

 

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