View Full Version : piolet, crampon question

John Kasaian
7-Jun-2008, 09:41
Since there are many here who are real mountianeers, perhaps one of you would be kind enough to answer my questions---
In rare instances when shooting landscapes, I'd like to have an ice axe along to use as a piolet to be able to arrest any unfortunate slippery situations. What is the correct way to determin which length shaft that would serve me best? Also, do you have any recommendations?
Then there are crampons...
Which ones would you recommend for fairly steep trails across ice/snow? I don't think 6 pointers would work well because of the climb (for example:1,500' in 2-1/2 miles is about as challenging as I'd get) I'd use these on my Alicos which have a very stiff sole but not as rock stiff as proper mountain climbing boots. What do you think of the surplus army crampons on the internet? Would they be suitable for my purposes? Any suggestion for bindings? All the modern crampons I've looked at seem to have three different options for bindings:confused:


Walter Calahan
7-Jun-2008, 10:20
I'd go to REI or a mountaineering store to get first hand advice.

Standing, your touring ice axe when grasped in your hand should touch the floor. Some say it should be a little shorter, since they are used on the uphill side. Your choice. Don't get the small ice axes used for ice climbing.

Get crampons that fits whatever boot you are using, and are easy to take on and off with gloves. Simpler the better. I'd avoid plate crampons. Again, they are for ice climbing.

I've climbed Mt Washington in the winter 4 times. Haven't needed to buy super expensive, esoteric gear, just the basic stuff you can get at REI.



7-Jun-2008, 11:35
Walter's advice is good.

I agree that a shorter axe is a good idea if you are climbing slopes. An ax that is too long will put unaccepatable stress on your arm and hand and will be more difficult to move to the "self arrest" position. If you will be walking on iced-up/snowed-up trails, then a 'cane-length' ax will be fine.

Don't use a rigid crampon on a flexible boot, since damage to the crampon will result.
If you can find a crampon that is adjustable in length and width, you will be able to adapt them to a different boot and so save money in the long run.

I strongly encourage anyone new to these tools to receive training in their use and to practice the techniques under controlled conditions prior to venturing out into the wild. I witnessed an impalement by a flailing axe when the untrained person went a$$ over tea kettle on a very moderate slope. While the injury was minor (fortunately), it pointed to the need for training and practice.

As Walter mentioned; visit REI or a comparable shop for advice and proper fitting. Be sure to take your boots with you.

Have fun and be safe!


Brian Sims
7-Jun-2008, 15:53
I concur with Walter's advice, with one addition: unless you are going to abuse your crampons by also walking on rock, I would shell out a few more bucks and get lightweight ones. I don't understand the physics of this, but it seems that an extra pound strapped to your feet is about the same as an extra 10 pounds on your back.

Ralph Barker
7-Jun-2008, 15:56
And, don't put your crampons in with your camera and lenses. ;)

John Schneider
7-Jun-2008, 17:55
Your best bet is to get some good, in-person advice. As you noted, there are different methods of crampon attachment, depending on the sole of your boot. And some crampons just don't fit a particular boot size. My guess is that you'll need either strap-on or Newmatic crampons, semi-rigid. Petzl and Black Diamond make several varieties of good 12-point mountaineering crampons, for instance.

As for the ice axe, you'll probably want a "glacier-walking" (the least technical) style; there are now several extra-light versions made for adventure racers that would fit the bill nicely (e.g., http://www.rei.com/product/767718). Length is a function of the steepness of the terrain and personal preference; even with expert advice, you almost have to rent one or two to zero in on your favorite length.

FYI: my axe comes to my ankle bone; YMMV. And as Ralph mentioned, crampon points will cut through anything, including your pant leg and your calf. Keep them in a crampon bag to be safe.

REI stores in CA: http://www.rei.com/FindStores?state=CA&radius=900

clay harmon
7-Jun-2008, 19:46
This is all good advice. Too long an axe is difficult to use when you need it. The other thing that is necessary is practice in self-arrest in a safe place with a gentle landing. When you need to do it, you need to do it quickly without having to think about it. That only comes with some practice.

Eric James
7-Jun-2008, 23:46
Too short an axe for this application may result in auto-appendectomy.

I hate to carry crampons when I'm not sure that I'll need them. There are lots of lighter alternatives out there. One that I've used is to screw short hex-head sheet metal screws into the bottoms of my boots - not Shackleton-style, but from the outside in. This might not be a good option for the OP, but it works great in some environments. I've done this with running shoes and Xtratuf rubber boots with pretty good results. You'll loose a good percentage of screws from the rubber boots over time so you may want to carry a stubby phillips screwdriver and a few extra screws.

Emmanuel BIGLER
8-Jun-2008, 06:42
I agree with all what has been said.

I would recommend not to take anything designed for climbing ice walls. Be classical.

I have been practising moutaineering in the Alps for a quarter of a century and I have only used the traditional "long" ice axe for easy climbs. The one I have is a conventional aluminum model with steel blade and tip. The ice axe is also important as a fixation point to secure a rope on a glacier if you have to haul somebody who has fallen inside a crevasse.
You have to find a safe way to carry the ice axe on your rucksack. A common way to carry it at the back of the rucksack is with the axe blade at the bottom of the rucksack and the sharp tip upward. This is not really safe for the carrier but imagine the danger for friends following you closely when walking on the foot path back home after completion of the ascent ! So a suitable protection is not a luxury for the tip. I have never used any protection for the blade itself.

As far as crampons are concerned, for the classical, and not very techncal climbs I have done, I have used a classical model with 12-point and long straps.
For classical climbs, in fact it is safier not to use the front points only . Simply because the more points you "nail" inside ice, the better, at least for climbs on glaciers not exceeding 20°, which is already extremely frightening when ice is hard. Slipping on a 20° glacier slope is something I do not wish to anybody.
The models I have are made of solid forged steel, adjustable, I have to change the length for winter use when I go for ski touring with mly plastic skiing boots. I carry thme in a protective bag at the back of my rucksack. You place the tips againts each other and place the pair inside the bag, the risk of perforating anything is minimal in those conditions.

The classical models with long straps are somewhat slow to adjust, but extremely safe. My straps are coated with neoprene and grip very firmly on the shoe.
Classical crampons can be safely adjusted to any kind of moutain shoe. You can give them to a friend if needed but do not forget the proper tools to change length (screw/unscrew) and remeber to prepare the proper adjustement the day before, preferably at home, and not at 4 am in the morning on the glacier ;)
I have tried plastic mountaineering "summer" shoes but could not use them. Of course my skiing boots are plastic (and Vibram sole)
In summer I continue to use classical leather boots. For classic leather boots I would not use anything but classical crampons with long straps.
Beware however that any extra unused length of the straps should be placed "outside" your legs and never, ever, between you two feets, because you would be at risk to catch the straps with the points... and fall.

An important "point" that can be a source of accidents is snow sticking under crampons. This is what often happens in alpine conditions during the descent, snow melts and sticks, and you are tired and less careful about safety. So during the descent if snow starts to stick, you should watch your crampons and hit your shoes with the ice axe to get any sticking snow off. Another reason to use a long ice axe in classical glacier climbs.
Manufacturers have introduced anti-sticking rubber plates that you adapt under the crampons. This is extremely efficient but the rubber plate is fragile.
If you only go for an easy snow climb without any need to climb on rocks, those rubber plates can last reasonably long. In classical mixed climbs with snow and rocks, you keep your crampons when climbing rocks, and there the rubber plates suffer ...

8-Jun-2008, 07:46
Lots of good advice. If you're really planning to venture onto slopes where falling would be a Bad Thing, some instruction from a guide will make a bigger difference than the right length axe. That and practice. Snow climbing and safety tequniques are a skill set, and they have to be practiced to be useful.

I'd steer clear of any guide or mountain service that puts too much emphasis on self arrest. This is the old-school, american guide approach, and it's gotten a lot of weekend warriors killed. Safety comes from learning correct footwork and self-belay techniques with the ax. Self arrest is like the airbag in a car. It might save your life, but having one is probably less important than knowing how to drive!

As far as axe length, for a general purpose mountaineering tool, I like it when the spike reaches your ankle bone when you hold the axe by your side. This has to do with both height and arm length. For me it's 65cm.

For glacier travel, where you'll spend lots of time on lower angle terrain, a longer one makes more sense. A long one might lend itself to some kind of camera attachment (for a hand camera, anyhow).

Technical tools are in the 50cm range.

8-Jun-2008, 07:55
Manufacturers have introduced anti-sticking rubber plates that you adapt under the crampons. This is extremely efficient but the rubber plate is fragile.

They're also relatively heavy, and expensive. I use ductape. It gets shredded, but sometimes I'll get a whole season out of one application. The idea is to make a smooth surface that blocks the snow from getting to the lug soles of your boots.

Tape doesn't seem to work as well as the slippery rubber the manufacturer's use, but it's a good compromise ... especially if you like the dirtbag approach to climbing technology.

8-Jun-2008, 10:00
From Paul: "...If you're really planning to venture onto slopes where falling would be a Bad Thing, some instruction from a guide will make a bigger difference than the right length axe. That and practice. Snow climbing and safety tequniques are a skill set, and they have to be practiced to be useful.

I'd steer clear of any guide or mountain service that puts too much emphasis on self arrest. This is the old-school, american guide approach, and it's gotten a lot of weekend warriors killed. Safety comes from learning correct footwork and self-belay techniques with the ax...."

I have been a climber since the early sixties and have taught rock and ice climbing, technical rescue, and general alpinism; so I heartily agree with Paul. Being skilled in self arrest without being taught and having practiced the various techniques for moving safely and efficiently is a recipe for disaster. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that one receive training that balances proper climbing techniques with the skills associated with self-arrest and self-rescue.

The game is to avoid getting in a pickle and being able to survive, should you get into one.


Brian Sims
8-Jun-2008, 10:52
Paul is right-on about self arrest. When I climbed Rainier, we spent a couple of training days learning self arrest in every position you could imagine. Then the leader said, "One more thing. If you fall it will be on ice. If you fall on ice, you will very likely not be able to self arrest. That means if you fall, you will kill everyone on your rope...so DON'T FALL!" We then spent the rest of our training, with great attention, on proper climbing technique.

John Kasaian
8-Jun-2008, 12:41
I've planned to take a class from Yosemite Mountaineering School :) I don't have an interest in ice climbing other than shooting frozen waterfall climbers where I am on terra firma. My interest in crampons and an ice axe is to have a bit more security when a moderately steep trail gets icy since I'd be on my own and carrying a fairly big load on my back :eek:

clay harmon
8-Jun-2008, 12:55
Well, I agree with all you guys about not relying on the ability to self-arrest as a free pass from learning how never to need it in the first place.

My only point is that just buying an ice axe with no understanding of how it works is not a good idea.

Reminds me of a time about ten years ago when a citified friend on a backpacking trip in middle of nowhere pulled out his new GPS unit and said, "I know where we are". He then proceeded to read off the latitude and longitude. I handed him the map and said "show me". He gave me a blank look and admitted that he had no idea how to find the point on the map.

evan clarke
9-Jun-2008, 03:35
Search Micro Spikes. I have bought a pair of these and they have replaced all my ice cleats and crampons. They are really good on ice, packed snow and fresh snow...EC

9-Jun-2008, 06:04
Having done quite a bit of alpine climbing I can offer you the following advice. As a general rule of thumb for a mountaineering ax - if you're under 5'5" 60cm, 5'5 to 5'9 65 cm and 5'10 or taller 70cm. The black diamond raven pro or Grivel airtec are good, lightweight examples of these. It should be carried in the uphill hand and an ax of the proper length will also aid you as an additional balance point on a steep slope. If you're travelling in an area where proper self arrest is needed to save your life - try to get some professional instruction. You might also want to check out the book "Mountaineering, Freedom of the Hills" - it's the mountaineering bible available in any good outdoor store or online. Regarding crampons - you can't go wrong with a pair of Grivel g10 or g12 with the newmatic binding. This binding will work on soft hiking boots as well as rigid plastic boots. They're also very simple to put on. Most outfitters that run guided trips use these because of their versatility and simplicity for beginners.
Good Luck

9-Jun-2008, 10:50
I'd suggest NOT using crampons when you're learning self arrest. It's really easy to destroy an ankle or two when you're plumeting down a slope with spikes strapped to your toes.

The standard way of learning self arrest inovolves jamming both your pick and your toes into the slope ... but if you have 'pons on, you have to keep your toes away from the slope and dig in with your knees.

Because of this I prefer to always practice as if i have crampons on. I want the automatic reaction to be "keep the toes off the slope!" I don't trust myself to be able to think about it and make a decision if I find myself falling one day.

Eric James
9-Jun-2008, 11:24
Another option is to leave the crampons behind and learn the plunge step. This technique is typically used when descending, but it can be used to arrest a slide at anytime. Aggressive heal-first steps are used to momentarily anchor a foot to the terrain. The angle of the heal helps to pierce through hard snow or an icy crust; the aggressive, purposeful plunge utilizes your body's weight to hammer home the heal. Again, this technique is typically used to control a descent on snow, with or without an ax, but it can also be used to quickly stop a slide when ascending if you're able to get yourself facing downhill. You're more likely to loose control when you're tired and feeling slothful - for the plunge step arrest to work your have to summons some extra energy, and hammer in those heals.

12-Jun-2008, 15:51
Here's a link to a good video on the technique:

If you fall, it's important to get your torso on top of the axe with your head pointed uphill as quickly as possible and dig the spike in with your weight.

Once, while summiting Mather Pass in the Sierra without an axe, I potholed and went downhill head first (I apparently recoiled from the posthole and the pack's weight pulled me over). Without even thinking, I instinctively up righted my self with head pointing uphill and dug in with my toes and fingers. Since it was in the afternoon, I managed to self-arrest in about 50 or so feet. If it was early morning when the snow would be hard, I would have went all the way - a couple of hundred of feet more (but not fatal in this case). I found my hiking pole stuck upright in the snow where I potholed. Ever since then I attached the ice axe with a wrist strap - there are both pros and cons on using a wrist strap.

if you're hiking with flexible footwear and only anticipate occasional moderate snowfields, then you can get by with step-in crampons (about $40). Otherwise get the real crampons and a good boot that will take them. Fit the crampons to the boot (i.e., bring the boot with you when purchasing crampons).

12-Jun-2008, 20:38
And on the other hand, if you're just going to the base of climbs and think you can avoid any steep slopes, you might be able to get away something like these:


I have a pair that I got for winter hiking (still haven't tried them). My friend who's an elite ultra marathoner and trail runner swears by them. He uses them all winter long on 40+ mile traverses in the white mountains.