How to Choose Crampons

When the mountains are covered in snow and summer’s flowing waterfalls turn into ribbons of ice, traction is the name of your winter travel game. But, when your objectives get more serious, crampons should be your footwear of choice. Whether you’re simply looking to climb a snow gully or become a mixed climbing master, you’re going to need crampons to keep from sliding off the snow and rock. Different crampon types suit different needs, though, so you’ll want to make sure you have the right hardware.

TK_EMS-Conway-7488

The Three Types

How you attach a set to your boots distinguishes one crampon type from another and offers insight into their intended use. There are three common attachment methods:

Step-In

Providing the most secure attachment, step-in crampons are a popular choice for technical objectives. In fact, you’ll frequently see them adorning the feet of ice climbers, technical mountaineers, and ski mountaineers. Step-in crampons use a lockable heel tab and a wire toe bail to securely stay in place on the boot. This setup requires that your boots have heel and toe welts for the tab and toe bail to clip into.

Almost all types feature some kind of webbing. For step-in models, the webbing prevents the crampon from taking a ride to the bottom of a route, in the event the attachment comes loose.

Hybrid

These crampons use the same lockable heel tab found on step-in models, but, instead of a step-in toe bail, have a flexible plastic loop that extends over the toe box. Hybrid crampons are commonly used with alpine climbing boots, which sacrifice an integrated toe welt for improved climbing ability without crampons.

Because of this, the webbing loop plays a more significant role on hybrid crampons. It helps keep the front secured to the boot and the heel lock engaged.

Strap-On

Because you can use them with almost any type of footwear, including mountaineering boots, hiking boots, snowboard boots, and approach shoes, strap-on crampons are the most versatile type. For this reason, they suit the person looking for one pair to do it all, although they’re best for walking activities, as opposed to climbing. Using the same type of flexible toe piece as hybrid models, strap-on crampons replace the lockable heel tab with another flexible plastic piece that wraps around the heel.

GO: Step-In | Strap-On

Courtesy: Petzl
Courtesy: Petzl

Number of Points

The number of points featured further indicates a crampon’s intended use. In general, there are two configurations: 10-point and 12-point. 10-points are ideal for basic mountaineering routes and snow climbs—for example, the Lion Head Winter Route. 12-points, meanwhile, are better suited for technical mountaineering routes and ice climbs, like Shoestring Gully.

Front Points

The orientation of the front points also shows where they will excel. Crampons with horizontal front points are best used for snow climbs and glacier travel, as the wide footprint provides more purchase in soft conditions, such as snow.

Vertical front points are the clear choice for ice and mixed climbing. In these instances, the points act like the pick of an ice tool, making them more adept at penetrating hard ice. Also, because the orientation aligns with the ice’s grain, vertical front points fracture ice less than horizontal front points.

Mono and Offset Front Points

Front points also have a number of other distinguishing characteristics. For vertical front points, mono points (i.e., a single vertical front point) have increased in popularity with ice, mixed, and alpine climbers. Mono points offer more precision than dual points and can fit into pockets, cracks, and grooves more easily.

Many high-end crampons allow users to switch between dual and mono points (modular front points). This feature enables climbers to reconfigure their crampons for particular activities and objectives. As another advantage, the front points can be replaced. As a result of sharpening, front points become shorter and less effective over the course of time. To learn more about sharpening your crampons, read 8 Tips to Prep for Ice Climbing Season.

Offset front points are another recent trend. Specifically, the crampon has two front points but one is longer than the other. Offset crampons, whether horizontal or vertical, offer the increased precision of a mono point with the better stability of a dual-point model.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Secondary Points

Secondary points also determine whether the crampon is intended for basic snow travel or technical climbing. As a good rule of thumb, the more aggressive and significant the points directly behind the front points are, the better the crampon is for technical and vertical climbing.

Materials

Crampons are primarily constructed using two materials: steel or aluminum. Steel offers superior durability and corrosion resistance compared to aluminum. Therefore, these crampons are ideal for technical ice, mixed climbs, and alpine climbs. Steel’s strength comes at a cost, however, as these are heavier than aluminum crampons. Due to their lighter weight, aluminum crampons are fantastic for glacier travel, ski mountaineering, and snow climbing.

Anti-Balling Plates

These small pieces of plastic prevent snow from getting packed between your boots and crampons, and are essential if you’re going to be traveling on snow. Anti-balling plates attach to the crampon’s bottom to prevent snow and ice from caking up and sticking while you hike or climb. And, because you’ll likely see at least some snow, they come standard on almost all modern models.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Sizing Crampons

Most every crampon consists of two components, the front and heel pieces, connected by a center bar. The center bars typically have a string of holes, which let you adjust the crampons. In turn, the pair covers a wide range of foot sizes and can be sized to your specific boot. If you have really big feet, however, keep in mind that you might need to purchase a longer center bar from the manufacturer.

Pro Tip: If you already own mountaineering boots, bring them to the shop to test the crampons’ fit. Some brands might fit better, and it’s preferable to figure that out before you’re staring up at that dream ice climb.

Courtesy: Petzl
Courtesy: Petzl

So, Which Crampons Should I Get?

For snow climbs and classic mountaineering routes like Avalanche Gulch on California’s Mount Shasta, a lightweight pair of 10-point crampons with horizontal front points and anti-balling plates, like the Black Diamond Contact, is ideal. Step-in crampons offer better security, but any attachment method will work. Focus on finding a good fit between your crampon and mountaineering boot.

For more technical objectives involving snow climbing and steep ice, such as the Adirondacks’ Trap Dike, 12-point crampons with horizontal points and anti-balling plates are the perfect choice. A step-in attachment—like what you’ll find on the Black Diamond Serac Pro—is preferable.

For vertical ice climbing in the Adirondacks and the White Mountains, a 12-point crampon with vertical front points is the best choice. Crampons like the Black Diamond Cyborg Pro feature a step-in attachment and modular front points, so you can switch between a mono and dual setup. In turn, you can match your setup to the terrain or simply see which way you are more comfortable climbing. And, if you’ll be using your crampons with boots with and without toe welts, consider the Petzl Lynx Modular, known for adjustable bails depending on boot type.

For missions where weight comes at a premium—think alpine routes with some snow climbing sections or ski mountaineering missions in Tuckerman Ravine or on the Cog Railway—check out the ultra-lightweight Black Diamond Neve Strap Crampon. Weighing in at just 1 lb., 4.3 oz., these babies pack a punch without taking up much space in your pack.

GO: Crampons for Mixed Climbing | Mountaineering | Vertical Ice | Winter Hiking

 


Staying Grounded: Don't Skimp on Spring Traction

Picture it: The snow starts to melt on your sidewalk or the trail, only to reveal a layer of clear, hidden ice. Or, there’s snow packed so firm it might as well be clear blue. Then, after a few days of warming weather, a flash freeze turns all the running water to ice. Because hard, slick surfaces can cause some nasty slips and falls, traction is obviously important during the colder months, and it is also vital to hiking safely during late winter and early spring.

Courtesy: Yaktrax
Courtesy: Yaktrax

Traction for Everyday Use

The very bottom level of winter traction is what you need for taking the trash out, walking the dog, or checking the mailbox to see if that new EMS purchase has arrived. During your standard daily activities, it’s still possible to encounter some slick ice that requires just a bit more traction than your boots themselves provide. That extra edge may prevent an unexpected slip resulting in a twisted ankle or broken wrist. As examples, Yaktrax and STABILicers provide sturdier footing in just about any day-to-day situation.

These products’ limitations typically lie within their actual gripping capabilities, however. Items like Yaktrax and STABILicers don’t have teeth that really dig into ice and grip it well. Instead, they merely sink into the surface, mainly where it’s softer, to deter any unwanted slips. When you start getting into hard-packed snow and actual ice accumulation, you’ll need some real teeth for a stronger grip.

EMS-Hiking-Microspikes-1577

A Little Burlier

Heading off-road? You might want something sharper and stronger. Taking a walk at the local nature preserve, heading up a well-traveled mountain for a quick hike, or even peak-bagging a 4,000-footer in the Northeast on a hard-packed trail requires more grip than Yaktrax can provide. This is due to the fact that the ice (and even hard-packed snow) found during a hike tends to be much thicker and harder. Therefore, you need something more aggressive to safely and securely grip the ground, because sitting on the surface won’t provide much security.

That’s where products like Kahtoola MICROspikes and Hillsound FreeSteps6 come into play. Similar in design and functionality, both of these devices feature longer, tougher spikes. These products work great on hard-packed trails, and even on a good amount of softer ice that you’ll encounter on open summits or highly traveled trails.

TK_EMS-Conway-7654

For the Real Steeps

Unfortunately, MICROspikes and FreeSteps6 don’t cut it every time, and that’s where actual crampons come into play. Often, glass-like ice that coats an entire open summit is far too hard for these to bite into. Or, it’s too steep for them to grasp, which can result in slipping and falling at very inopportune times. For such occasions, full crampons are the way to go.

When it comes to crampons, there are essentially two categories to consider. The most expensive (usually $175 and up) is designed for mountaineering or ice climbing. Products like the Black Diamond Contact Crampons are some of the toughest, most aggressive models on the market. However, unless you are going to be doing these specific activities, slightly less-aggressive crampons still give you dependable traction in treacherous conditions without overdoing it. Falling into this category are the Hillsound Trail Pro Crampon, the Kahtoola K10 Crampon, and the Grivel G1 Crampon. All offer a much more aggressive spike to hold onto that hard ice, giving you peace of mind and increased safety as you trek along the icy Ridge Trail heading up Giant Mountain.

Ice and Snow?

Last but not least, it’s time to talk snowshoes. Easily the most indispensable of all winter traction devices, snowshoes are what make winter hiking even remotely possible. When there’s enough snow on the ground, they prevent you from sinking in and from using more energy than necessary to head down the trail. Even then, realize they’re not legally required for walking the trails, except in the Adirondacks’ High Peaks Wilderness, where eight inches or more of snow calls for snowshoes or skis.

But, most also include a degree of traction for when the snow firms up or gets mixed in with ice. On long day hikes where you could encounter deep snow below treeline and hard ice on a mountain summit, snowshoes with more traction, like the MSR Evos, may eliminate the need to carry a separate set of crampons.

 

No matter what your winter activities are, be sure to have the proper traction with you at all times, and above all, be safe and have fun!


8 Tips to Prep for Ice Climbing Season

With temperatures dropping across the Northeast, the ice is starting to form, and ice climbing season is kicking into gear. To get you going, here are eight tips to help you sharpen everything from your tools to your skills for sending that perfect pitch or goal gully this season.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

1. Sharpen your picks

Nothing takes the fun out of ice climbing more than dull tools. The inability to sink a stick melts stoke faster than the mid-winter thaw. If you’ve never sharpened your tools or it’s just been awhile since the last time you did, now’s a great time.

The goal of sharpening is to replicate your tools’ original shape. Doing so only requires a mill bastard file. Begin by filing off the rounded point at your pick’s end, and then, put the bevel back on the pick by filing outwards on each side, following the factory grind. When you’re done sharpening, use a hex wrench to make sure your picks are tight. Check out this fantastic video from the AMGA to see the process in action.

Pro tip: Use a vice when sharpening your tools instead of balancing them in your hands to save yourself the embarrassment of a season-stalling puncture wound or stitches.

Courtesy: @jamisonknowlton
Courtesy: @jamisonknowlton

2. Add some grip

After perfecting your picks, add some grip tape to your axe shafts. A layer of tape improves grip and helps insulate your hands from the cold. Furthermore, it makes it easier to distinguish your tools from your partner’s and protects against the scratches that come with use. Depending on how much grip they want, climbers use everything from electrical tape to skateboard deck tape.

3. Sharpen your crampons

Although most associate ice climbing with axes and upper-body muscles, the real magic happens with your feet. Because of this, you’ll want to sharpen your crampons before jumping on the sharp end this season. In fact, because crampons often get used to approach climbs and descend them, they typically dull faster than tools. As such, it’s a good idea to give them a quick sharpening after every ice outing.

If you have crampons with vertical front points, like the Black Diamond Cyborgs do, use the mill bastard file as you did for your ice tools to sharpen your crampons’ front points along the factory bevel. And, don’t forget about your crampons’ secondary points. It’s recommended to file the secondary points on their backside, so as to not change their length and affect performance.

Pro tip: Once again, use a vice. With all those points, a mid-sharpening slip with your crampons can be even more hazardous than with your ice axes.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

4. Dial in the fit

Getting to a climb, only to realize you haven’t sized your crampons to your boots, is no way to start a day, much less a season, of ice climbing. Adjusting crampon length is most often done with a pin-lock system on the center bar, and while making adjustments is easy, it’s finicky work best done at home, without gloves. Doing this at the base of the cliff will leave you with cold hands before you even start climbing.

When adjusting, you want to achieve a tight fit without the boot overhanging the front or back of the crampons’ frame. As a good at-home test to tell if you’ve adjusted correctly, put your boot in the crampon. If you pick the boot up and the crampon comes up with it, without being formally attached to the boot, you are on the right track.

5. Protect your protection

Dull ice screws can put a damper on an ice climbing outing. At best, they’ll be hard to sink into the ice; at worst, they won’t thread into the ice, leaving climbers in a treacherous situation. To make matters worse, it seems you always come across the dull screw on your rack when you’re most desperate for protection.

Until recently, most ice climbers sent their screws out to be sharpened. Then, Petzl unveiled the LIM’Ice, a device that makes sharpening ice screws straightforward and easy. Of course, if you’ve had your ice screws for a few years, it might be time to upgrade. Newer ones like the Black Diamond Turbo Express have speed knobs for easy placement; light-colored hangers instead of black, which speeds up melting out; and two places to clip ‘biners, which help to declutter busy belays.

Courtesy: @claireebruce
Courtesy: @claireebruce

6. Get your head in the game

Before going out to make your first climb of the season, it’s worthwhile to brush up on your mental game. Spend some time reading up on technique, thinking about movement, and practicing the requisite rope work to get your mind in mid-season form.

If you’re planning on climbing alpine gullies, refresh your avalanche awareness, and refamiliarize yourself with your beacon, probe, and snow safety kit. Not confident in your skills? Consider taking an early season avalanche class or ice climbing lesson with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. Whether you’re looking to get up to date with the latest in snow safety or just pick up a few pointers, an early season class gives you knowledge you can use all season.

Pro tip: Practicing companion rescue with your avalanche beacon is a great way to pass the time in between those too-cold-for-rock-climbing and no-climbable-ice-yet weekend days.

7. Tune up your body

Doing some sport-specific exercises before your first outing will pay big dividends. Even better, you don’t need a fancy gym to get yourself into ice climbing shape.

For your upper body, simply hanging from your tools on a pull-up bar or hangboard is a great way to build grip strength and prepare for what is coming. Mix some pull-ups using your tools in with the hangs to further build upper-body strength.

Of course, ice climbing requires a fair amount of heavy gear, and less-crowded climbing is often away from the road. For lower body fitness, consider hiking your favorite 4,000-footer with a weighted pack. Can’t make it to the mountains? A favorite workout of ours involves laps up the local ski hill with a weighted pack.

Courtesy: @peterkbrandon
Courtesy: @peterkbrandon

8. Make a tick list

A great way to get psyched about ice climbing season is to make a tick list. Whether it’s a local test piece or a dream line, having a goal in mind makes hanging from your tools in the basement a little more bearable, and looking at and reading about those lines will have you stoked to start the season. Start picking out your next route in the ADK Blue Lines, or get inspired by the guys and girls putting up the Northeast’s classic ice climbs before Gore-Tex, Schoeller, or PrimaLoft while using straight-shafted ice tools in Yankee Rock and Ice.

 

At the beginning of every ice climbing season, you’re sure to see someone at the base of the climb fiddling with their gear and mumbling, “I wish I had…adjusted these, trained, practiced, etc.” Avoid these common pitfalls, and nail the approach—to the season, that is—by following these simple steps.