Choosing Crampons And Ice Axes

With proper preparation and respect for the winter weather and terrain, a visit to the Northeast's highest peaks can be done safely and comfortably.

Walking Points

Crampons, those wicked metal spikes on the bottom of your boots, are necessary to avoid slips and falls when hiking on firm snow and ice. The Northeast climate---with generally "wet" snow (high water content), strong winds up high, and wide temperature swings from above freezing to far below zero---tends to create ice and hard packed snow cover on the ground above treeline.

Crampons are not necessary for travel in soft snow, however, and can be dangerous to wear in some situations. Numerous accidents occur each year when hikers wear them at the wrong times.

Crampons become a detriment and potential hazard once the snow underfoot becomes soft enough that you can sink a boot toe (going uphill) or heel (going downhill) fairly deeply into the surface. In these conditions, snow will usually pack into a baseball shape under crampons, which can cause you to slide, trip, or turn an ankle.

Remember to always remove crampons when glissading (also known as sliding downhill on your butt). Otherwise, you risk catching a crampon point, being violently flipped forward, and breaking your anke.

In order to wear crampons, you will need rigid boots with a stiff sole. Plastic mountaineering boots that come with an insulated, removable booty are the best---and warmest footwear.

Crampons attach either with tension lever that snaps easily into place on the raised heel welt found on plastic and heavy leather mountaineering boots; or with straps, which provide the most versatility and can be used with a wider range of footwear.

While it is possible with regular hiking boots, it is not recommended. The flexible sole found on most boots makes it difficult to securely attach crampons, and will stress the metal (and your feet) as you hike.

With the recent boom in ice climbing, gear shops usually bristle with a range of widly fanged, specialized crampons. For general mountaineering and winter hiking, though, your best bet is a classic semi-rigid 10-point crampon like the Grivel G10 or Black Diamond Contact Strap.

Most crampons are made of steel, which is durable and stays sharp, but is heavy. For basic winter hiking, lighter weight aluminum models are often sufficient.

Take Your Pick

The primary purpose of an ice axe is to prevent a long, dangerous slide down a steep, snow-covered slope. A lightweight, straight-shaft ice axe is most suitable for general mountaineering, though the appropriate length will vary depending on your height.

To gauge the size you need, stand up straight, hold the ice axe head loosely in your hand, and hang your arm and the axe straight down the side of your body. The spike at the bottom of the ice axe should be level with the round knobby bone on the outside of your ankle.

An ice axe is a common accoutrement for winter hikers, but is often unnecessary on lower-angle winter routes. On many hiking trails most of the time an ice axe functions more as a glorified walking stick.

On steeper routes, you'll want an ice axe in hand and knowledge of how to use it. Tackling steeper routes requires some basic mountaineering skills, especially the ability to self-arrest---using the ice axe to stop yourself from sliding in the event of a fall.

Mountaineering skills can be learned from Gay Outdoors. See our Events Calendar for a beginner's clinic in March.

In winter, the peaks of the Northeast provide some of the best training grounds for mountaineering anywhere. Hone your skills here, and you'll be ready to travel virtually anywhere.

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