Choosing Crampons and Ice Axes

By Mike Boisvert.

Ya gotta love winter. The fourth season transforms our highest peaks into wind-scoured alpine islands of snow and ice, as spectacular as they are challenging. The first step in outfitting yourself with the basic mountaineering equipment that most high peaks demand, and that many challenging lower-elevation trails require: crampons and an ice axe.

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. With generally "wet" snow (high water content), strong winds up high and wide temperature swings from above freezing to far below freezing -- tends to create ice and hard-packed snow cover on the ground above treelilne. At lower elevations, rock-solid ice flows can fill many steep sections of trail and make climbing without crampons treacherous, if not impossible.

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 time.

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. Anti-balling plates -- small sheets of plastic or latex that attach to the underside of the crampons -- will help prevent snow from accumulating, but it's better to just put the crampons away at these times.

Remember to always remove crampons when glissading (also known at sliding downhill on your rear end or 'butt surfing"). Otherwise, you risk catching a crampon point, being violently flipped forward, and breaking your ankle.

In order to wear crampons, many people say you need rigid boots with a stiff sole -- not so. Any insulated boot will work.

Plastic mountaineering boots (rigid boots with a stiff sole) that come with an insulated removable booty are the best for overnight trips. They are warm, great for winter travel -- especially above treeline. One of the benefits of having these boots is that you can use snap-in crampons. Ideal in very cold conditions where you don't have to work with straps and exposing your fingers to frigid temperatures. These crampons quickly attach with a tension lever that snaps easily into place on the raised heel welt found on plastic and heavy leather mountaineering boots.

With regular winter insulated hiking boots you will need crampons with straps, which provide the most versatility and can be used with a wider range of footwear. Selecting the proper crampon for your boot is important. These boots have a flexible sole making it difficult to securely attach crampons. An improper fit will stress the metal and your feet as you hike. Also, tightening the straps across the soft upper can cause discomfort and restrict the blood flow essential for warm feet.

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, your best bet is a classic, semi-rigid 10-point crampon like the Grivel G10 Light Crampon (http://www.backcountry.com/store/GRV0060/c5/s12/Grivel-G10-Light-Crampon.html?id=I3jRWXYZ)  or Black Diamond Contact Strap(http://www.backcountry.com/store/BLD1048/c5/s12/Black-Diamond-Contact-Strap-Crampon.html?id=I3jRWXYZ). These are versatile enough to use with a variety of footwear, and perfectly adequate for the majority of conditions.

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 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. For most people, a length of 60 to 70 centimeters is ideal.

Adjustable trekking poles (with baskets) is the common accoutrement for winter hikers because an ice axe is not necessary on lower-angle winter routes like Mount Lafayette's Old Bridle Path. Adjustable trekking poles are good for balance and less heavy. An ice ax functions more as a glorified walking stick on these routes.

On steeper routes, like headwall snow climbs, you'll want an ice axe in hand and the knowledge of how to use it. Tackling these 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. Knowledge of the proper methods for travel will prevent you from falling in the first place.

In winter, the high peaks 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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