“Sharp Pointy Things for Christmas Please”

A piece written by our resident Mountain Guide Andrew Mallinson, penned before Christmas but very pertinent as the snow and ice returns to the UK and many of us are now gearing up and getting out to the Cairngorms and other areas …

So what do we want in our seasonal stockings ?  Well, with the first dusting of snow on the mountains, thoughts inevitably turn to winter and whether we’re “tooled up” for those magnificent days that await in our dreams.  Essentials?  Oh yes, ice axe and crampons please Santa.


And first of all, they are essential.  As essential as map and compass.  And the necessary knowledge and skills to use them effectively in all conditions.  A series of recent rescues in the Cairngorms, where people were ill equipped beyond belief, well illustrates the point.  I make no apology for saying that, in my opinion, such behaviour is rank irresponsibility.  Off the soap box now……


There has been an increasing trend from manufacturers recently towards lightweight equipment.  Lightweight rucksacks, lightweight jackets, lightweight tents, and yes, lightweight winter equipment.  This has been achieved by utilizing lightweight materials and construction methods.  This can come at a cost however, in terms of both robustness and durability.  The knock on effect can be a reduction in the lifespan of a piece of kit.  A cynical person may think this is a purposeful strategy by the manufacturers to reduce costs and increase repeat sales…….


The key for me however is functionality.  Will a piece of gear do the job you want it to do ?  In respect of ice axes and crampons, I do think the lightweight trend has reduced the effectiveness  of the modern, lightweight winter kit.


A wee story for you…….


I had a client last winter who wanted a day of basic winter skills instruction in the use of ice axe and crampons.  Her Father had done a bit of winter walking and had an “old” ice axe.  It was manufactured by Stubai, with a metal shaft and a drop-forged one piece solid head.  My client declined the offer from her Father to “borrow” the Subai axe and went to a well known retailer and purchased a modern, alloy shafted, two-piece alloy head axe….. “nice and lightweight” she said proudly.  Up on the hill conditions were great.  Lots of firm snow/ice for movement skills, step cutting and ice axe braking.  Only, the lightweight axe couldn’t cope with any of these.  The shaft had no meaningful bottom spike, the head was too light to bite and the adze bounced off the hard snow/ice. I swapped axes with the client, giving her my “old” (30 years) Mountain Technology axe.  My client went home and that evening sold her new axe on UKC and permanently “borrowed” her Fathers axe.


Lesson – being lightweight is of no value if functionality is compromised.


So what do we want a general purpose mountaineering ice axe for ?  What do we need it to do ?  Self belay, movement support, step cutting, ice axe breaking,….. and some other uses…… banging snow off crampons, sitting on, tin opening, digging, smashing ice off rocks….

Ice axes get a lot of use and abuse, rough use and abuse.  And lightweight ain’t going to cut it……literally.  Think of it like this….. how you going to knock a six inch nail into a bit of timber with a hammer that has no weight in the head and shaft ?


If you’re buying a general purpose mountaineering ice axe then get one with a bottom spike, a solid straight shaft, (or only very slightly curved), and a weighty drop- forge, one piece, solid metal head.  It should feel substantial….. like you could really do some damage with it.  And as for that old argument about length, if you’re under 5’8” get a 50cm axe:  if you’re over, get a 55cm….. that’s it.  Nothing shorter and nothing longer.


The lightweight trend has affected crampons too.   Alloy, as opposed to steel, has crept in to the base plates, the points and the bail arms.  Yes, this makes them lighter, but again has reduced durability and functionality.  Alloy points quickly blunt – try using them on granite and see what happens…… you may as well take a file to them.  And once that has happened, try using them on iron hard snow or ice….. useless.  So for general purpose mountaineering crampons go for 12 point steel.  If you have compatible boots, go for steel toe bails rather than plastic baskets…… which I’ve seen break on numerous occasions….. be warned.


For most of us, we need gear that does the job and lasts a long time.  Lightweight can compromise both.  Professionally, I need gear that can withstand year after year of punishment and yet still continue to do the job.  You should expect no less.


So tell your “Santa” (or if reading after Christmas.. tell yourself ) exactly what you want if an ice axe and crampons are on your Christmas list.  Or better still, take Santa shopping, know what you want before you go, and don’t get persuaded that lightweight is best……. because in respect of ice axes and crampons, in my opinion, it’s not.


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