Getting the Right Crampon
The winter and Alpine climber faces a bewildering choice when shopping for new crampons these days. Do you get something technical and modular with adjustable points, asymmetric layout and heel spurs, or something more middle-of-the-road, a bog-standard 12-pointer? The dilemma is that if you buy the wrong crampon it’s like buying the wrong rock boots - they won’t be up to what you want to do in them.
Firstly don’t sweat it, you can do anything in any crampon. People have walked up Everest in rigid C3 Footfangs designed for extreme ice, while others have climbed M10 in modified C1 10-point walking crampons. All crampon types have pros and cons and the trick is getting a crampon whose pros most closely match your needs.
In order to make life easier I’ve divided crampons into their frame and binding, then subdivided them again into their respective types. The crampon rating system below is my own modified version of the rating system.
THE C1 CRAMPON
NUTS & BOLTS: Walking, trekking and ski touring, plus non-technical classic Alpine ground (nothing pitched). BASICS: They are generally made as a hinged flexible 8- to 10-point crampon with or without front points attached with straps, with strength being sacrificed for minimal weight. Most are made out of light alloys and so won’t stand up to front pointing or mixed terrain and are only designed to cope with snow, névé and soft ice.
EXAMPLES: Grivel G9 (670g), G10 light (670) (see left), Cassin C10L (680g), Camp XLC (390g).
PROS: Very light and compact, saving energy over long distances, crucial if you’re at higher altitudes, or may never need them in the first place. Most have a simple strap system that will fit on to any boot, shoe or even climbing slipper. Cheap. Doesn’t ball up in most conditions.
CONS: Most effective on level ground (paths, tracks etc), becoming less effective and unstable the steeper the ground gets (i.e. less point contact with the ground). Wear out quickly if exposed to hard ground. Not suitable for larger boot sizes and heavier users. Any emergency and unplanned climbing will prove very difficult due to point design and penetration and only the most experienced climbers will take the risk as they will eventually break (people like Silvo Karo often use this type of crampon on big Alpine rock walls which have minimal snow and ice on them). C1 SUMMARY: Will probably be bought as a secondary pair for non-technical routes where weight is crucial (a good Alpine rock-climber’s crampon), or by the Alpine trekker and ski mountaineer.
THE C2 CRAMPON
Articulated multi-purpose mountaineering crampons with 10 or 12 points including front points. Many attachment systems. This category covers such a wide range of models that it’s best to subdivide them into three more categories:
C2 - CRAMPON
NUTS & BOLTS: Robust walking crampon that may also be used for mild climbing depending on the grade of the climb (I to III) and the user’s experience.
EXAMPLES: Grivel G10 (820g), Petzl Charlet Ecrin (840g) and Argentero (780g), Cassin C10 (940g), Black Diamond Contact (770g) (left).
PROS: A C2- is somewhere between a proper C2 and a C1 and is a compromise between weight, bulk and performance, with a user who understands the crampons’ drawbacks being able to climb in the crampon (Dean Potter, for instance, soloed Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy in the Contact crampon suitable for ‘glacial walking and mild Alpine climbing’.) Best employed as a more robust C1 type crampon, for the heavier user (both physically and time-wise), lasting far longer. Won’t ball up in most conditions.
CONS: Isn’t a full C2 so won’t feel as solid to climb in, with point location being set for optimum walking performance not climbing (more strain on the calves) yet isn’t as light as a C1 crampon. C2- SUMMARY: A good bet for the pure winter walker or classic Alpinist, but anyone who wants to do any climbing should go for a full C2.
NUTS & BOLTS: The genuine all-around performer, able to handle everything from grade VI ice, VIII mixed, Alpine North Faces, high altitude ‘walking’ and anything else that requires spiky shoes.
EXAMPLES: Petzl-Charlet Vasak (830g) and Sarken (850g), Grivel G12 (950g), Black Diamond Sabre Tooth (965g), Camp Ice Rider (880g), DMM Gladiator (860g) (right) and Aiguille (850g), Mountain Technology 12 point (1,000g), Cassin C12 (950g).
PROS: If you’ve got these on your feet you should be able to get up most things. They are tough enough to stand up to seasons of abuse and, although not the lightest crampons, they aren’t the heaviest and so won’t weigh too heavily on your feet when the air’s thin. They won’t ball up in most conditions and are easy to walk in and will fit on B2 and B3 boots easily and B1 boots for short periods (such as crossing glaciers).
CONS: Non-replaceable front points so once they wear out you’d need to buy a whole new set, plus you can’t set them up as mono points. Horizontal points aren’t as effective on pure ice as vertical points, meaning they can feel less secure on steep icefalls.
C2 SUMMARY: Probably the crampon that 90% of us should own as it covers all the bases well.
NUTS & BOLTS: The technical C2 crampon, designed to bridge the gap between the rigid technical and the trad 12-point crampon.
EXAMPLES: Black Diamond Bionic (1,200g), Grivel G14 (1,065g), Petzl Charlet M10 (1,050g) and non modular Dartwin (850g), Cassin C14 (1,100g), Simond Pitbull (1,067g), Camp Vector (1,100g).
PROS: All models (apart from the Dartwin), offer the user the ability to either replace worn front points (or you can have a mixed set and ice set for example) or switch between mono and dual points. The point arrangements and design are aimed to give a maximum climbing performance on both rock and ice. The two-piece non-rigid design means these crampons can also be used for general mountaineering, with the better designs giving good resistance to balling up even without anti-balling plates.
CONS: Heavier than a plain C2 and more expensive (offset by the fact that you can replace worn front points). Some models ball up as badly as C3 crampons, requiring anti-balling plates.
C2+ SUMMARY: Very much down to the actual crampon itself, with some models being better than others, but I think the C2+ replaces the older C3 concept for most UK users and is probably the way to go for those who don’t mind paying an extra £30 and carrying a couple more hundred grams of steel.
THE C3 CRAMPON
NUTS & BOLTS: The traditional rigid technical crampon, designed to support you on steep ground and provide vibration free-kicks into the hardest ice.
EXAMPLES: Grivel Rambo (1,110g), DMM Terminator (1,020g), Mountain Technology Viper (1,000g), Camp Ice Runner (1,030g).
PROS: Very solid, stable and strong, perfect for sustained steep terrain where a solid platform is crucial if your calves are to survive. Modular like the C2+. Can be used to stiffen up softer (supposed) B3 boots.
CONS: Built-up rail design puts you further away from the ground and so dulling your ‘feel’ and guarantees balling up, sometimes even with anti-balling plates. (With the exception of the Mountain Tech Viper, which is a flat frame design.) The stiffness of the crampon makes walking slightly more difficult (compared to C1 and C2). Heavy and generally not quick or easy to adjust to different boots.
C3 SUMMARY: Best suited to steep and sustained cascades, or those who feel they need more support in their crampons.
THE DOUBLE RING BUCKLE UP
Most crampon retaining straps these days feature the excellent and durable double-ring locking system, whereby the nylon strap passes through both straps and then passes back through between the two, thereby locking it against itself. This system is good because it can’t break, is low bulk and won’t freeze up. The problem is that most users don’t finish this process off by passing the strap back through both loops a second time. This simple manoeuvre stops the strap from loosening over the day, which is common and, therefore, avoids the danger of snagging a crampon point on the strap on the inside of your other foot. If the strap is long enough then it’s also worth tying a knot on the strap after it passes through the heel clip. This means when you pull the strap tight the whole strap can’t just shift around the boot. One other modification is if you’ve got plain double rings that aren’t fitted with pull tabs to make loosening easy, then just fit your own with loops of 10mm abseil tape.
When people buy new crampons 90% of the time they want step-ins (whether they are a climber or not), seeing anything else as inferior. In order to put a case across for all binding types here’s a rundown of what’s on offer.
STEP-IN: Wire toe bail and heel clip
EXAMPLES: LeverLock, Cramp-o-Matic.
PROS: The step-in design, if adjusted correctly, is very secure and vibration-free and is very low profile at the toe. It is best suited to high standard pure technical climbing and cascades.
CONS: For over two decades this has been the only way any serious climber would attach their crampons to their boots but, controversially, in my opinion, it’s now been superseded by more climber friendly systems and I’d only consider it for C3 users who want a total vibration-free binding, or climbers who are just interested in pure technical climbing (7 and above). My reasons for dissing the step-in is that compared with old-style strap-on binding the step-in was light years ahead, but now those strap-on systems have evolved its advantages are outweighed by its disadvantages, with 90% of crampon users probably getting far better service out of a hybrid binding.
Firstly, the step-in isn’t as quick to don as people imagine (once you’re not in your house or in the shop that is), with the hybrid binding being far faster, with a great deal more care being required when locating the front bail correctly so they don’t pop mid-pitch. This process can also be more difficult if your boots are covered in ice and frozen mud and the front bail’s holding power is dependent on the crampon’s hold over the front welt of the boot, a potential problem with many modern leather boots featuring faster wearing welts. Getting the right fit can be quite an involved process with some step-in models, meaning switching them between different boots can be a real pain.
SUMMARY: A specialized binding that I’d only recommend to a minority of climbers either operating at a very high standard, or on hard cascades.
HYBRID: Front strap (nylon, plastic or neoprene) and heel clip.
EXAMPLES: Leverlock, New Matic, Clip.
PROS: At first people wrote these off as being just for walking and Alpine climbing, but slowly they’ve been accepted for all types of climbing and are now the new standard in crampon attachment, being far more user friendly and easier to use once in the mountains (i.e. not just in your living room). Unlike a step-in binding, where your boot welts need to be cleared of ice and snow before you can get a secure fit, a hybrid binding can be quickly attached to the boot in any condition. For this reason, they are also faster to don than step-in as no time is taken up in locating and securing the front bail and once on can’t come off accidentally - a real safety feature. The reason why these crampons work so well is that mechanically nearly all the work in holding a crampon on is done by the heel clip (the leverage point is at the toe), with very little strain being put on the front strap.
CONS: More bulk at the toe (you could say this protects the boot) and it’s important to keep an eye on the integrity of the front binding and ankle strap. Some bindings are more effective than others.
SUMMARY: A binding that is perfect for most winter climbers.
MODERN STRAP: A plastic and webbing binding.
EXAMPLES: New Classic, Flexlock.
PROS: Surprisingly, the fastest binding system around as, all you do is step on to the crampon and do up the strap-like you would other binding types (no locating or clipping involved). The strap can also be pre-threaded through most of the binding to save more time. Once on, the crampons can’t pop and are extremely simple and user friendly (they are popular on high altitude boots for this reason), fitting on to anything from full expedition boots to sandals (no welts required).
CONS: Less solid in the heel, meaning they aren’t great for steep climbing.
SUMMARY: A great winter walking, trekking and expedition binding.
SIDELOCK SYSTEMS: A mutated hybrid, with a wire bail at the back and a strap at the front.
EXAMPLES: Petzl Charlet Sidelock and Spiralock
PROS: Although quite a departure from tradition, these two types of binding are excellent, with the Spiralock offering the best of both a hybrid (fast, secure and simple) with a strap (lightweight and no bulk at the heel) and the Sidelock offering a low bulk alternative to step-in. The crampon is put on in reverse, locating the heel first, and once mastered it’s very easy to work.
CONS: None as far as I can see.
SUMMARY: Although only featured on Petzl Charlet crampons at the moment I think these two systems will soon spread to other manufacturers’ models and I hope they will start a whole new phase in binding development.
CRAMPON SURVIVAL KIT
So what do you do if your bail breaks halfway up the Abruzzi Ridge, or your extension snaps the moment you touch down in Antarctica? The answer is, of course, you bodge it.
In your tiny spares kit you should always carry on long trips you should have two short 4mm bolts with nuts and washers that will fit into the adjustment holes on your crampon (frame or extension bar) and a metre of 4mm perlon, or better still, Dyneema cord (Marlow Excel racing cord) and some thick zip ties. If your extension frame breaks, as long as you have two holes left to extend it by, you will be able to repair it (it will almost definitely break across the holes). Just remove it and bolt the two pieces back together using the two bolts. If the plate can’t be mended then you can cobble together a makeshift bar with the Dyneema, looping it between the two parts to form a flexible link, twisting the cord to shorten the length until you can achieve a good fit. If the bail fails (either breaks or is lost) then use the Dyneema cord to make a replacement bail, threading it through holes that should be close to the missing or broken bail, to form a front strap through which you can thread the main ankle strap. This may sound like it won’t be strong enough but there is actually very little strain on the front of the crampon binding and it should be good enough to see you off your route. If you don’t have any cord you can also use a sling or abseil cord as a substitute.