Are alloy crampons up to the job?
30 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
A set of alloy crampons is perhaps the most amazingly lightweight product you will ever hold in your hands, in so far that when you pick them up it’s hard to believe that there is actually anything there. The first thing that strikes you is that unlike a standard pair of steel crampons these chunky silver crampons don’t seem to weigh anything, which generally leads you to write them off as being of no use for climbing, or in fact that they’re made from plastic and just for display purposes only.
An alloy crampon is generally 50% lighter than its steel counterpart, and over the last few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of models on the market – produced by the likes of Camp, Black Diamond and Grivel, which has pushed them from their position as very specialist ski mountaineering or race product into the radar of mainstream users. But the big question on everyone’s minds is are they up to the job?
First of it’s obvious that aluminium is softer than steel, meaning that these crampons will dull faster when used on hard surfaces, accelerating wear if used on anything but snow, neve and short sections of rock and ice. They also require more thickness in order to achieve an adequate strength: which makes them chunkier, giving them less penetration on hard ice. The points themselves are also more prone to damage if overloaded, meaning they aren’t suitable for mixed abuse, such as repeatedly placing all your weight on one front point, or bashing around down through rocks and talus day after day. In fact, these crampons are not really designed for intensive use like steel crampons – which can be worn for months before they have to be retired, but are more of high-performance crampons for particular climbs or objectives.
What they are designed for is snow climbing, and travel on classic alpine terrain. They can be used for the odd bit of rock climbing (being alloy they actually work really well on rock), and low angle ice (you may need to cut steps if the ice is really hard), but generally they are designed for anything from soft snow to squeaky neve. I know of some climbers who’ve climbed some impressive routes in their alloy crampons, and if you know their limitations this is possible, but for most users, this type of crampon works best when the angle is low and the groundless then bulletproof.
The beauty of the alloy crampon is of course its low weight and is ideal for those situations where you either need to keep weight low on low technical ground (you’ll save between 400 grams to 600 grams), or when a crampon is only needed for an approach and descent, and they have proved very popular on big alpine rock climbs.
If you want climbing performance but with less weight then a good option is to mate the front section of a steel crampon with an alloy rear section (this assumes you’ve bought an alloy crampon for less technical climbing, and it’s the same brand as your climbing crampons). For example, this could be a Grivel Airtech mated with an Airtech light, or a Black Diamond Sabretooth matched to a Neve rear. Of course, doing this lowers the overall strength of the crampon, but for some, this could prove a good way to get the best of both worlds.
So are they worth buying? Well like all gear of this type it depends how important that weight saving is, and whether you’re willing to pay the difference. Most climbers will have standard 12 point general crampons (G12, Vasak, Sabre Tooth’s), which will weigh around 1kg, and if they want something lighter they must choose between 10 point steel crampons or alloy. Personally, if I wanted something lighter than my 12 points then going down to a 10 point steel crampon seems pretty pointless as I’d only be saving around 200 grams, whereas I might as well go the whole hog and go for the alloy models, and just make sure I didn’t get too carried away end push them to far. If I was climbing classic snow peaks – especially those with very long approaches, or rock climbs with snow or glacial approaches, then I’d defiantly use a pair of alloy crampons, and I think they’d excel on long alpine rock routes and ridges, as they weight nothing when stuffed in his sack when climbing in your boots, yet provide enough security when climbing to and from the climbs, plus they will cope with verglas and the odd snow pitch. Another bonus is if you buy a strap style crampon, then you can fit them to any shoe in an emergency, including B0 footwear like light alpine boots, approach shoes or even rock boots.
At the moment the three best alloy crampons on the market are the Grivel Airtech light (£90/ New classic 596 grams, Newmatic 666 grams, weight includes 108 gram anti-bot plate), Camp XCL 470 (£85/470 grams) and new Black Diamond Neve (£80/600 grams).