Viv Scott reviews Black Diamond's 'Ultra Distance' carbon fibre folding trekking poles. The 3-section Z-Pole design features a coated inner cord, a single push-button release, and a 'speed cone deployment', which aligns like an avalanche probe for increased rigidity.
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Over the last decade or so trekking poles have become increasingly commonplace equipment for many hill-goers, resulting in countless pairs of thankful knees (mine included). Poles are now available in myriad different formats, from cheap and cheerful to sophisticated ergonomic and shock absorbing devices to ones designed to complement particular activities, such as ski touring. With 'light is right' as the new mantra, it's no surprise that pole makers have looked to shed the grams, and here I take a look at Black Diamond's featherweight option - the Ultra Distance poles.
I found the Ultra Distance poles a technical masterpiece of simple design. Carbon fibre is an obvious choice to achieve minimum weight. A comfy simple foam grip with a minimal but effective wrist loop tops the poles, while the bottom sports an interchangeable tip giving a choice between tungsten or rubber as needed.
By sacrificing the ability to adjust the length, instead making then available in four different fixed lengths (100cm, 110cm, 120cm, 130cm), Black Diamond have done away with the need for multiple clips holding the segments together, and instead used a central wire attached to the handle. One quick pull snaps the poles together with a single spring loaded clip locking the pole - a process of literally a few seconds.
Collapsing the poles is almost as quick - all it requires is to release the single clip and pull the segments apart. This 'loss' of adjustability - while I imagine might possibly be an issue if poles are shared between people of different heights - I didn't find to be a problem at all. The foam grip extends down far enough to enable a slightly lower grip for going up steep ground, and in fact it was quite nice to not have to measure out the poles - invariably ending up with one longer than the other - as with traditional adjustable models.
Collapsing a Black Diamond trekking pole with 'Z-Pole' technology:
So how do they perform?
Starting with the obvious, at 270ish grams the Ultra Distance poles are ridiculously (virtually unnoticeably) light, and additionally extremely compact when packed away. To this end, for me at least, they offer a best of both worlds option for the dilemma of climbing/mountain routes where poles would be a blessing for approach/descent - but the additional weight and bulk for the route itself is hard to justify overall.
As an example, the Ultra Distance were light enough for inclusion in a minimal pack for a recent one day Cuillin Ridge traverse - and a very welcome respite for tired knees on the long descent from Sgurr nan Gilllian at the end of the day. In a similar vein, super light poles such as these offer an attractive option for long climbing routes involving arduous but different approaches and descents, such as big technical alpine faces like those of the Grandes Jorrasses or Italian side of Mont Blanc.
"...Light enough for a one day Cuillin Ridge traverse - and welcome respite for tired knees on the descent from Sgurr nan Gilllian at the end of the day..."
The other role I found they shone in is long distance trail/hill running - giving extra support on steep ups and downs, with little weight penalty. As an added bonus, I found the Ultra Distance poles a good bit more flexible - absorbing shocks and reducing jarring much better than (unsprung) aluminium poles. To this end, I also suspect they would work brilliantly for long distance trekking, saving both knees and elbows.
So, are there any downsides?
First off ... the price. A recommended retail of £120 (though offered for a bit less by some retailers) isn't exactly budget, and is around double the cost of Black Diamond's (and other manufacturers' equivalent) basic aluminium trekking poles, though there's no shortage of more sophisticated shock absorbing etc. models also exceeding the £100 mark. Second, while their featherweight in some ways makes them highly versatile - see above, they are inevitably less robust than their aluminium counterparts which does limit their usage.
While I have taken the Ultra Distance out in winter, they take some care as they're not tough enough to take much bashing through snowdrifts, or being trapped and twisted between snow-buried boulders, and can't be fitted with snow-baskets. Similarly, aluminium trekking poles are used by many (myself included) for skiing, but I doubt the Ultra Distance would survive the rough and tumble for long.
All of which poses the question - are they worth it? Due to the materials and design super lightweight kit often has a premium attached, and the Ultra Distance poles are certainly a very tempting option for long distance trail running and racing, or for shaving grams in the big mountains. That said, for more general use I'd be inclined to stick with their cheaper and tougher aluminimum counterparts like the excellent Black Diamond Trail pole.
State of the art superbly designed featherlight trekking poles - but at a price. Brilliant for long distance trail and hill running, or approaching, carrying up, and then descending from big routes, but not robust enough for UK winter climbing use or skiing.
About Viv Scott
I've been climbing for a bit over ten years, and am currently based in Edinburgh having escaped from the southern flatlands. Climbing highs include Scottish winter climbing, a couple of trips to the Alaska Range, classic alpine routes, sunny ski touring, cragging in the UK and abroad, and beers and craic in the pub afterwards. Lows include Scottish winter climbing, alpine bivies, base camp blues, midges and the UK weather... I guess I'd like to be a jack of all trades and I'm definitely a master of none, but most enjoy the great variety of climbing and look forward to trips back to old favourites and hopefully many new and different places.
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