REVIEW: DMM Switch Ice Axes£400 (Pair), added Mar/2014, see all DMM news & reviews
Reviewed by Toby Archer
If you want to know what the DMM Switches can do, don’t read this, just go to Nick Bullock’s excellent blog and look at his pictures. Read the words too, they are also great, but the pictures alone will be enough to show exactly the kind of craziness the DMM Switches can get you into if you are talented enough.
Grades IX, WI6 and “Slawinski M7++”! Stanley Headwall, Creag an Dubh Loch, Beinn Eighe, Carn Dearg. Nemesis, Man Yoga, Centurion, Extasy. All numbers, places and names to spark fear and fire in the heart of anyone who loves winter climbing. And you can see Nick pulling on his Switches in the photos from all of those routes. If they work for him, they obviously work - so what can I add?Well, not all of us are as strong as a bullock or as talented as a Bullock. Are the DMM Switches any good for those of us with slightly lower ambitions and smaller biceps?
I've now had the chance to do plenty of ice climbs with the tools, but the terrible start to the season, if nothing else, got me out mixed climbing on the Switches too – some pure dry tooling and some more like Scottish mixed.
Up to this winter, I was one of the dying breed of climbers still using wrist loops occasionally. I guess I climb leashless about 90% of the time and accept all the advantages except for the “it's easier on hard stuff” one! Leading steep ice I can still climb better with wrist loops clipped in, just as I prefer to hang from a hand-jam than from a jug on steep rock. So, for me, a prime attraction of the Switches is the quality of their handles: grippy even when wet or snowy and with big supporting 'hooks' below the lower and upper hand position.
I can't claim they have miraculously made me a better climber, but they are as good to hang from as any other tool I've tried and better than many.
They work well with both thin gloves and bulky ones – being much bigger than, for example, the lower hook on the Fusion II. These hand supports are also made of metal that is part of the rest of the tool, so should be stronger than plastic add-on hooks that some other tools use. I can see from the scrapes on them the battering they take.
DMM also provides some self-amalgamating tape with the tools, allowing you to wrap the shaft of the upper hand position. This works very well – the tape is grippier and warmer to hold than the naked shaft.
DMM have designed the Switch for hard climbing and it is on steep ice and mixed that they are in their element.
If you can say anything against them for difficult climbing it is their weight. At 736 grams (on my post scales – a bit more than DMM state) the Switches are not light. Some of their competitors are 100 grams lighter per tool. The weight does of course put momentum into their swing, but then it is also more mass to be waving around above your head all day.
Most of the time, climbing within my limits, I didn't notice the weight – rather it gives the swing of the Switch a nice 'punch' – but on sustained narrow vertical columns, ground too hard for me to lead, I could definitely notice the weight as I battled to swing accurately and efficiently to get the next placement, racing the pump on the locked-off lower arm.
Speaking about the weight, the guys at DMM had this to say:
"The underlying requirement was to make a set of tools that offer exceptional performance and are built to withstand the rigours of modern climbing by being ‘bombproof’ - sturdy, strong and dependable.
"DMM have engineered the light, balanced, and supremely strong ‘T Rated Integrity Construction’ method using high quality materials, full strength, T Rated components throughout and bonded, double riveted component interfaces. We have encased the CNC'd handles with a highly insulated, durable, grippy, fully integrated moulding."
You can lighten the tools up a little; there are removable head weights, which save just over 40 grams per tool, but at the cost of a little of that 'punch'. If you don't want to climb sustained vertical ice (or hard mixed), I'm not convinced the Switch is the optimal tool. The angle of the lower handle is important here - compare it to the more classic straight handle of the Switch’s sister tool, the Apex, and you can see how it lets your hand hold the tool at a slightly more relaxed angle in the wrist. This is particularly noticeable once you are on ice that is vertical, promoting a natural pull down through the placement. But on lower angle ice I’ve come to the conclusion that the Switch (like other similar offset double handled tools) have tendency to place with the lower handle further out from ice than would happen with non-offset handled tools.
I climbed some routes with a Switch in one hand and a Black Diamond Viper in the other and this made such differences apparent. When the tool is placed like this you have to then be careful to not pull outwards on the placement, rather than just down through the placement as you should.
Once aware of this, three solutions become apparent; firstly, flick the wrist more to get a better placement. The second is to swing the tool from upper hand position when on easy ice or steep snow, something I’ve noticed other climbers with tools like Fusions and Nomics doing. The third option is of course, the infamous Velominati rule no. 5; just climb steeper ice!
Something similar is true of the head shape as well. The radical curve of the tool is fantastic for reaching over and hooking funky ice features or on mixed ground, but on easier stepped ice, when you strike for the concave (and hence non-stressed ice) at the back of a bulge you need to ensure the curve of the shaft doesn’t push the head into the steep ice above where you are aiming for, fouling your placement. This really needs a photo to explain (see photo on right) but results from the curve of the shaft and the shape of the tool’s head.
So, overall, whilst you can climb, say, 60 degree ice with the Switches, the tool is more in its natural environment on steeper climbs.
Other similar radically curved tools have more ‘cut-away’ head shapes than the Switch, which may make this less of an issue, but then the Switches are rather comfy in the hand when you are holding them piolet canne. None of these issues are insurmountable – with practice you learn the best way to use the tool on more moderate ice and once on steep ice they become none issues.
The Switches do come with an adze and hammer, but again due to the curve of the shaft, they are not easy to use. I couldn't really find a very comfortable place on the shaft to hold whilst hammering bulldogs in or out and I see why some North American climbers carry separate peg hammers when climbing trad-mixed with radically curved tools.
For mixed climbing the Switches are also great. They seem to happily take all the abuse of being hooked over flakes, twisted into torques and hung on when stein-pulling. Mine have got well scratched up but the damage appears only cosmetic.
The picks (I've just used the ice picks they came with but mixed picks are available) will blunt from lots of use of course, but that's not a criticism. Keep them sharp and they seem grippy and predictable on even small flatties.
When hand swapping you'll need to shoulder-hook or thumb-hook the spare tool: the shaft of the Switch is too thick to go in my mouth. I don't consider that a problem – having an ice tool in your mouth has never looked the best plan to me anyway – but some people climbing mixed do seem to like holding a tool in their mouths.
They also do not have a spike at the bottom of the shaft – an understandable choice when you are eyeballing the bottom of your tool and pulling hard on a bad placement! The rounded base piece (easy to attach bungee leashes to) does protect the end of the tool though and goes into hard snow okay, but it can skate on ice.
Overall, the Switches are well designed and appear to be super-strong tools for the hardest routes, whether ice or mixed. They have huge clearance and stable hand positions allied to easy to grip handles.
Would I recommend them to some one climbing mid-grade routes? You can climb mid-grade ice with them without any great drama but you may need adjust your swing and where you aim due to the very curved shafts, particularly if coming from mid-curved tools like Flys, Vipers or Quarks. If you think it is unlikely that you will be climbing harder than V or WI4, then a more general technical tool like those just noted (or perhaps the DMM Apex) could be a better choice, particularly if you are mountaineering with them and want a 'proper' spike at the bottom. But if your ambitions include plumb vertical ice, freaky wind-formed cauliflowers, over-hanging hoared-up rock and the most tenuous of turfy seams and cracks – and you have the biceps and shoulders for that – then the DMM Switches will have you future-proofed for climbing as hard as you can and dare.
Each part of the Switch has been extensively refined through a rigorous design and testing programme. The result is a sophisticated ice tool that we are very proud of and one which we know will delight winter climbers and alpinists.
The Switch feels great in the hand and has a perfectly balanced swinging action. The bevelled off pick weights add extra ‘punch’ for penetrating bullet hard ice. On mixed routes they also help the head to stick in rattley torques. You can of course remove the weights and customise the balance of the Switch to suit your own preference.
This is an extremely stable tool which gives exceptional performance on ice, frozen turf or rock. We have incorporated a very specific, subtle bend in the shaft to match the geometry of the hand grip. This element of micro design helps to maintain minimal pick shift. The bend of the shaft also gives excellent clearance when reaching around bulges or ice cauliflowers.
The Switch has a highly insulated, ergonomic handle with full strength upper and lower rests. The handle has a very comfortable shape and the moulded rubber grip makes it easy to hang on to, even when you’re really pumped. Hand switch moves are easy, and the front and back support for the top grip position give extra stability for reachy moves.
- PRICE: RRP £400 (Pair)
- WEIGHT: 722g (Adze with pick weghts)
- MORE INFO: DMM Website
About Toby Archer
Toby is based in Finland. He describes himself as: "a writer and researcher specialising in international security politics; finally no longer a PhD student; hopeless but enthusiastic climber; part-time gear reviewer; keen multi-role cyclist; idealist and cynic"
Climbing keeps him from getting too depressed about politics. He blogs about both at:
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