Last year's Black Diamond catalogue showed they were pretty pleased with their new Oz – we're not talking Australia here, we're talking ounces. At 27 grams or, you've guessed it, one ounce, it was ridiculously light for a full strength karabiner.
But of course the innovative force that is global capitalism was always going to rain on their parade and rain is something they know a lot about in Llanberis... so it was no surprise that DMM crept in with the Phantom, like the Oz, a three sigma rated wire-gate krab, but was a whole gram less in weight (26 grams) and a higher gate-open strength.
Just when people started wondering if biners could get any lighter – the Italians arrived. It is of course an unfair stereotype to say that Italians have a propensity to be flash show-offs, but CAMP really had something to shout about when they took the “world's lightest krab” record with the Nano 23. CAMP didn't just shave another gram, they knocked three off – I'm rubbish at maths but when we are only talking about 23 grams that's, umm... quite a significant percentage difference! But, so much for the smarty-pants engineering, of course the main questions is are they any good for actually going climbing with?
I haven't had chance to use the BD Oz, so can't make any comments on their usability. If anyone has them and has some thoughts please add them to thread. From the pictures you can see they have a gate shroud that neither the Phantom or the Nano 23 has. I think this is a bonus because gates can come open when the biner is pushed by the rope against the rock, and anything that resists this has got to be a good idea. At the same time the Oz has a gate open strength of 7kns, the same as the Nano 23, whilst the Phantom's is 9 kns. 7 kns seems now to be the minimum standard for gate open, and although stories about krab failure aren't common, of those that you do hear about most seem to likely have been caused by the gate coming open. Therefore the higher the gate open strength the better in my book, and virtually all the biners on my rack have 9 or 10 kn ratings for that reason.
Originally krabs were all cold forged – a bar of alloy was taken, cut and then bent into a karabiner shape, then the gate was added. Then hot forging started being used – the metal is heated until soft where upon it is stamped to move metal away from unnecessary parts of the biner to areas where more material creates strength. What hot forging allows is more complex shapes and lower weights because metal is only where it is needed. But hot forging is not new – I have some HB Hilites from the early 90s which were amongst the first to use this technique – so by the start of this decade lots of companies made krabs with similar strengths that all weighed about the same.
The first krab to buck this trend was the BD Neutrino – a strong biner but that was lighter than all the competition simply by being smaller than the perceived 'normal' size. I've used Neutrinos for years and they are great krabs but at least on my quickdraws I use them now only on the gear end, with the bigger – but heavier – BD Hotwires on the rope end. I wouldn't say Neutrinos are hard to clip, they just aren't as easy as slightly bigger krabs.
I've done similar with my DMM 'draws – they have the narrow Prowires to clip the gear and the wider opening Spectres for the rope end. Both the Nano 23s and the Phantoms are small, the Nanos being slightly smaller than the Phantoms. For my hands, short fingers but biggish palms, the Nano 23s are getting towards what I think is the bottom limit of usable size. I can clip them OK, but its not as easy as a 'full size' wire-gate like the Spectres or Hotwires. If you have small hands I guess this isn't so much of an issue.
The size of the Phantoms isn't that much greater, and maybe it's just because I have had them longer and became used to them, but they feel easier to clip. I used them all through the winter whilst ice climbing and they were fine with my normal softshell climbing gloves, although unsurprisingly quite a lot less so once you have your belay mitts on! The gate design on the Phantoms is slightly more complex with the nose-end of the wire-gate narrowing down. On one of my Phantoms, which may well have got squashed somehow, this actually rubs slightly against the edge of the nose – not a problem when you let the gate close from wide open, where it will snap shut, but if you let the gate close slowly with your finger, there is actually enough friction to stop the gate from going right to front of the nose-notch. The Nano 23 has the classic 'paper clip' style gate and is wider at the nose-end of the gate so there is not the same issue.
Of the two krabs, my preference is for the Phantom:
The 3 Sigma rating is confidence inspiring and it could well be the I-beam forging style that makes its feel slightly better to handle at least in my sweaty palms. I can live with the 3 grams difference in weight of the Nano 23s. For those with smaller hand the CAMP biners might be fine, and even for me they are the ultimate accessory and racking krabs, adding virtually no weight to your rack but still giving you the assurance of having some extra full strength krabs for those mega-pitches where you end up using every krab on your harness.
Overall, I feel both the Nano 23s and the Phantoms are slightly specialist gear – more likely to be bought by experienced climbers who already have a full rack but are looking extra krabs for big and complex routes where simply lots of gear is needed to keep you safe, or for those who want an ultra-lightweight rack for alpinism or big winter routes. You could of course use either model for general cragging or sport climbing, but I think all but those with the smallest hands might be willing to have a slightly bigger biner, at least at the rope end, for their general quickdraws and accept the weight penalty.
Considering even the slightly heavier Phantom is still half the weight of many of the krabs we used ten years ago, the leap forward in engineering made by both CAMP and DMM with these krabs is remarkable. If you understand the limitation of the slightly smaller size of these biners and are willing to trade that for the weight saving, then either are great bits of gear.
Go for the Phantoms if you want greater strength and slightly better ergonomics at a still ridiculously low weight, or the Nano 23s if you just want the absolutely lightest full-strength krabs on the market.
- Read more about the DMM Phantoms on the DMM Website
- Read more about CAMP Nano 23s on the CAMP Website
Toby Archer, based in Finland, works as a researcher specialising in terrorism and political Islam for an international affairs think-tank. "Climbing keeps me from getting too depressed by these sort of things." He blogs about both at Light from the North. He is part of the UKClimbing.com Gear Review Team. His comment on the US presidential elections was "My 2.5 yr-old son has insisted that he wants a go wearing my "Obama-Biden 08" badge. My wife has now got him shouting "yes we can!" and I think I am about to explode with pride at the overall cuteness of it all!"