Paul Lewis is a mountaineering instructor with a fetish for metal spikes. Here he stomps his way through a selection of crampons, showing us the different types available and how to look after our equipment. Need some crampon advice? Ask Paul!
The year 1929:
Laurent Grivel, a blacksmith from Courmayeur, takes his new 12-point crampon design into the Dragon's Den..............
"So lets be clear about this Grivel," says Theo Paphitis. "You strap these spikes to your feet and they allow you to walk safely on snow and ice?"
"Si, si, si signore Paphitis," replies Grivel. "Crampiones allow alpinistas to walk securely on snow and ice and climb the icefalls de glace, no."
"Look Grivel. I have hundreds of health clubs and know more than a thing or two about the leisure market," Duncan Bannatyne retorts. "The bottom line for me is who in their right mind is going to buy them?"
"Ah, signore. Les grimping and les walking de montagne is amongst the fastest growing sports in Europe. Within 100 years millions of people will be buying my crampiones and we will all be tres rich."
Peter Jones, who has been fiddling with the prototype crampons in the corner of the den during the whole discussion, suddenly bursts into life. "Grivel, I was very interested in your design but you blew it with your ridiculous projections for sales over the coming decades. You've lost all credibility and I know I speak for all the dragons when I say.....we're out!"
Grivel picks up his crampons and heads out of the den with his head hung low.
The present day:
You guessed it. How right Grivel was. Crampons have now become an essential winter tool for millions of hillwalkers, climbers and alpinists. They sure would have been a good investment for those hard to please dragons – although they may have thought a return spread over 75 years was stretching their investment somewhat!
So, after the usual long, rambling, and not very relevant introduction, you may have guessed that this article is about choosing your spikes. Over the years I've used crampon models from Salewa, DMM, Black Diamond, Charlet Moser, Grivel and Petzl - and the reality is that you won't go far wrong with the offerings from any of the main manufacturers. What it comes down too is which model best suits your requirements (and boots). This article aims to give you the information needed to make an informed choice when you visit your local 'shiny kit is us' emporium..........
Way back when:
As early as the16th century, crampons made from horseshoe nails fastened to a wooden or metal frame used by shepherds in the Alps. Then, in the early 1900's, Oscar Eckenstein produced a 10-point design that Henry Grivel manufactured for him. Finally, a few decades later, Laurent Grivel (Henry's son) added the 2 forward facing front points and we got close to the crampons we are now familiar with. There have been changes to the binding systems and the introduction of different base plates and materials, but the key elements of Grivel's design have certainly stood the test of time.
The main issues when choosing crampons are to make sure the ones you select are compatible with the boots you are going to use them with, and that they are suitable for their intended use. The trouble is there are now lots of variations on the theme and a visit to your local outdoor shop might leave you with more questions than answers (although a chat with the knowledgeable shop assistant will hopefully help answer many of these).
Fortunately, some years ago, Brian Hall produced a simple compatibility system that made everyone's life far easier. His system splits crampon styles into 3 categories:
|Crampon type||Key crampon features|
And boot styles into 4 categories:
|Boot type||Key boot features|
These compatibility charts certainly make it easier to choose the right crampons but, as always, there are some other things to consider.
Firstly, the binding system options need a little elaboration. There was a time when the main choices were a strap or ski style wire binding set up. Now there are various options.
The use of a plastic cage system at the front and rear (joined by a strap) is common for C1 crammies and this is certainly the system I favour. It is far easier and quicker to put on and take off than crampons with a full strap system, is unlikely to come undone and, most importantly, holds the crampon to the boot securely.
For C2 spikes a front plastic toe bale and quick release wire rear binding has become very popular. Providing your boot has a pronounced heel welt and the sole is stiff enough to ensure a firm fitting that won't work loose, this is a great option.
C3 crampons usually have a full front and rear wire bale system which works great with C3 boots as they have a fully stiffened sole and a well defined front and rear welt. The problem with this system in the past was that the front bale could jump off (usually when you were front pointing) but most manufacturers now get around this by having a strap that runs between the front and rear bale – a very wise back up! Some C3's use the front plastic bale and rear heel clip which works really well too.
An interesting recent development that's worth a mention is the GSB binding system designed as a collaboration between Scarpa (boot manufacturers) and Grivel. Certain Scarpa boots have a slot built into the toe welt that will accept the toe lug fitted on GSB crampons, thus allowing a snug fit with very little bulk around the toe. I haven't tried this system and in truth I probably won't. The main drawbacks I can see are that your boots and crampons have to be 'matched' to ensure compatibility plus the GSB boot welt slot looks like it would easily get blocked with small stones or ice and that would leave you with no crampons – but it might work brilliantly?!
You can also buy alloy crampons that are very light, but designed for occasional use by lightweight addicts like ski tourers. I was once given a pair of 'long lasting' alloys to test and by the end of one traverse of the Aonach Eagach ridge they were just metal stumps.
Base plate systems
The other big factor that varies with different crampon types is the configuration of the base plate(s). C1 and C2 crampons will normally have a toe and heel section that is joined by a metal bar. This bar allows some articulation and the movement it provides will make the crampons suitable for a wider range of boot sole stiffnesses and make the frames less vulnerable to metal fatigue. This is especially important if you are walking a lot wearing them.
C3 crampons often have a fully rigid base plate that is well suited to technical ice climbing but isn't suited to walking far (as there is no flexibility in the frame) and they are generally fairly heavy. Often C3's also allow different front point configurations such as mono points or stubby mixed climbing front points to be fitted (but the use of those is well and truly beyond the scope of this article!).
Making sure your crampons are well fitted to your boots is vital and it's worth taking the time to get this well sorted when you set them up with your boots. I don't propose to go into detail about this here as the instructions that come with them will be more than sufficient. The golden rules to remember are that the crampon should be a snug fit around your boot sole and there should be no movement in the system when they are tightened up.
If there is any doubt about fitting the crampons to your boots it is well worth taking your boots into your local climbing shop and try them out with the crampons there before you buy them. Any climbing shop worth its salt will happily spend time sorting the fit out with you (but it would be better to go in the shop on a quiet midweek day rather than expecting help on a busy Saturday!).
In my opinion anti-balling plates are vital with crampons. Although some models 'ball up' more than others, the reality is that they all ball up to some extent (how much they do this also depends on the type of snow), and having large balls of snow welded to the bottom of your feet is obviously a major danger! Many models now come with anti-balling plates included in the price so there really is no excuse for not having some! For me the stand out design at the moment is the plates that come with Grivel crampons. These feature a 'bubble' that gets compressed when you take a step and effectively flicks the snow off the base but I've also seen Heath Robinson style jobs made from duct tape that do the job very well too!
Carrying your spikes
Your rucksack probably came with some neat bungy cord or strap attachment points for your crampons – my advice is to completely ignore them! It's far better to store your spikes in a crampon bag inside your rucksack where they won't catch on things or fall off. An alternative to storage bags is those little rubber crampon protectors that cover each spike but, although they do the job, they are very fiddly to get back on once removed (especially with cold fingers!).
Caring for your spikes
Crampons are amazingly durable given the abuse they are constantly subjected too. However, because they have such a hard time it's important to give them some TLC. Inspection of their moving parts, fabric strapping, nuts, bolts and rivets, binding system and the metal frame and points should be done on a regular basis – far better to deal with it in the comfort of your living room than on the summit of Stob Ban!
Most crammies come with very sharp spikes and whether you need to keep them that sharp once they start to get worn really depends what you are using them for. If you're using them for general hillwalking and mountaineering you can run them a little blunter without adversely affecting their performance, where as if you are putting up a new uber ice route you will want those babies to slice into that delicate ice with the minimum of fracturing. Either way, at some point you are going to need to sharpen them and a hand file is the way to go. Don't use an electric grinder as it can affect the temper of the metal. It's also better to hold them in place with a clamp or vice rather than honing them over the leather back seat of a car en route to Scotland as I've known my mate Davy do!
Trouble is, even with regular inspections, crampons do break. Luckily it isn't very often but if it happens and you can't sort out the problem you are going to be hopping mad (get it?!). It is well worth carrying a simple repair kit to deal with the unexpected. I carry a long strap and buckle, multi tool with pliers and screwdriver, duct tape, a few long cable ties, a few suitably sized nuts and bolts and a length of durable bendy wire.
Most manufacturers make a wide range of crampons, from lightweight trekking models, through to super tough, super technical top of the range spikes.
The crampons featured in this article are from:
Paul Lewis is a mountaineering instructor and owner of mountain adventure and training specialists Peak Mountaineering. Paul offers a 15% discount on all courses for UKC users. Find out more at peakmountaineering.com or contact Paul on 0161 440 7065.