UKC

DMM Spire and Spire Tech axes Review

© Dan Bailey

Light yet solid; simple but effective - DMM's new Spire walking axe and Spire Tech mountaineering axe may not set out to win awards for innovation, but they very competently get the job done. You can spend rather a lot on a fancy axe these days. While I understand the urge to get 'the best', and I'm sad enough to covet a shiny axe as much as the next anorak, I'd say these models from DMM are proof that less showy quality and functionality don't necessarily need to cost a lot. Most of us will be tightening our belts this year, but in the case of the Spire and Spire Tech, that needn't mean compromising on the essentials. Both are superb value for money.

Using the Spire Tech on Liathach  © Dan Bailey
Using the Spire Tech on Liathach
© Dan Bailey

I've had these axes for only the tail end of winter, making this a short-term test compared to many that we publish. While I can't directly speak to their longevity, I've seen enough axes to be confident that they're built to last. They certainly feel robust for their truly modest weight.

Spire - £64.99

A solid walkers' axe at a very reasonable price, the Spire is everything you'd need for less technical uses such as classic alpine snow plods or winter Munros. There is nothing remotely flash about it, but then there doesn't need to be. While it's not a desirable designer model such as the Black Diamond Raven or Raven Pro, it does the same job with less fanfare, and for less money.

Winter Munros, the Spire's natural stomping ground  © Dan Bailey
Winter Munros, the Spire's natural stomping ground
© Dan Bailey

Weight and use

At just 353g for my 55cm axe the Spire counts as lightweight, and if not in the realms of ultralight ski mountaineering type specialist axes on the market it is certainly light enough for most of us. Its lightness is a positive advantage for uses such as backpacking, winter running, or general ski touring, where an over-heavy mountaineering axe would typically be wasted extra weight; but this lightness is not bought at the expense of either durability or functionality. This is a decent knock-about model that should take years of Scottish winter hillwalking abuse, and unlike most of the real weight savers out there it's clearly not something to handle with particular care. There's enough heft in it for a solid swing, too, and to do decent honest axe work like cutting steps.

Rating

The Spire is a Type 1 axe, as per the new two-tier system. The familiar B and T ratings for axe strength have been superseded by EN Ratings Type 1 and Type 2. Both these classifications have the same requirement for the shaft strength test, and the shaft of either type of axe is rated for incorporating into an axe belay. Type 1 are standard walking and mountaineering axes, while Type 2 models for technical climbing are subjected to more rigorous testing of the pick and head, designed to simulate the higher forces exerted when mixed climbing (torqueing etc). You won't be doing any of that with this model.

It's a really decent, well made-axe, especially for the price  © Dan Bailey
It's a really decent, well made-axe, especially for the price
© Dan Bailey

Good for backpacking and other weight-conscious uses  © Dan Bailey
Good for backpacking and other weight-conscious uses
© Dan Bailey

Design

I've said it's simple, and there really isn't much to it. The key thing is that in use it feels light and well balanced in the hand, swings fine, chops well, and sticks reassuringly in hard snow and ice - all the basics covered, in other words.

Made of lightweight anodised aluminium oval tubing, the straight shaft is just the right diameter to comfortably hold, and though it features no grippy handle or griprest, this really isn't necessary in an axe that you'll mostly be walking with, and rarely waving around in 'climbing' mode.

The steel alloy pick's moderate angle is not too aggressive for reliable axe braking, but the teeth seem to have plenty of bite in ice or neve when called for. The adze is large enough to actually do the job, and very sharp too. I've cut steps with it (a genuine need, not just for the sake of the review) and it works well. Rather than the sexy all-in-one investment casting of Black Diamond's Raven, the head of the Spire feels quite basic and old school, but while it lacks the refined ergonomics of the Raven I still find it comfy to carry all day. Well, when you're wearing thick gloves anyway you don't perhaps really need an elaborately rounded head shape.

The pick and adze are simple but effective  © Dan Bailey
The pick and adze are simple but effective
© Dan Bailey

Cut-outs save weight, and there's a hole on the head big enough to thread or clip a leash (some walkers might still prefer to, though I'd say the fashion for leashless makes sense when walking as well as climbing). While the pick is non-replaceable, I don't think that matters on a walking axe. If you want modularity or the option to replace a broken pick, look at a full mountaineering axe such as DMM's excellent (if weighty) Raptor.

The spike is very pointy (watch out), and also features a hole big enough for a leash (not that you'd ever be likely to attach this particular axe that way). Both the spike and the head are single-riveted to the shaft, a more straightforwardly reliable way to attach them than some brands have used (not without issue in all cases).

Not a particularly refined head design, but in the hand that doesn't seem to matter  © Dan Bailey
Not a particularly refined head design, but in the hand that doesn't seem to matter
© Dan Bailey

Lengths

The Spire is available in a number of lengths:

  • 55cm
  • 60cm
  • 65cm
  • 75cm

I've been using the 55cm version, and while I'm relatively tall at 1.83m, and perhaps ideally 60cm would have suited me better, I do find this shortest length of the Spire a decent size for winter walking. 

The old adage about choosing a walking axe that's long enough to poke yourself in the ankle with a straight arm (or some such) is not one I personally endorse. The longer the axe, the more cumbersome to wield in 'climbing mode' (ie holding by the shaft and swinging the head), the harder it is to brake with, and the less neatly it stows on a pack. While it's necessary to have something long enough to use in piolet canne - or walking stick - mode, I find this is only a consideration when the slope steepens, at which point a shorter axe is actually better in the uphill hand than an old fashioned alpenstock as long as your leg. On easier angled slopes where the spike of a shorter axe doesn't reach the ground, I'd generally carry one pole for balance, with the axe in my other hand for emergency use. I imagine the 75cm Spire is a bit of a monster, and perhaps DMM brought this out to please traditionalists; then again, Black Diamond make some even longer.

DMM say:

Tough enough to deal with the demands of modern winter mountaineering, yet light enough for general walking and ski touring. Optimised lightweight tubing and a complete re-design have struck a fine balance that means it carries without effort yet can penetrate ice and cut steps when required.

55cm - 352g

60cm - 366g

65cm - 380g

75cm - 409g

For more info see dmmwales.com

Spire Tech - £89.99

As the name suggests, this is the more climbing-oriented of the two. While the design is well suited to general alpine and Scottish winter mountaineering, it's not so radical or technical that the Spire Tech is compromised on less steep ground, and it isn't for instance too aggressive for easy axe braking (insofar as it's ever easy). This is a really competent general purpose model, and if you wanted to buy just one axe to cover everything from Munro-ing, through to grade I snow gullies or classic grade II ridges, then it would be hard to go wrong here. Light enough for ski touring, mountaineering on big peaks, or Alpine hut-to-hut journeys, it's still got enough heft to penetrate hard ice, and to inspire a bit of confidence. For a model in this semi-techy niche, the price is highly competitive too.

Simple, light and well-balanced: it's a great wee axe for classic mountaineering  © Dan Bailey
Simple, light and well-balanced: it's a great wee axe for classic mountaineering
© Dan Bailey

With its thoughtful, unflashy design, the Spire Tech is a really nice axe to use. I think it's a bit of a winner all round.

Weight and feel

My review axe, a 50cm version, weighs just 340g. This is really not a lot for a mountaineering axe with some climbing ability, and for a brand that has historically built some cracking axes, but not many that you could call remotely light, the Spire Tech arguably represents something of a departure. For all that I love mine, DMM's own Raptor is a beast at a whopping 644g in 50cm length, whilst the Cirque - perhaps closer to the Spire Tech in remit - is 565g.

Some near-ish competitors to the Spire Tech are also a fair bit heavier - look at Petzl's Summit Evo (52cm = 400g), for instance, or the Black Diamond Swift (50cm = 487g). Both are quite desirable objects, while the Spire Tech is more functional than decorative; but with the potential exception of the Swift's sliding griprest, I don't imagine either offers a particular performance advantage. With a well-balanced swing, and sufficient mass in the head to penetrate hard ice, the Spire Tech feels capable and confidence inspiring on steeper or moderately technical ground. I have not yet missed the weight it doesn't have (if that makes sense), so for the uses it's intended for it seems the Spire Tech may have hit a light-yet-functional sweet spot. Why carry more weight than you have to?

It's light, but penetrates well  © Dan Bailey
It's light, but penetrates well
© Dan Bailey

Are the BD and Petzl's snazzy forged steel heads any stronger than DMM's rather simpler offering? I honestly can't say, though I suspect you'd be going some to blunt or break the pick of a Spire Tech. In terms of longevity - and this applies more to the Spire Tech than the Spire purely because of the harder treatment it's likely to get - my sole question concerns the use of little plastic bungs to close off the tubing of the shaft at both ends. Will these last? Only time will tell.

Rating

As with the Spire, the Spire Tech is a Type 1 axe according to the new standards, so while its shaft is rated to be incorporated into a buried axe belay should the need arise, the head and pick haven't been subjected to the more rigorous Type 2 testing designed to simulate the demanding forces exerted while mixed climbing. Of course I have no qualms using the Spire Tech on the easy grade mixed ground for which it was clearly designed. No one's going to be pulling off torques or stein pulls on the traverse of Aonach Eagach anyway.

The slight bend is more ergonomic on steep ground  © Dan Bailey
The slight bend is more ergonomic on steep ground
© Dan Bailey

The machined ridges give a marginally increased grip    © Dan Bailey
The machined ridges give a marginally increased grip
© Dan Bailey

Design

The Spire Tech has an identical head to the Spire, with a moderately curved pick and a decent sized and effective adze; the spike is the same too. All are made of a high strength steel alloy, and feel suitably robust. You get the same large tethering points at the head and spike, and though it's some time since I last clipped a leash on a one-axe route, it's good to have the option.

In terms of both ergonomics and holding power, the difference in performance between the two models is all down to the bend in the Spire Tech's shaft, which drops the head to a slightly more aggressive angle, and makes for a more controlled swing. The geometry is really nice, and along with the low weight and balance this makes the Spire Tech a pleasure to wield in 'tech' mode.

Its curved shaft is better than the Spire's straight shaft when you're daggering, and I like it more in piolet canne (walking stick) mode too, especially on steeper ground. Snazzier designs might offer a shaft with an asymmetric cross section, but in terms of grip and comfort I don't think they really represent a huge advance over the Spire Tech's simple, old fashioned flattened oval.

While there's no rubbery grip, DMM have machined some shallow grooves at the spike end to give you a bit of purchase when waving the axe about, and I think these do help a bit. While a number of brands offer some variation of sliding pommel or grip rest on their mountaineering axes, the Spire Tech keeps things simple here. Whether you'll consider that an omission may depend what you're doing with it, because while a pommel might be useful on long sustained snow or ice slopes, it'd more likely just get in the way on a scrambly Scottish winter ridge. Sliding or folding triggers have also been known to break, and no doubt add to cost and complexity. I have not yet felt the lack.

It just feels 'right' in the hand  © Dan Bailey
It just feels 'right' in the hand
© Dan Bailey

At 50cm it stows very neatly on a pack  © Dan Bailey
At 50cm it stows very neatly on a pack
© Dan Bailey

Lengths

Appropriately for a slightly more technical axe, which you'll want to use in climbing mode more regularly, and with which you'll probably end up daggering your way up moderate-steep snow a fair bit, the Spire Tech doesn't come in longer options like the Spire. On steeper ground, be that an icy gully or a rocky ridge, a shorter axe is so much easier to wield. Just three lengths are available:

  • 45cm
  • 50cm
  • 55cm

As I'm a bit larger than average, at 1.83m, I might ideally have opted for the 55cm model. That is the length of the DMM Raptor that's been my staple mountaineering axe for a good many years. However due to availability I ended up reviewing a 50cm Spire Tech, and actually really like its compact and easily-handled feel. This is the length of my matched pairs of more techy climbing axes, after all. While it's a bit short to use as a walking stick on moderate angled slopes, as soon as the angle kicks up and I'm on steeper snow or scrambling ground, the shorter shaft comes into its own.

I suspect this will be my most-used mountaineering axe for some years to come. Buy with confidence.

DMM say:

A modern, versatile and lightweight winter tool. The bent shaft and machined grips make it suitable for technical or sustained terrain when walking, mountaineering or ski touring. The refined design and rivetted construction result in a robust axe that weighs in at only 323g.

45cm - 323g

50cm - 337g

55cm - 351g

For more info see dmmwales.com



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10 Mar

They look good practical axes. My only raised eyebrow was the price difference given the similarity in specs. £25 for that amount more machining in the shaft?

My only other pause was the thought of my single axe bounding down a slope on its own from my slippy Dachstein mitt after a moment's distraction. I think there's a place for a lanyard on a walking axe :o)

10 Mar

Wear some gloves you can actually grip things with then instead. Oh no! I've criticised the holy wooly mitts of the Eastern Alps! Please forgive me. ;-)

There is on axes like those. I had a quick look at both of these axes at Dan's the other week - my thoughts was that what the Spire tech needs is a sliding hand rest like on the Petzl Gullys or the Blue Ice Bluebird (and I think the on the similar BD one - the Swift is it?) so that you didn't need to use a wrist loop with it if you didn't want too, but could still pull on it.

10 Mar

(cough).. I don't actually have Dachsteins, but you got the point . Most often I'm in dot grip sealskins when walking. :o)

On the sliding hand rest -the Petzl Trigrest (~£10-15 ) fits quite a few axes - I've used them on Singing Rock Edges and a Grivel Munro, so basically any 'standard' (if only!) shafted axe.

10 Mar

I use an old school wrist loop on my walking axe.

10 Mar

Metal shafted axes with no rubber insulation need a lanyard or old fashion leash/wrist loop. Commonly after plunging, or holding with snowy hands the wetness in the snow, or melt from the warmth of your hands will refreeze on the axe shaft as a very slippy ice coating.

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