I will be as balanced as I can be, and will do my best to admit my biases as I am a professional climber and have had sponsorship contracts with Black Diamond 1996-2001 and Grivel from 2001 to the present. I have not climbed on every crampon out there. But I do a lot of winter climbing and a lot of ice/mixed/alpine guiding and have been interested in this for a long time and am a pretty keen observer.
I feel that crampons are as important to the ice/mixed/alpine climber as rock shoe choice is to the rock climber. And just as rock shoes themselves have become more and more specialized and segmented, so have crampons. Rather than going into all the variation though I’ll stick to alpine climbing for now.
I have been the most challenged, physically and psychologically, when alpine climbing. Alpinism is also the highest-risk environment of all the climbing environments. So from this it always followed for me that I should have my “best” crampons on when alpine climbing. And from that it follows that I would always wear the same crampon all the time because I must become most accustomed to that crampon, that I would “know”, without thinking or looking, where all the points are at all times, and I would know exactly what they were capable of, or not capable of, in any given situation.
That said I’ve essentially done all my climbing on five different crampons since I started alpine climbing in 1989:
1990-1995: Salewa Rigid crampons, imported by Chouinard Equipment. I liked these for a couple of reasons. Generous front points, long, and easy to sharpen, wide and stable. And the down-points around the perimeter of the boots conformed perfectly to the edge of my boot. This allowed me to use almost any protuberance to get off my front points by using a side or heel point. They were light. The fatal flaw was that they were somewhat fragile, I broke many pair of these, about 2 per year, usually on third-class terrain by weighting the frame under the boot’s instep which would crack the frame. They were good. But the competition then was pretty weak.
1996-2001: Black Diamond Sabertooth. I was able to be involved, albeit at a low level, with the original concept and development of this crampon during, as I remember, the mid-late 90’s. I pushed hard for the points to match the perimeter of my boot sole, for example. And I also pushed for the flat front point that is easily filed. I thought this crampon was great, especially once BD developed (it took forever, but they got there eventually) good anti-balling plates. This was the era of the Black Diamond “Mako” Crampon, which was a horrible thing in many ways and so it wasn’t hard to stick to the Sabertooth. Even self-proclaimed “mixed” climbers of the era, like Will Gadd and Kim Csizmazia climbed almost exclusively on the Sabertooth. They were a good crampon. I feel like in an effort to change the crampon it’s actually worse now than it was in it’s original form. The stainless steel is heavy and doesn’t stay as sharp as the old steel, don’t take my word for it, talk to any metal worker about different types of steel. Steel hardness are easily measured. Something BD and Petzl choose to ignore when using stamped steel for their crampons, which by nature of the process, has to be softer than high-carbon hot-forged steel so the stamping process doesn’t wear out the tooling.
2001-2008(ish) Grivel G-12/G-14. During this period, which was definitely the most productive period of my climbing career including my ascents of K7 and Nanga Parbat, I climbed almost exclusively on the Grivel G-12. I loved these for the same reasons as I liked the previous two crampons, but the steel is/was better and they stayed sharper noticeably longer. Both Vince and I used this on Nanga and we did not carry a file. On the Slovak Direct for example, both Mark Twight and I both had Sabertooths, and we filed our crampon’s front points 4 times and the crampons were worn out after that one route. After Nanga I retired that particular pair of G-12’s but not because they were worn out. There was plenty of steel left, it just felt like the right thing to do.
The one exception to the G-12 was North Twin in 2004. When Marko Prezelj and I climbed North Twin he had traveled without crampons or ice tools to save baggage fees. And as we were both supported by Grivel at the time, and ended up I wearing the G-14s and he wore G-12’s. The G-14’s were noticeably better on that type of climbing, which was essentially 4,000 feet of thin crack climbing in full dry tool mode. That was 2004. Also the first time I used modern leashless tools on a big alpine route, (1 Grivel Takooon and 1 Grivel Alp Wing) which was a huge advantage in this situation.
After 2007/2008 the G-20 came out. I put on a pair of G-20s and never looked back and can honestly say it’s my favorite crampon of all time. It’s light (728grams!) and best of all is the hot-forged steel front point. There is no better steel on a crampon. Period. I could go into all the fine points, but I think instead I’ll say this:
Here’s how I see climbing gear (and lots of gear): Different companies, for whatever reason, do certain products really well, and other products that don’t seem so different, they never master. Let’s pick on Black Diamond because they’re owned by soul-less venture capitalists: BD simply does not have it in their culture, in their make-up, their DNA, to build good ice climbing gear. They never have. Their tools are imperfect, if not outright horrible, and their crampons, except for a brief Sabertooth era, are equally lousy. Camalots? Brillant. Great. They do great rock protection. Skis? If you think Black Diamond skis are any good, please try a Kaestle or a Blizzard, or something from a REAL ski company. Different product, same reason for the same result.
I truly believe that with manufacturing companies of any kind, it comes down to culture.
Columbia isn’t going to build great clothes for alpinism. Columbia doesn’t understand alpinism. Patagonia, as a company, reveres alpinism with near religiosity. They do and will make great alpine climbing clothes.
Take me, and Uphill Athlete as another example: I’m not going to try to train and coach the next bouldering world champion. I can boulder, because I can climb. But it’s not my area of expertise nor what I care about. So I won’t go there. Grivel builds ice climbing gear, and very little else. It’s what they do, and it’s who they are, which, to me, is enough to explain why they are the best at it.
I did not mean to gloss over the question about how to select a style of crampon for a particular route. I answer that by advocating to use one thing, and get used to it. Every style of crampon has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Your job is to be the best carpenter you can be. So pick a really good tool that you really trust. And learn to use it very, very well, and you will be just fine.
One final note: I often am asked why I used “neumatic” style G-12 crampons on Nanga Parbat. Simple answer. They were/are lighter than the ones with the steel toe bail.
Hope that helps. Happy cramponing!