Best crampons for alpine climbing?

  • Creator
  • #5618
    Steve House

    Recently someone sent this question to me via email. It’s a question I’ve often fielded so I thought I’d share here:

    I know it’s not a training question, but I was hoping you might be willing to provide me with some thoughts and guidance.  How do you go about choosing what type of crampon to use for a particular route?  Horizontal dual point, vertical dual point, mono point (horizontal/vertical)?  I wore a pair of horizontal dual points on the French Ridge of Huntington and hated it. The ice was hard and brittle and I never really felt secure on my feet. I’ve never really liked climbing waterfall ice with horizontal dual points either, but I’ve mostly climbed on hard, smooth, fresh ice. Not aerated ice, or heavily cauliflowered. On our warm-up climb in the Alaska Range this year I wore a pair of vertical mono-points, which didn’t have any kind of secondary point like the Grive G20’s.  They were good for the mixed/dry-tooling but felt really insecure on the alpine ice and 3000′ snow couloir down-climb. 

    So how would you go about choosing a crampon for climbs like the Infinite Spur, Moonflower Buttress, Denali Diamond, and waterfall ice?  What kind of things do you think about/consider?  I know a lot of people swear by horizontal points for mixed climbing or ice climbing, which leaves me wondering what I’m missing?  Do I just need to practice more with them on that kind of terrain?  Pros/cons? Any advice or thoughts you can share with me would be much appreciated.  

Posted In: Alpinism

  • Keymaster
    Steve House on #5619

    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!

    ryan johnson on #5623

    I wholeheartedly agree with Steve. I have a bit of a quiver of crampons now, but I have almost exclusively climbed on monopoint crampons since since I began climbing ice. There were Charlet Moser, Grivel, BD and now Petzl crampons in the mix and they have all had their positives and very few negatives. Modern climbing gear is incredible. So the trick becomes getting really familiar with a tool you trust.

    Mariner_9 on #5680

    And for ski-mountaineering? Something like the G10?

    Steve House on #5688

    @mariner_9 Depends. I use the all-alluminum Ski Race if I don’t expect any ‘real ice’ (only hard snow or firn) or the Alloy front / Alu rear Haute Route if I expect a little alpine ice here and there. The Ski Tour Ski-matic is heavier but has a full steel / full size front modeled off the G10.

    This ski boot specific binding system works great with AT ski boots. Bit improvement over using a regular crampon with ski boots that will some times kick the heel bail off with the bulky back that houses the forward-lean-lock mechanism in most boots.

    Mariner_9 on #5720


    Thanks for the suggestion and the note about regular crampons – I wasn’t aware of that issue. I’ll try to get a pair of Haute Route to try out with my boots (hard to find gear here in the flatlands).

    re: Kaestle – I didn’t realize Chris Davenport was involved with the company. While doing a Muscular Endurance workout last night, I was listening to a podcast (Totally Deep) where he was interviewed.

    sambedell on #5740


    Thanks for the in-depth response. I’m wondering, since you think familiarity with the “tool” is important would you then do ice and mixed climbs in the states in your double boots to prepare for peaks in Pakistan? And with the same minimal ice tools that you would use there too?


    Steve House on #5770

    That was how we all thought in the 90’s. Look at the old photos of Alex Lowe: climbing in plastic double boots, always. This was true of Alex and others, including myself, even after Jeff Lowe popularized the La Sportiva Nepal series of single leather boots for ice/mixed climbing. I myself have been known to climb bolted M9’s in Olympus Mons (8,000 meter) boots. However I would say that my two go-to boots now are the Batura and the G2 (before that the Spantik) and those two boots are so similar I don’t worry about it and use the right boot for the day.

    I also would add that I almost always err on the warm side with boot selection. Frostbite (or even just really cold feet) is nothing to mess around with. If in doubt I always go for the warmer boot. Some climbers (most?) don’t err that side because they fear the slowing effect of the extra weight on their foot. If I’m slow, it’s because my fitness is inadequate, not because my boot is too heavy.

    I have long held the strong belief that the climbers who obsess over equipment weight would do well to spend that energy on training/improving their fitness. But maybe that’s the subject of a future post…

    ssssnake529 on #68046

    Apologies for necro-posting on a dead thread.

    I am wondering if anyone has used the new horizontal mono-point Snaggletooth crampon?

    I’ve heard good things about these crampons, but haveen’t used them myself.

    If they continue to gain in popularity, maybe Grivel will make some horizontal mono-points and give BD some competition.

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