Crampons are a key piece of gear for climbing snow slopes, crossing glaciers, climbing frozen waterfalls, and even
climbing rock faces with small cascading sections of ice smeared on the rock or hanging down as pillars.
There are a number of important questions to consider when selecting a crampon. What will you be using them for? Do you want dual or mono points? What kind of boots do you have? What kind of attachment system works best for you and your boots? Do you want replaceable front points? Do you want mountaineering or vertical ice crampons? Do you want horizontal or vertical front points?
Crampons have changed a lot over the years, becoming lighter and more specialized as the technology evolved. Now many climbers can have a crampon collection like avid golfer has golf clubs, they pull out that crampon for whatever the climb and conditions call for. There still exist plenty of all-purpose crampons, but in the age of “only bring the ounces you absolutely need” climbers are turning to having a whole collection of crampons.
There are three kinds of materials crampons are made from: steel, stainless steel and aluminum. Steel is durable, but heavier. Steel crampons are good for technical mountaineering, ice climbing, mixed climbing and drytooling. In all of these types of climbing, you want a durable crampon that you can front point on or walk on rocks with and you won’t badly damage or bend the points. Stainless steel is starting to be used in crampon construction. It is corrosion resistant and durable. The difference, for example with the old and new Black Diamond Sabretooth, was noticeable with the stainless steel being lighter. Also, the new stainless steel crampons were more durable, withstanding wear much better. It took much longer to go blunt. There are also crampons made primarily of aluminum. Aluminum is light, but only should be used on approaches that will be all on snow where you are not front pointing or stepping on rocks or dirt. Aluminum wears out much faster if used on anything but snow and the front points can bend if you try to front point with them. Aluminum though can be a great option for pure snow approaches or climbs with short snow sections.
Frames are now, for the most part, horizontally oriented. Flexibility is the new trend as boots move away from plastic (I still love my plastic boots) to insulated leather boot. The horizontal frame is designed to flex when walking. Since the metal frame is flush with your feet, they are closer to the ground providing greater stability. Pure ice climbing crampons tend to be more rigid and in the past were constructed as a one rigid, solid piece. With all the new advances in technology, technical ice crampons are becoming more semi-rigid, though rigid crampons with little flex are still being produced and sold. Horizontal frames are also less like cookie cutters, vertical frames cut in to the snow and increase problems with snow build up under your feet.
There are 4 main types of crampon bindings/attachments:
The name says it all. The binding system straps onto your boots. This system can be used with nearly any boot or shoe. It does not require a groove in the toe of the boot, which the step in and hybrid bindings require. The advantage to strap-on crampons is that they CAN fit nearly any boot and they don’t require boots with a groove in the toe and heel, so if you have a grooveless boot or many different kinds of boots this type of binding system can be a good option. The downside is that it can take longer to attach and is not as precise as the other binding systems so you can get movement between the boot and foot. Also the more technical ice and mixed crampons do not have strap-on options. Many times a strap on style crampon will loosen after long periods of use, and can sometimes easily tangle as one is climbing. In addition, the boot to crampon contact is not as snug as step-ins or hybrids, thus transfer less force when kicking into vertical ice.
Advantage: Fits any boot.
Disadvantage: It takes longer to attach the crampons to the boots. Less snug boot to crampon fit which can lead to movement of the boot and there is less transfer of force from when kicking into vertical ice as compared to hybrids and step-ins.
In step-in bindings, a wire bail inserts in a groove in the toe of the boot and a cable inserts into a groove on the heel. Some step-in crampons have a tension lever (piece of metal) which attaches the bail to the nylon webbing that attaches to the cable around the heel. Other step-in crampons only have a front bar and the back lever. If the crampon fits well onto the shoe, this can be a bomber attachment allowing for minimal movement of the boot in the crampon. This kind of crampon binding does require rigid soles and the groove (heel/toe welt) in the toe and heel. Step-In crampons keep the crampon snug against the boot for maximum transfer of force from the boot to the crampon to the ice making them a great binding for ice climbing.
Advantage: Snug boot to crampon contact for maximum transfer of force on a kick into vertical ice. Also, this type of attachment keeps the boot from moving around in the crampon. Best attachment for vertical ice and very technical mountaineering routes.
Disadvantage: Requires a heel and toe groove.
Hybrids have a heel lever and a toe cup on the front (similar to the front attachment of a strap-on). For these crampons, the boots need at least a heel groove, no toe groove is required. The nylon ankle strap connects directly from the lever to the toe piece. The advantage to this kind of binding system is the ability to use them with a boot that lacks a front toe groove and they have better crampon to boot contact than strap-ons. The disadvantage to hybrids is that the crampon to boot contact is not as snug as step-ins, making the force transfer to the ice not as good as step-ins.
Advantage: Can attach to boots with no groove on the toe. Better crampon to boot fit than strap-ons but not as good contact as step-ins.
Disadvantage: A heel groove is required for this type of attachment and the boot to crampon contact is not as solid as step-ins.
Bolt-on crampons are made by Black Diamond and Grivel for high-end climbing. They permanently attach to the boot and are also termed “Fruit Boots.” These crampons are specialized for ice climbing and mixed climbing. The crampons can be purchased already bolted onto the boots or one can purchase just the crampons and bolt them onto boots of their choice. The climber will usually have to carry the Fruit Boot (boot with crampons bolted to it) to the base of the climber before putting them on.
Bolt-ons are an even more secure way to attach crampons to boots than either step-ins, hybrids or strap-ons. Because they are bolted directly to the boot, this type of crampon gives the climber a lighter, more accurate set-up for even more precise footwork on very technical mixed terrain.
Bolt-on crampons are not designed for general mountain use, but are completely specialized for ice and mixed climbing.
Number of points can vary depending on what you are using the crampon for. Most all purpose mountaineering crampons have 10-12 points. Mono crampons for ice climbing, mixed climbing or dry tooling have 11 points unless you add the heel point called heel spurs, which would bring the point count back up to 12.
Heel spurs mount onto the back of crampons. They let the ice or mixed climber dig their heels into the ice or hook in rocks for mixed climbing. Heel spurs are specialized attachments for this type of climbing and not intended for general mountain use. There is currently an ethical debate in the climbing community on the use of heel spurs and some climbers use them while some do not.
The shape of the front points vary depending on what you wish to use the crampon for. Horizontal, flat front points are good for walking on snow or glaciers. The flat points give greater surface area making them great for snow travel. They can still function for front pointing on ice climbs, but are less specialized and high performing than their aggressive ice climbing counterparts. Though depending on ice conditions, horizontal points can actually do quite well. If the ice is soft, sun damaged and more slushy-like, then these can be a good option as they do not shear through the ice like vertical points can. Also, keeping one’s “heel down” becomes less of an issue with horizontal points.
The serrated, vertical front points are designed for penetrating and locking into the ice while front pointing on more technical glacier routes and ice climbs. The second row of points are important to give you a stable platform to stand on, the front points go in and the second points rest on the ice when you are in the correct heel down position this gives you less fatigue and more stability These crampons will often have more aggressive secondary points with hooks for hooking into the ice while ice climbing. The Petzl Sarkens are an awesome combination of the flat and aggressive front points. They have t-shaped aggressively, serrated vertical front points. The vertical front points are capped by a flat horizontal point that narrows down to the point of the crampon. They are ideal all purpose crampon, performing very well on glacier traveling and more technical glacier routes (intermediate and advanced climbs) and able to hold their own with the big boys of ice climbing crampons. They are very stable in vertical ice and cut very well into the ice. The Black Diamond Sabretooths are also a great all around crampon for those that only want to own one crampon. They work for mountaineering as well as steep ice climbing and come with the option of all three mounting styles to suit your boots.
Many ice climbing specific crampons allow the user to switch between dual and mono points, though you can also purchase mono only crampons with the front point fused to the frame. The versatile crampons with front point adjustment capabilities also allow the front point to be positioned off center (left or right) to allow the climber to have a more specialized crampon for the needs of the climb. This also comes into play when adjusting the crampon for drytooling.
Another added benefit of interchangeable mono/dual points is that you can easily replace the frontpoints when they dull. Many manufacturers will send two points per crampon, giving you one replacement point if you decide to go mono.
It is also important to consider the costs. The cost of replacement front points for some manufacturers are as low as $10 while some are as much as $40. Some manufacturers do not offer replacement points. If doing a lot of mixed routes, the points can be destroyed easily in a season. Many climbers prefer to switch out points, keeping a mixed and an ice set of front points rather than taking two sets of crampons when going on a climbing trip.
When ice climbing, you’ll want a longer the front point, while for mountaineering it’s easier to walk with shorter front points (they don’t catch as easily). Most step in crampons have a bail adjustment system to allow adjust on how far the front points stick out beyond the boot. Adjustable ice climbing crampons also have the added feature of adjustment on the front points themselves.
Dual v. Mono
For general mountaineering and snow travel it’s important to use dual front points. They are more stable and when
travel across snow and ice you want as many points as you can to grip the ice.
For ice climbing, mixed climbing and drytooling, duals can be quite advantageous, depending on the route. When the temps are very cold and the ice is very hard, monos can break and displace less ice; thus making them advantageous. For mixed climbing, monos are ideal when the climbing gets hard or depending on the rock type. Oppositely, if there are lots of solid edges on the rock, this will allow for dual points, which are more stable and let the climber get less fatigue. Duals are generally more stable on vertical ice since there are two points, but monos can fit into all sorts of crevices, especially mixed climbing and drytooling and are still very stable as long as the placement is good. For mixed climbing or drytooling, mono crampons are more suited, in general, to this type of climbing than dual front points.
All general mountaineering crampons are sold with an anti-balling system (ABS plastic) that prevents snow buildup on the bottom of the crampons. Some technical ice climbing crampons are sold with them some are not, though many of the pure waterfall ice crampons have them sold separately so you can purchase the plastic plates for your crampons. If you will be doing any significant amount of walking on snow (not ice) they are very important. The UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) recommends the anti-balling systems. They are most useful in sticky, wet snow.
Quick Reference Crampon Guide
|Intended Use||Type of Material||Frame||Front Point||Dual or Mono||ABS plate||Binding||Example|
|Walking on only snow||Aluminum (could also use a steel crampon)||Semi-rigid||Fixed horizontal, flat||Dual||Yes||Strap on||CAMP XLC 390 or Black Diamond Neve|
|General Mountaineering||Steel||Semi-rigid||Fixed horizontal, flat||Dual||Yes||Strap on, hybrid, step in||Black Diamond Contact, Petzl Vasak|
|Technical Mountaineering (For Intermediate to Advanced Mountaineering Routes)||Steel||Semi-rigid||Fixed flat horizontal, or fixed vertical||Dual||Yes||Strap on, hybrid, step in||Petzl Sarkens, Black Diamond Sabretooth|
|Ice climbing||Steel||Semi-rigid or rigid||Fixed vertical or removable||Dual or mono||Depending on climb||Hybrid or step in||Petzl M10s, Petzl Sarkens, Petzl Dart, Black Diamond Cyborg,|
|Mixed climbing or drytooling||Steel||Semi-rigid or rigid||Removable vertical||Mono preferred||Depending on climb||Hybrid or step in||Petzl M10s, Petzl Dart, Grivel Rambo Monos, Black Diamond Raptor, Bolt-ons/Fruit Boots|
*The table is a general guideline to help you determine which crampon would best suite your needs. It’s important to also read the entire article.
As mentioned earlier, choosing a crampon is much about intended use. If only intending to climb basic general mountaineering routes, a horizontal front-pointed crampon, such as the Black Diamond Contact would be a good choice. As you move into more specialized types of climbing you will need a more specialized type of crampon and maybe more than one type. For example, if you were climbing glaciated peaks and waterfall ice, you may choose a great multi-purpose yet aggressive crampon, such as the Petzl Sarkens. They perform well on both. But if you also start seriously mix climbing or drytooling or climbing harder waterfall ice routes, you may add a mono crampon to your repertoire. If you only ski mountaineer you may opt for an aluminum crampon to save weight or still use a steel crampon if concerned about more technical terrain. It’s important to do your research and know your needs before purchasing a crampon so that you chose that right crampon for you.
Genevieve Hathaway is the Editor of Alpine Athena. For her bio see the About section.