Anti-bot, Rambo, mono point, air tech, strap-on, front-points, spurs, 10-point, 12-point. How can crampons be so confusing – after all they’re just artificial claws for humans who’ve forgotten how to sharpen their own toes. What should you look for when heading to the hills – and shops – this winter?
You’re in the shop, gazing at the sharpest and most extreme looking crampons on display. Stop! Before you go anywhere near the shelves you need to ask yourself two questions: what boots will I be wearing with my new crampons and what are my walking aspirations.
If money wasn’t an issue for us mortals then we’d all have a dozen pairs of boots for every conceivable outdoor situation. Most of us have a summer pair of walking boots and a heavier pair of winter boots. Potentially both can be used with a pair of crampons but if your boots and crampons are not compatible, then they’ll part company very quickly. Crampons generally fall into three groups (flexible, semi-rigid and rigid) and the more flexible your boots then the more flexible your crampons will have to be.
Instead of picking your boots up to test stiffness, compressing them like some cobbler’s arm trainer, why not use your body weight instead? Put your walking socks and boots on and find a sharp stone step. If you can balance, feet horizontal, with only two cm of sole on the step then your boots are pretty stiff (boots this stiff are often referred to as B3). If you can only stand on the edge of the step by moving your boot in further then clearly they are more flexible (mildly flexible boots are referred to as B2). If you can only balance with around five cm on the step then you’ve probably put your slippers on by accident (think B0/1). This test will help you when you go to the shops, equally you could always take your boots shopping.
It’s not all bad news if your boots are not as stiff as you thought – flexible boots are nicer to walk in and a winter walking day is often split into thirds: one third walking in without crampons, one third walking up and down the snowier bits of a hill with crampons, and one third walking out again. You just need to match the crampon to the boot. A very stiff pair of crampons would probably ping off at a crucial moment, so you’ll probably be looking for a semi-rigid crampon that will flex slightly as you walk. Look into crampons that fall into the C2 category – these are the all-rounders of the crampon world, great for walking and easy climbing. If your boots are very flexible then you’ll have to go for some very flexible crampons (C1), these are often strap-on as opposed to clip-on. They can be very comfortable but will take far more energy to use on steeper ground.
Get to the point
Years ago crampons only used to have eight downward pointing spikes, but folk quickly discovered that you had to have incredible ankle flexibility to go up slopes; front-points were added and the modern crampon was born. Now you get all sorts of combinations but more points equals more weight and for walking a ten-point crampon will do you fine (they lack a secondary set of points immediately behind the front-points to provide stability when climbing). Your legs will thank you for saving the weight.
Don’t wait too late
I once saw a climber walking down the stairs in a posh Scottish hotel with his crampons on – the staff didn’t look best pleased and walking to the van wasn’t very pretty. Put your crampons on when it increases safety, otherwise leave them off, but deciding the exact spot takes experience. With a semi-stiff pair of boots you should be able to kick a small horizontal step as you walk in compacted snow but once it gets harder to do so then it’s time to stop and find a flat spot to put your crampons on.
Keep looking ahead and checking what the ground is like – you never want to get caught out and have to reverse over icy ground. You may well find yourself putting your crampons on and off again several times during the day – this takes time but with practice you should be able to put your crampons on in under three minutes. Once this is mastered, you’ll not get cold and other folk with you will not get frustrated; there’s nothing like waiting in a blizzard to test your friendship. Don’t ever be afraid to stop and crampon-up, even if others around you are not.
Planning when to de-crampon on the descent is not easy but unlike walking up a hill, walking down is going with gravity; it’s always easier to fall over going down a path than up. It’s easy to catch a crampon point or misplace a foot so plant your feet carefully and take your time. Don’t leave it too late though; driving in crampons is very difficult!
Ed Chard (MIC) is a self-employed Mountain Instructor. Ed is Deputy Head at Thornbridge Outdoor Centre and the and Development Officer for the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI), the representative body for all professionally qualified mountaineering instructors in the UK and Ireland. For more see www.ami.org.uk & www.thornbridgeoutdoors.co.uk