Above: crampons are required equipment on almost every mountaineering trip, like Mount Olympus’ Blue glacier, pictured.
Words: Mike Hawkins
In the beginning there were crampons, and they were not so good
Have a look here for a fun, brief history of crampons in mountaineering.
Crampons have been around for a very long time, and for good reason – paired with an ice axe, they are the quintessential tools for mountaineering. Over the past one hundred years, crampons have evolved into specialized, high functioning equipment for an array of climbing sub-categories. These specialized crampons are used for the likes of traditional mountaineering, technical glacier travel, ice climbing, mixed rock and ice climbing, and so on.
Let’s have a look through some of the most popular variations in crampons to help us select the best option for our objectives.
Steel vs. Aluminum
Steel crampons are the workhorse of the mountaineering world. They are strong, durable, and reliable. Steel crampons can be used on soft snow, bulletproof ice, and even rock. If you succeed in dulling your steel crampons over time, we have good news for you – they can be sharpened repeatedly without consequence. Climbers often come across short stretches of rock or dirt in between large sections of snow or glacier, and with steel crampons you can walk right on through without hesitation. Steel crampons are the best choice for glacier travel and technical climbing.
Aluminum crampons are a nice lightweight option intended for specific uses. These are typically saved for ski mountaineering, easy snow ascents, long snow traverses, or backpacking trips with potential for snow in certain areas. Aluminum crampons dull quickly when used on rock, and most cannot be sharpened.
12 points vs. 10 points
It’s all about traction. Two extra points doesn’t seem like it would offer a huge benefit, but 12 point crampons offer far greater traction than their 10 point cousins in all but the tackiest snow conditions. Since snow conditions vary throughout the day and the forecast can change at a moment’s notice, we recommend 12 point crampons for most general mountaineering uses.
12 point crampons offer far greater traction than their 10 point cousins in all but the tackiest snow conditions
10 point crampons are great for low angle glacier walking, non-technical peak-bagging, and ultra-light adventures.
There are three attachment styles used by each of the major crampon manufacturers. The model names vary from brand to brand, so it is best to look at photos or descriptions when purchasing.
- Universal or Strap-On: These utilize straps on both the front and the back, so they are compatible with any type of boot. These would be a fine option for climbers who want the benefit of being able to use their crampons with hiking boots on snowy summer hikes. Strap-on crampons are simple to use and work perfectly well for most objectives.
- Semi-Automatic or Hybrid: These are the most well-rounded of the bunch. They have a strap on front with a clip-style heel. They are the easiest and most efficient, and they are compatible with any mountaineering-specific boot with a heel welt. They fit over wide double boots and overboots more easily than automatic crampons.
- Automatic or Clip-On: These give the most precise fit and are the best option for steep, technical alpine and waterfall ice climbing. They have a metal toe bail that is placed over your boot’s toe welt, then they are secured with the same clip-style heel as the semi-automatics. Keep in mind that this style can only be used with boots that have both heel and toe welts. Some crampons with automatic toe bails do not fit well on wider boots like double plastic boots.
Horizontal vs. Vertical front points
Horizontal front points are the best option for general mountaineering and most alpine climbing objectives. Horizontal points have a wide surface area for increased holding power in variable snow and ice conditions. In soft snow conditions, horizontal crampons can still offer great holding power, while crampons with vertical front points would likely cut straight through the snow.For waterfall ice climbing and advanced alpine climbing, consider crampons with vertical front points or other niche varieties. Vertical front points cut into harder, bulletproof, vertical ice more easily, providing solid placements with less effort. Many crampons sporting vertical front points are also modular, meaning you can switch from dual front points to a mono point.
Mono points are particularly nice for mixed ice and rock climbing, as they can be slotted into thin cracks and set precisely on small edges. For mixed climbs with blockier terrain, there is even a sort of hybrid, horizontal mono point… wild, I know!
Anti-snow balling plates are a must! When the snow is warming up later in the day, it will begin to stick to your cold, metal crampons. The snow can build up so much that it renders your crampon points completely useless, as if you were ice skating. While this can still happen with anti-snow balling plates, they help make this phenomenon far less common.
Two thumbs up for accessories! Some crampon manufacturers have started making their crampons fully modular. This way, you can purchase a single pair of crampons and simply accessorize them to expand their utility. For instance, you can purchase a strap-on heel for your semi-automatic crampons to make them universal; or swap to a metal toe bail to get a more precise fit for ice climbing. You could even swap the whole front section to change from horizontal to vertical front points.
Crampons for mountaineering are very different from MicroSpikes, YakTrax, ice cleats, and other trail-style crampons. Such traction devices are ideal for slippery urban scenarios or low angle compact snow and ice like you might find on a popular snow covered trail. They are certainly a useful tool, but they do not offer sufficient traction, durability, or reliability for mountaineering.
Most people will be best served by a 12-point, semi-rigid, steel crampon with horizontal front points like the Petzl Vasak. Now all you need to do is choose an attachment style!
For information on sizing and attaching crampons to your boots, head on over to our How to Fit Crampons post.