Mountain Expeditions instructor and expedition leader Alex Kay gives us the full low down on all things crampons. Alex is a qualified Winter Mountain Leader (WML) and International Mountain Leader (IML) as well as an avid alpinist and ski mountaineer making him a general mountain hero. Alex spends a lot of his time wearing crampons for a whole host a different winter activities from hill walking, to mixed climbing and ice climbing. In this article he explains all there is to know about crampons and helps you work out which pair are perfect for you.
Two pairs of crampons walk into a room; one pair is brand new, shiny and with tethers tucked away, the other pair is well-used, blunt and ragged. The older pair turns to the new pair and says “woah, you’re looking sharp!”, the new pair replies “it’s only because I haven’t been worn yet, give me one season in Scotland and I’ll look just like you.” The older pair chuckles “you have a good point”.
What are crampons?
Crampons are metal attachments that fit to the soles of specially-designed boots. They provide the wearer with secure traction on hard ice, soft snow and anything in-between. Crampons are an essential piece of winter gear for heading above the snowline, whether that be completing classic mountaineering journeys, negotiating glacial terrain or conquering steep ice.
What makes up a crampon?
Crampons are made up of several parts and like boots, they come in various shapes and sizes. Their design affects their performance and usability, so it’s important to know both what each part does, as well as where your winter adventures are likely to take you, so as to get the right pair for the job.
> Toe basket/cage – allows for connection to any boot which lacks a toe welt
> Toe bail – allows for connection to any boot which has a toe welt
> Heel clip – an adjustable clip to connect to the heel welt of the boot. This can also come in the form of a heel cradle, similar to the toe basket/cage, to make it compatible with boots which lack a heel welt.
> Linking bar – the piece of metal that joins the front and rear plates. This can come in the form of a flexible/stiff bar or cord. This component and the way it attaches to the plates dictates the flexibility of the binding. The bars are easily interchangeable to suit a range of boot sizes.
> Tether/strap – a secure strap to ensure complete and safe attachment to the boot. This strap more commonly fits around the entire boot but some designs fit just around the neck of the boot. It is usually made of a non-stretch fabric but it is elastic in some cases.
> Anti-balling plates – attached to the underside of both heel and front piece, these plates ensure snow does not accumulate underfoot. You can also get an anti-balling rubber sleeve to go over the bar, to further discourage snow acculumation.
> Points – Situated beneath the forefoot and heel, these are the teeth that provide contact to the snow and ice. More on these below.
What’s the point of all the points?
Further to the various parts of the crampon, there are a number of different points that are worth knowing about. The amount and configuration of points will differ and this will affect the various positions in which a crampon can gain traction. The amount of points to a crampon generally varies from 10-14 and the more points to a crampon, the higher technicality of terrain that crampon can be taken to.
> Front points – No surprise, these are located at the front of the crampon. The front points allow the wearer to kick into steep snow and ice, also known as front-pointing, as well as make progress on steeper, vertical and overhanging terrain. Front points have a few further considerations to think about:
– Horizontal points are typically shorter and less technical. They are ideal for gentle winter walking, mountaineering or when climbing soft snow or moderate ice.
– Vertical points are used for climbing hard ice or more technical mixed (rock & ice) terrain. They provide less stability on flatter terrain and therefore less suitable for purely winter walking
– Dual points provide optimal traction, stability and increased surface area, preferrably for pure ice climbing and moderate mixed routes
– Mono points allow for precise footwork and are advantageous when on featured ice, hard mixed routes or steep rock for example if dry-tooling.
– Modular points are interchangeable points allowing you to change between a dual and mono as and when required. These make an excellent choice for varied routes that might involve both winter walking and ice climbing.
– Hybrid points are effectively a vertical point with a horizontal profile at the top. This offers both sure-footed stability on snow plus a reassuring bite of vertical when routes become more demanding. Petzl Sarken is one example.
> Secondary points – Continuing with the theme of no surprises, the secondary points sit behind the front points. Dependant upon the crampons usability, these points either project aggressively forwards or mainly downwards and may or may not contain barbs.
Secondary points that project aggressively forwards contain barbs. These are great for providing further stability on steeper terrain. Secondary points that project mainly downwards and do not contain barbs are best for general mountaineering, as they increase contact on shallower terrain.
> Tertiary points – Not all crampons feature tertiary points. Those that do once again increase the technicality of terrain that can be covered. Tertiary points project backwards and contain barbs. This allows for the wearer to find purchase when pulling backwards with the ball of the foot, providing further stability.
> Down points – All crampons contain a high number of down points. These provide the majority of traction when standing or walking flat-footed on snow and ice. The more down points, the heavier the crampon, the more traction.
Which is the best crampon for me?
Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this question (unless you have an unlimited budget!).
Crampons can be separated into 3 ratings: C1, C2, C3. However, it is not as simple as directly relating these crampon ratings to boot ratings to get your perfect pair (see our previous article on boots and the below table) because in fact the C-rating only relates to the style of attachment & flexibility of the crampon and not to the amount or configuration of points.
C1 – Strap-on crampons utilising a toe basket/cage and a heel cradle. Basic crampons, high flexibility & compatible with B1-B3 boots. 10-point crampons with less aggressive, most-likely horizontal points. Ideal for winter walking or glacial walking.
C2 – Hybrid or Semi step-in crampons (not to be confused with hybrid points) utilise a toe basket/cage and a heel clip. Technical crampon, semi-rigid & compatible with B2-B3 boots. 12-point crampons with longer secondary points and sharper, most-likely horizontal front points. Easy to walk in but still climb hard when needed.
C3 – Step-in crampons utilising a toe bail and heel clip. Highly-technical crampon, stiff & compatible with B3 or ski boots only. 12-14-point crampons with longer secondary & tertiary points and sharper, most-likely vertical front points. Offer high performance on steep ice or hard, mixed terrain. Top-end crampon for top-end boots.
So, to begin to decide which crampon is right for you, you will need to answer a few questions:
> What activity are you most likely to do? Are you purely planning on winter walking; do you need something to take you to the highest peaks or fit onto your ski boots for your next big trip, or; are you intending on scaling frozen waterfalls and/or mixed, technical terrain?
The answer to this question will guide you to the amount and configuration of points that you’ll need. The more points, the more technical terrain you can enter.
> Which rating of crampon, i.e. which style of attachment, will work with the boots you own? You will need to investigate which style of binding system is compatible with your boots – Do your boots have welts or not? Are your boots B1, B2 or B3 and therefore do they require a C1, C2 or C3-rated crampon?
If you come to realise that your boots are only B1-rated and you wish to purchase a set of crampons for technical climbing (C3-rated), then you will require new boots.
> How big are your boots? Certain crampons may only fit certain sizes and you may also need to consider purchasing a longer linking bar if you have big feet.
You know what they say about people with big feet? That’s right, they need big crampons! Get the right answer for these questions and you will have the perfect pair of crampons for you and your boots.
On a final note, sharpen up before you head out to the shops…
When buying your first set of crampons, get a pair that will suit the primary activity you plan to do. If you have never owned a pair of crampons then it is likely that your first pair will be fairly basic, both in attachment style and configuration of points – a 10-point (C1) or 12-point (C2) crampon.
When push comes to shove, most crampons are versatile enough to lend a hand in most situations. However, certain brands like Petzl and Grivel offer a modular system to crampons, making it easier to adapt your current pair of crampons to something a bit more/less technical if required.
Modular crampons may be taken apart and the individual parts can be swapped, to change the performance of the crampon. Mixing and matching front sections, bails, heel components & points mean you may not have to purchase as many individual pairs, whilst guaranteeing yourself the best boot and crampon combination for any terrain.
As with anything, it is always worth trying before you buy. Renting a pair of crampons can be a great way to get an idea of how they perform before committing to blunting your own pair! Oh and don’t forget to purchase a crampon bag to keep everything else in your bag safe from the pointy bits!