How to use crampons
Crampons are a foolproof way to traverse ice or hard, slippery snow - provided you know how to use them. Allen Fyffe shows you how to master them quickly and safely.
There are two main types of crampons:
General purpose crampons
- General purpose or all-round crampons (useful but not necessarily absolutely perfect for all branches of snow and ice climbing)
- Technical ice-climbing crampons (those best suited to steep, hard ice).
General purpose crampons have ten points facing down, two points facing forward and they are hinged in the middle. There are normally four points to the rear of the hinge and eight in front, so that the hinge sits under the instep of the boot. The hinge is a vital part of general purpose crampons as it lessens the chance of failure which may occur if fitted to boots which do not have fully rigid or flat soles.
When fitting crampons, it is important that they are a light spring-fit. To fit them, first find a convenient rock or area of flat, hard snow so that each one can be spread out. Place your boot in the crampon and apply your full body weight before you do up the bindings. If you try to fit crampons sitting down you'll find this slower and more awkward, and it can lead to less secure fastening as the crampons may not sit correctly on the soles of your boots. Do practise fitting your new crampons before attempting to fit them for the first time in the middle of a winter blizzard!
The majority of crampons now attach by clipping on to the boot. To put the crampon on, put it on a firm surface, place your boot on the crampon with the toe securely under the toe bale or between the front posts and pull up the heel lever to secure it to your boot. Then fasten the safety strap so that the buckle is on the outside of your boot.
Crampons with a strap and buckle are usually more awkward to fit but they can be used with boots with a non-rigid sole. Lay each crampon on the prepared site so that all of the rings, straps and buckles lie to the outside of the framework. Always keep the buckles to the outside of the foot, where they cannot snag or catch. Make sure that the sole of your boot sole is free from snow (tap the boot with your ice axe) before stepping into the crampon. The exact method of doing up the crampon will vary depending on the particular system used.
In general terms, clip-on crampons are best used with boots with rigid soles and those with straps are better for non-rigid soles. Whatever type of crampons you choose, be sure that they are set up properly by following the manufacturer's instructions.
French technique (or flat-footing), like all aspects of cramponing, depends upon balance, confidence and commitment to the crampons. When mastered, it is a safe, quick and efficient method of travel over easy-angled snow and ice, and also a convenient way to rest on steeper slopes. To begin with, however, it can appear strenuous and awkward. The technique depends for its success on trusting each foot placement. Practice in a safe situation and once you are proficient, you will find that French technique provides the basis of all cramponing on easy-angled terrain.
Your practise slope need not be large but should present little in the way of danger in case you tumble or trip. The basic technique on an easy-angled slope is different from normal walking in that you don't use the edges of your feet but instead, flex your ankles keep your feet flat. However, to avoid the points snagging in your clothes, you need to adopt an open-stance gait, with your feet about hip width apart. It helps to keep baggy trousers or gaiters well tucked in. Many crampon accidents are caused by spiking clothing and tripping up!
Make sure that you place all the downward points firmly into the slope. Carry your axe in your uphill hand and use it only for balance. In fact, trying to use the axe on easy terrain is more liable to cause you to slip as it encourages poor body position through leaning forward. It is important to appreciate and trust the holding power of your crampons independent of your axe.
In all stages of flat-footing avoid using the edges of the crampons. Flex your ankles and knees away from the slope in the traverse position and as the slope steepens, point your toes farther and farther downhill. As the slope becomes steeper, the flat-foot technique becomes more awkward and more difficult, mainly because your ankle joint cannot flex particularly well inside stiff boots. To go uphill it is easier to proceed diagonally, with your feet pointing more up and down the slope rather than across it. This allows your knees as well as your ankles to flex and so maintain the all-important ten points of contact. Keep your ice axe in your uphill hand and use it like a walking stick to aid your balance.
Zig-zag up the slope (as you would when ascending a similar slope without crampons). To change direction plant your axe firmly uphill and hold its head with both hands for balance. Splay your feet and turn uphill to face the slope. Regain your by bringing the other foot into the new direction of travel.
Front-pointing is better suited to steep or hard ice than French technique. It is a fairly natural style of climbing ice which, although easy to learn in a basic form, takes more practice to develop into a confident, economical technique.
The keys to front pointing are good foot and body positions. It is basically a similar movement to kicking steps with your toes in soft snow, except that height is gained by kicking the front points into the slope and stepping up. You must keep your feet horizontal and insert the points at the correct angle: that is, with your feet at right angles to the slope so that both front points bite equally. Allow your knees to bend slightly to help your balance and ease the strain on your calf and thigh muscles. For maximum stability keep your feet about hip width apart.
On ice it is necessary to tap the points home more vigorously than on hard snow. Excessive force however, can set up vibrations in the ice which will weaken the holding power of the points and be sore on your toes. Once you have placed your points, move them as little as possible when stepping up since any movement will tend to lever and twist them out of the ice, especially if it is thin.
It is essential that you have rigid-soled boots and well-fitting, sharp crampons for this type of climbing, and the angle of your feet is critical. If you raise your heels above the horizontal - a natural tendency when you are tired or in difficulty - the front points will tend to pop out of the ice or be levered out by the toe of the boot, which is both insecure and also very tiring.
Take particular care at junctions between steep and easy ground. When pulling over on to easier-angled terrain you'll want to lift your heels so you have to make a positive effort to keep them down and keep the points in the ice.
When descending easy-angled snow, face directly down the fall line. Keep your feet flat so that all of your crampon points grip the snow and are placed in a positive manner. You can use your ice axe like a walking stick or hold in the braking position, in readiness in case you slip. On steeper slopes, you may find it better to face into the slope and descend by front-pointing.
If the snow is wet, large balls of snow can stick to the crampons. This extra weight is both tiring to lift and will prevent the crampon points from gripping properly. Rigid crampons tend to ball up more than hinged ones but balling can be prevented by the fitting appropriately named 'anti-balling plates'. Alternatively, knock the snow off regularly, either by using the shaft of your ice axe or by tapping your crampons against rocks.