QC LAB: Gear Doesn't Last Forever—Ice Tool Picks
Here at Black Diamond, I answer more emails about the longevity and durability of climbing gear than anything else. Contrary to popular belief, climbing gear doesn't last forever. For instance, I recently received a #2 Camalot in the mail that was manufactured in 2002. The thing was destroyed—it looked like it had been up El Cap 300 times. The customer wanted a new one because it was worn out. News flash: climbing gear doesn't last forever.
If I took a set of tires with 60,000 miles on them back to the tire shop to get replaced, I'd get laughed at—same is true for climbing gear. Perhaps it's a legacy thing. Yes, back in the day some climbing gear did last longer, because it was designed and manufactured to be more robust and consequently was heavier and ultimately didn't perform as well. But even back in the day, climbing gear had a useable lifespan. Also, as the climbing standards increase, we're torquing our picks and crampons, whipping on sketchy pins and cams and just generally being way harder on our gear.
But just as you can buy beefy, all-terrain radials that last longer than high-performance race tires, you can buy rugged climbing gear that'll last longer, but at a cost of weight and performance. You can also purchase more specialized, lighter gear, but it generally won't be quite as burly. It's up to each individual climber to make the choice and understand the possible ramifications of these decisions.
One last thing: my job at BD is to manage a team of engineers that test and break gear all day, every day. We test all gear (not just BD, but all our competitor's gear, too) and do so scientifically and objectively. Yes, we monitor the blogs and chat rooms for trends, information and what is being discussed, and are constantly surprised by both the nature of the commentary (sometimes factual and sometimes not) and the tendency of most blog/forum readers to accept everything as true. As a caveat, don't believe everything you read online—if you do, I have a friend in Nigeria who will wire you $100,000 and all you have to do is send him your bank account information.
Read on for some objective test data on the realities regarding the fatigue life of some of the products that continually pop up. We'll start off with ice gear, then in subsequent posts I'll discuss rock climbing and mountain gear. First up, ice tool picks.
ICE TOOL PICKS
There are basically three types of ice-tool picks: beefy mixed climbing picks, mountain picks, and high-performance, ice-specific picks. Mixed picks and all-mountain picks usually have a larger cross section (i.e., thicker with more material at critical stress areas), and therefore can take more abuse. High performing, ice-specific picks with smaller cross sections are designed for easier penetration and less ice displacement. But does this ice-specific performance characteristic come at a cost of durability? YES!
What most people don't realize is that picks don't typically weaken by being slammed into the ice, rather they weaken from being removed. If you're a guy who buries his picks with each swing (like me), it's the levering motion of REMOVING the pick from the ice that puts a three-point bend load on the ice pick; the ice acting as a fulcrum. This repeated motion and loading can eventually cause a fatigue failure in the metal.
Several years ago, with the desire to obtain real comparative cyclic data on ice-tool picks, we created a test machine that simulates that loading scenario. We call it the 4-Banger—it's awesome.
We load the 4-Banger up, set to the appropriate load, and let it do its thing until the pick breaks, keeping track of the number of cycles. One thing to keep in mind is this is all relative testing—the test setup is consistent, but not necessarily correlating directly to real-world usage, so the data should be considered comparative within itself. Of course picks are also greatly weakened by torquing (but rarely break in this mode). To test this, we have torqued picks, followed by our cycle tests in the 4-Banger and found the fatigue life can be reduced by upwards of 50%.
We've tested and broken so many picks it would make a grown man with a gear fetish cry. We test all of our picks during design and development, and we test other manufacturer's picks as well. We test hot-forged picks, laser-cut picks, water-jet cut picks, machined picks, Aermet picks, and many prototypes using special materials or manufacturing processes.
As you can see in the graph, the thinner cross-section, high-performance ice-specific picks break earlier than the thicker cross-section mixed and mountain picks. Makes sense. This is true for every company's ice tool picks that we have ever tested. No company has a magic material or process that produces an unbreakable pick. Could we design and manufacture an indestructible pick? Yup. But it likely wouldn't perform well and no one would use it. So climbers are left with having to make a ice tool pick choice between A) high performance and compromised durability, or B) slightly more durable with a sacrifice of performance or weight—just like tires.
We sell thousands of ice tool picks (on ice tools and sold separately) each year (the majority of these are our ice-specific Laser pick). We see a handful back. All companies have ice tool picks that break in the field—no exceptions. I even know of some companies that have finally given up and discontinued their high-performing, ice-specific picks because they were tired of hearing complaints of them breaking.
Most reputable climbing gear manufacturers will CE-certify their gear. One interesting thing is that in general, there are no durability requirements for climbing gear—almost all standards are based on single-pull ultimate strength. So a company could, in theory, design and sell a carabiner that meets all the CE requirements when loaded once and then turns to glass, and it would pass all the current requirements. My point is, the CE standards don't count for fatigue. Up until recently there actually WAS a fatigue requirement for ice climbing picks, but it was removed from the standard because the data was so variable (as all cyclic data is), it didn't really tell you anything, and the test wasn't actually relevant to real world use. So it really is up to the manufacturer to find the balance between ultimate strength, durability and performance.
Many manufactures supply various pick options, and CE has categories for these picks. Burly picks, which used to be called T picks for TECHNICAL, are now are called Type 2 and are for climbing rock, snow or ice. More ice-specific picks that may not necessarily be as robust are formerly called Type B picks for BASIC and are now called Type 1 picks. These classifications are stamped on the pick for easy identification.
Here are instruction excerpts from four different manufacturers (including Black Diamond):
Under normal use (20 to 50 days per year), the lifespan of a pick on a Type T ice axe is 1 year. More frequent use or extreme climbing can reduce the lifespan of your ice tool. Some activities that would reduce its lifespan are hitting rocks, twisting the axe and pick, and drytool climbing on rock.
WARNING, certain extreme techniques using ice axes and crampons (e.g.dry-tooling...) are very stressful on the equipment. Levering or torquing the pick or the shaft can cause accelerated wear and/or failure of the equipment during use. This equipment may be used for dry tooling, but only on well protected routes. Ice axes used for dry-tooling should be used exclusively for this activity and must be carefully inspected before each use. Do not use your dry-tooling gear on adventure climbs. The material fatigue caused by dry-tooling could result in a catastrophic tool failure on a poorly protected route. This product must not be loaded beyond its strength rating, nor be used for any purpose other than that for which it is designed.
LIFE OF ICE AXE:
- Sporadic use with a seasonal concentration = between 5 and 10 years.
- Regular use throughout the year on difficult routes and some ice falls = between 3 and 5 years.
- Frequent, professional use on new routes and ice falls = between 3 and 6 seasons.
- Dry tooling, modern mixed, competitions = between 1 and 2 seasons.
WARNING: The materials do not last forever. Check the tool before using it every time and do not hesitate to replace it.
So what does all of this actually mean? It means that not all gear is created equal: some ice picks will last longer than others, but it depends on the type and frequency of use. It ultimately also means that gear doesn't last forever, and if you try hard enough or use it for long enough, you can break anything. It's up to you, the climber to check your gear, understand its limitations, and replace if it's getting worn or you're unsure about its integrity.
As it pertains to ice tool picks specifically, when I'm in the mountains I usually run a burlier pick. I'm usually not climbing as technically hard of ice and am more likely to be scraping around on rock, so I go with the Titan pick, a beefy, more durable all-mountain rig. But when I'm climbing pure ice routes and need all the help I can get to get up the thing, I use the ice-specific Laser pick. The Lasers penetrate the ice better, and are easier to clean, leaving my flailing arms with a little more gas to finish the pitch. If I'm on a long route, I'll usually carry a spare pick, although in 20 years of ice climbing I've still never broken a pick.
There you have it. Next up in a couple of weeks: crampons.
Stay safe out there,