Ice season is here and there is a huge range of tools to choose from. Now when I say ‘ice tools’ I am referring to short ice axes made specifically for vertical to overhanging ice and rock. So lets take a look at some of the most popular tools out there, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Here I’ll review the Petzl Nomics, the Black Diamond Fusions, the Cassin X Dreams, and the Petzl Aztarex. The Petzl Quarks should also be in this category of versatile high performance tools, but unfortunately I have never had the opportunity to try them.
The Petzl Nomic is probably the most popular ice tool on the market right now. What makes this tool unique is the option to add and remove weights at the pick. Adding the weights makes for a heavier tool (the Nomic is pretty heavy already at 605 grams). The added weight gives the tool a natural, hammer-like swing. However, here’s the catch: if you place your hand in front of the tool and swing it, the flat part of the pick is what makes contact. This issue is not one that I have discovered. Mr. Dane in his blog goes into great details about how Petzl basically fucked up on the new ice picks by changing the angle that made the Nomics the best tool on the market. The old picks were called Cascade picks, and if you can find some, I’ll buy them off your hands!
There’s a lot of hype around the Nomics, partially due to Ueli Steck’s endorsement of them being the “only tool I need.” Its true, Ueli did use Nomics for his speed ascent of the Eiger, but if you watch the rest of his videos he’s using the Petzl Quarks. That makes sense because the Quarks are made for the alpine environment while the Nomics are not. The older models could not be used piolet style, and although the newer model has a semi-circle of small spikes, these again leave much to be desired while plunging in soft snow. In the alpine you want to attach tethers to your tool, well most tethers in the market wont fit them. You could make some homemade tethers but be advised that the tethers will interfere with the grip on the tool, not an ideal situation.
I own a pair of Nomics and in my opinion they are a great tool for low-angle ice, hacked out ice with plenty of opportunities to hook and mixed climbing. If you’re wanting to use them for alpine, you’d be better off with a different tool.
The Black Diamond Fusions are a tool many believe is a direct competitor of the Nomics. Having owned a pair of fusions for almost ten years I would agree. The biggest criticism of the BD fusions is that they tend to ‘bounce back’ from hitting ice. This unfortunately is true. However, the folks at BD have tried to get around this in two ways. First, by introducing the new fusion ice pick that has 2 degrees less angle. The pick gets amazing sticks in the hardest ice. Second, they recommend a special swing that ensures greater probability of hitting the ice with the sharpest point on your pick. In the new BD fusions they have made two major changes. The shaft of the tool is super light and all the weight is in the head. This produced a natural swing. A spike at the base of the grip also has an opening for tethers. So technically, this can be used in the alpine. The real question is, should you use it in the alpine? The simple answer is no. Black Diamond describes this 672 gram tool as their “premier mixed climbing tool,” I would have to agree. On mixed routes the fusion shines, on pure vertical ice – not so much.
This brings me to the Cassin X-dream. I have to admit, I don’t own one of these and haven’t had a chance to swing them a whole lot. From the little that I have the tool gets surprisingly good sticks and hooks well too.
The Petzl Aztarex isn’t as popular as any of the tools I have reviewed so far, but I think it deserves to be in the same league. At first glance it is a weird tool. The shaft is hollow and a tiny removable pinky-rest is all one has for a grip. Petzl claims this is the lightest tool in the market at 500 grams. The tool has one of the best swings of any tool I have ever used and gets a stick in hard ice every time. Some modifications can quickly fix the tool’s shortcomings. With no rubber grip, the tool will need to be wrapped with tape to prevent your hands from freezing. Remove the pinky-rest and slap on a Petzl trig-rest for a more robust grip. The tool can be used piolet style, tethers go in where normally you would have screws for the pinky rest. These features combined with the super light weight makes this a premier tool for the alpine.
I think the top-spot for bad tools is taken by the Black Diamond Reactor. The tool failed as soon as it hit the market and anyone who bought one wanted to sell it – dirt cheap.
As much as I love ice tools, the ugly award has to go to Grivel Monsters. Besides the weird looking head, the shafts have some of the tackiest prints I have seen.
Having said this, the tool performs extremely well on mixed terrain. It is the only tool I know of that has a flexible shaft.