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What are Crampons?

By Jenn Ratliff
Updated May 23, 2024
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The world of entertainment has always capitalized on America's love of danger. Sports that drag players to the edge of realism and hinge their fates on nothing more than the one wrong step is so popular that sporting good stores don't know how to keep up with the demand for equipment.

In no other sport is a missed step as important as in climbing. Enthusiasts around the globe regularly scale the world's highest peaks with nothing more than a rope, strong hands and a will to stay alive. For these people, there are crampons.

Crampons are multi-use spikes that attach to climbing boots or skis to help enthusiasts grip icy or snowy surfaces. They were invented in the early 20th century, but mountaineers of the day were not interested in losing circulation in their feet from the crampons' tight leather straps. Fast forward to the age of plastic and heat-welding and crampons are once again acceptable accessories for climbers.

There are crampons for different purposes, and not all types of crampons are useful for all climbers. In general, vertical climbers need more traction control than do smooth-slope mountaineers, and alpine skiers, who spend all of their time moving, need lightweight and versatile styles of crampons made from aluminum rather than hardened steel. Choosing the right crampon can be one of the most important tasks of a climber's life, for a wrong choice here can result in death, or at the very least, a very difficult trip.

The two general classifications of crampons are hinged and rigid. Hinged crampons are flexible, allowing the user to step naturally; as a result, general climbers best use this style. A rigid crampon won't bend, and are meant for vertical climbers who need to have the foot support to bury their toes in the ice. These crampons are usually too heavy for mixed terrain. Climbers who are in doubt about choosing the correct style can tell the two types apart by looking at the angles of the first two rows of points on the crampons. If the first row is bent downward and the second row angled toward the toe, it is used for vertical climbing. General climbers need only look for straight spikes.

Instep crampons, those that only have four to six spikes, are popular among backpackers, who will occasionally run into a snow slope that requires better grip than traditional boots allow. Additionally, skiers become familiar with another variation of the crampon: ski crampons. These are popularly employed in the Alps, where alpine skiers sometimes have to travel up lower-angle slopes. They are better known by their European names, which vary by country and include harscheisen, cortelli and couteaux.

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