Rating: 3 / 5
I'm hoping to thru-hike the PCT next year, and one of many equipment issues for me was the question of whether to use crampons or not in the Sierras. I also do day hikes in "shoulder" seasons which often start out on dry trail but then get into snow in the upper reaches. For situations like this it would be nice to have a "sort of" crampon --- not as heavy and bulky as a full 12-point crampon, but something that provides enough traction to make them worth carrying.
I own and have tried carrying a variety of things for this. Yaktrax, IMO, are more useful in ice, but not much use in snow (plus they fall off too easily). I have a set of little 4-point "ice walkers" that are meant to fit in the arch of the shoe; I find that these don't help that much in snow, perhaps the name "ice walker" should have given this away. They're better than nothing, but I don't find them worth carrying. I have a beefier pair of "instep crampons" which are held on by a better strapping system and these --- while also a 4-point instep crampon --- have longer and more widely separated points. They're better, but for the weight and bulk I've still been unimpressed and don't tend to carry them along.
On the other end of the spectrum, I rented steel 12-point crampons when I climbed Mt. Rainier, and I own a pair of 10-point Aluminum Stubai crampons that I like a lot, and have climbed some in (for example, Mt. Adams in Washington state). These (Stubai's) weigh about a pound an a half for the pair. But it would be great to have something that provides enough traction to be worth carrying, yet substantially lighter.
Enter ULA's "Axis" 8-point ~instep crampon, http://www.ula-equipment.com/axis.htm
Listed Weight: Advertised at "~7-10 oz per pair", the site lists the weight at ~10 oz "outta the box", but suggests that a person can save as much as 3 ounces by cutting off a lot of excess strapping.
Measured Weight: Out of the box, mine weighed 9.2 oz (260g)
I'll probably use mine mostly with trail runners (running shoes), but to be conservative I cut my strapping to fit over a pair of (U.S. Men's size 10) light hiking boots, leaving enough excess strapping to leave 4 holes beyond the ones I used to secure them on the boots. The resulting weight of the crampons was 8.2 oz (232g). Indeed, if I were limiting these to running shoes only I could have saved a *little* more weight, or if I had smaller feet I might have gotten down to the ~7 oz range. In total (both crampons) I cut off about 25-1/2 inches of unneeded strapping. That extra strapping, by the way, is a bit of a hassle when using the crampons --- even ignoring the weight savings, you would want to cut these down to somewhere in the right ballpark for your own shoes.
How well do they work? Surprisingly well --- I'm very pleased, with the caveat that I've only used them a couple of times so far --- a short walk one afternoon, and a 3+ hour round trip going up 1000 feet or so, fairly steep in places.
The teeth aren't super long --- just about exactly 1 inch (2.54 cm). But I walked up some pretty steep terrain, edging up sideways, walking ~straight up, and these are much better than any in-step "crampon" I've tried. They pass my personal test of "worth carrying", and at about 8 oz, they save just about a full pound off my already light aluminum 10-point crampons.
Don't get me wrong --- these are vastly different than a real crampon. My 10-point stubai's are a "real crampon - lite". The ULA Axis is an instep "crampon" on steroids. The gulf between the best instep crampon and the worst real crampon is large. For comparison, you can see an image of my Stubai's, read someone else's review of these here: http://www.backpackgeartest.org/reviews/Snow%20Gear/Crampons/Stubai%20Light%20Combi%20Crampons/Owner%20Review%20by%20Ray%20Estrella/
A full-length crampon gives you teeth in front to allow digging right in with your toes, which the ULA Axis does not. A full-length crampon has teeth at the far back of the foot, giving you traction even if you just dig in the back of your heel.
But the ULA Axis did a surprisingly good job for as small and light as they are. Key in my opinion was that in a sort of default "center of foot" location, the front teeth are at the ball of my foot. And that the two middle teeth are long enough to really dig in when edging.
The strapping system does allow a person to put these on different parts of the foot --- I could put them on so they were shifted forward, closer to (but not nearly as good as) having the front teeth of a real crampon. Or I suppose if I was going downhill a lot I could shift these back so that I had more teeth under the back part of my foot (would need to retain longer strapping to do that).
In practice, I think I'll always center them. They feel more balanced that way, and there are no longish parts of un-toothed foot so to speak.
I can't speak to durability as these are quite new. I expect that the T-6061 Aluminum body of the crampon will last indefinitely. The strapping consists of two rubberized top straps, and a fabric backstrap. The backstrap attaches to the rear rubberized orange strap, pulling it back when you tighten up the backstrap. This seems like a stress point to me. I expect that at some point I'll end up buying and/or fabricating my own replacement strapping. It's not some wierd strap width --- they're 3/4" (1.9 cm) wide --- so they shouldn't be too hard to replace when that's needed.
I found that these stayed on my feet well, and they're pretty easy to put on and take off in cold conditions, including with a glove or even perhaps a mitton on. One issue in cold conditions with binding anything over a shoe --- especially a thin, light shoe --- is strapping it tight enough to stay on and yet not so tight as to reduce circulation. I put these on so they're pretty tight and then backed off a notch on each strap and they stayed on my very light mesh watershoes (wearing gore-tex and then wool socks) just fine going steeply up, down, and sideways. When slightly loosened like this there was a minor tendancy to roll a little under my shoe when edging sideways, but it wasn't a big issue, and my circulation probably would have been fine with them on tighter.
Walking late afternoon when the snow was softer, there was a tendency to clump snow under the crampon --- I guess that's a problem with any crampon, I don't think it was particularly worse with these than it would be with any viable alternative, but don't have the mileage on these to know for sure.
Bottom line is that I like these very well --- they perform well enough that they're worth carrying, and they're light enough that I'll toss 'em in my pack in situations where I'm not sure whether or not there will be much snow encountered on a given day hike. And I'll take them in the Sierras on my PCT trip next year to allow me to start hiking earlier in the day when the snow is still quite hard (thus less of the day spent post-holing).
Post-script, late June 2007:
I now have some unhappy experience with respect to the durability of these crampons, and so have dropped my rating from 5 to 3. I used these on an upper elevation hike yesterday, and after I had put on the cramons I ran into a few short bare/rocky stretches that I walked through with the crampons left on --- I’m talking maybe a total of 30 feet all together. When I took them off later I saw that one of the eight teeth was broken off, not on just one crampon, but both of the crampons had a tooth broken off. Snapped pretty cleanly off, a "brittle failure" at just below where the metal bends down to form the tooth.
I realize these are made for snow and not rock, but in practice it’s often impossible to not walk at least a little on rock --- or rather, it would be pretty tedious if you always have to take off your crampons to cross just a few feet of bare rock with lots more snow on the other side!