QC LAB: Gear doesn't last forever, Part I - Ice picks
Before any piece of Black Diamond gear makes it on to the shelves, it spends months, sometimes years getting put through the wringer by our Director of Quality, Kolin Powick, and his team of Quality Assurance engineers. Through extensive and meticulous testing, both in the lab and in the field, KP and his team help ensure that you can count on your BD gear to be as durable, reliable and as strong as possible every time you head into the mountains or out to the crags. Our QC Lab posts aim to answer some of climbing's most common gear-related questions.
This month mark the first part of a series the boys in the lab will be doing on realistic gear lifespan, essentially exploring the concept that gear doesn't last forever. First off, they'll focus on ice tool picks, and stay tuned for the next installment on crampons.
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 tried to take a set of tires with 40,000 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 like 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 is to run a team of engineers that test and break gear all day, every day. We test all gear (not just BD) and do so scientifically and objectively. Yes, we monitor the blogs and chat rooms for trends, information and what is being said and are constantly surprised by both the nature of the commentary (sometimes factual and sometimes not), and the tendency of most 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 picks.
Every season we receive back, or hear of a handful of BD ice climbing picks that break in the field. The picks are often accompanied by an all-caps letter stating "IF I WAS SOLOING I COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED!!" Sidenote: ask ANY gear manufacturer what equipment they recommend for soloing and you'll get the same answer from all of them - NONE. Soloing or running it out huge on little bits of metal that get beat on season after season is a recipe for disaster. Like they say in boxing, protect yourself at all times.
There are beefy mixed climbing picks, mountain picks, and high-performance, ice-specific picks. Mixed picks and all-mountain picks usually have a larger cross section (ie. thicker, or more material at critical stress areas), and therefore can take more abuse. High performing ice picks, with smaller cross sections are designed for easier penetration, and less ice displacement, but does this 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 from being removed. If you're a guy who buries his picks with each swing (like me, though I've been climbing ice for 20 years and have never broken a pick), it's the levering motion of REMOVING the pick from the ice that puts a 3-point bend load on the ice pick, with the ice acting as a fulcrum. This repeated motion and loading can eventually cause a fatigue failure in the metal. So several years ago, with the desire to obtain real comparative cyclic data, 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 picks break, keeping track of the number of cycles. We've tested 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. It's always nice to know where everyone is landing and that no one has a magic material or process that produces an unbreakable pick. 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.
Note: 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%—worth noting.
Now this is where everyone would love to see all the data of all of our picks, as well as all of the other manufacturers called out. Well I'm not going to do that because it's just not cool. But what I can say is that many manufacturers also supply various pick options. 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. Everyone's Type 1 pick just doesn't do as well in our cyclic fatigue test as their Type 2 pick, but everyone is playing in the same ballpark.
Interesting side note: most reputable climbing gear manufacturers will CE-certify their gear. We do, so that we can sell it in the EU. One interesting thing is that in general, there are no durability requirements for climbing gear-almost all standards are based on ultimate strength. So you could design and sell a carabiner that meets all the CE requirements when loaded once then turns to glass, and it would pass all the current requirements. Now of course, most manufacturers wouldn't do that, but my point is, the 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.
So the smaller cross-section high performance ice-specific picks break earlier than the larger cross- section mixed and mountain picks. Makes sense. Could we likely 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 choice between high performance, and compromised durability, or slightly more durable, with a sacrifice of performance or weight-just like tires.
All companies have picks that break in the field, no exceptions. I even know of some companies that have finally given up. They've discontinued their high-performing, ice-specific pick, rumor has it because they're tired of hearing complaints that they can actually break.
We sell thousands of ice picks (on ice tools and sold separately) per year (the majority of these are the ice-specific Laser pick). We see a handful back. Gear doesn't last forever. 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.
Here are some excerpts from Black Diamond instructions, as well as some other manufacturer's instructions:
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.
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 of use and abuse 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. As it pertains to ice 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 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 picks. They 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 as I said, in 20 years of ice climbing, I've still never broken a pick.
There you have it. Next up: Crampons.
Stay safe out there,