Mountain climbing Ice pick
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.