Anyone vaguely familiar with the nuances of alpine climbing will have heard the phrase ‘fast and light’ so many times it’s enough to make your head spin. In reality though the idea is far more than just a marketing catchphrase to sell fancy equipment, fast and light is a climbing philosophy and an intrinsic part of modern alpinism.
The two ideas are inseparably linked because in order to move fast you need be carrying as little as weight as possible, but in order to go so light (and survive) you need to be able to climb very quickly. Speed in the mountains is dictated by a number of different variables of which, weight is just one. Experience, fitness, technical ability and a willingness to take risk all contribute to your ability to move fast. But unlike these elements of the sport which can take a lifetime to master, new developments in ultralight climbing hardware mean weight is now the variable you have more control over than ever.
But how light to go in the end is always a careful balancing act between weight and the functionality of the gear you have. On one hand, the best way to shed some grams is to simply ‘leave it behind’, but this strategy is not without it’s potential consequences. Leaving your belay jacket at the base of the route can seem like a great weight saving idea on a warm sunny day, but when a storm rolls in and you are 20 pitches off the ground shivering uncontrollably, it’s a decision you might come to regret. So how do you minimise weight while maintaining the functionality of your equipment that you depend on?
Enter Black Diamond’s range of ultralight Ice Screws and Cams. This new generation of lighter gear boasts impressive specs that don’t force you to compromise functionality for the weight saving. BD have done an incredible job shaving grams off their much loved cam and ice screw offerings to make them ultralight and the end product is extremely impressive. The significant weight saving is immediately noticeable when you get your hands a BD ultralight screw or cam and is usually greeted by a big smile from weight-conscious adventurers.
This November they were kind enough to send me a few of each to test on my upcoming climbing trip to Patagonia. The steep granite, wild ice formations and long approaches make the Chalten Massif an ideal testing ground for ultralight climbing gear. In addition, the short and fleeting weather windows mean light and fast climbing tactics are absolutely essential for success.
Unfortunately, the larger objectives in the area require two or three consecutive days of good weather which this time we didn’t get it. In 30 days we had two micro weather windows each offering less than a full day of good climbing weather. Despite the tough conditions and poor weather, we made an attempt on Fitzroy’s Supercanaleta which gave me the opportunity to get a feel for the BD ultralights in action. Here’s some of my thoughts on the ultralight cams and ice screws from this outing and and some following up testing in Scotland.
BD Ultralight Cams
Any experienced trad climber will tell you on steep granite, cams are king. The nature of granite means the cracks willingly accept cams giving fast, easy and extremely secure placements. The speed with which a good camming device can be placed and removed is really the reason they excell so much in the alpine realm, where every second counts on big objectives.
Using BD ultralights was exactly what I had hoped for, an extremely similar user experience to their classic Camalot C4’s. While a true connoisseur could probably detect a slight difference in the feeling of the ‘pull’ compared with a C4, to me the difference is immaterial. While there is perhaps a slightly different tactile sensation to a C4, the ultralights are in my mind, as a nice of a cam to place and remove as most others on the market. When you take into account the significant 25% weight savings, they become a no brainer for any keen alpinist.
Possible drawbacks as is see it are that these units might be a bit less durable in the long run than the classic Camalot C4. The use of dyneema in their stems as well as for the sling probably means a bit of longevity will be lost in favour of weight saving. In my mind this still is more than worth it. For big walls with extensive aid climbing, where cams are worked hard being placed and removed repeatedly hundreds of times, the Classic C4 might be the weapon of choice. But even here, there is a strong argument to perhaps sacrifice a bit of longevity in order to shed some critical weight.
The bottom line – these cams are a masterpiece in lightweight design that retain so much of the functionality of the full weight predecessors it’s hard not to justify using them for the incredible weight savings. While they are the cheapest cams on the market the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is certainly true here.
BD Ultralight screws
When scrutinising any ice screw the most important thing to remember is that modern ice screws are expected to perform. But perform what? In order to be up there with the best, a screw needs to be easy to place, remove and clean all while having acceptable holding power. Without going into to much depth about all the micro design features of a screw that affect its specific performance in these areas I can confidently say the BD Ultralight screws are real performers.
With the newly designed geometry of their steel teeth, placing these screws on lead is easy, even in hard dense ice. It struck me that the change in tooth geometry on these screws meant they seemed to require less back turning in order to get the screws to start to bite. Once the teeth engaged the handy wiregate crank was easy to use and long enough to give plenty of leverage allowing you to quickly drive the screw in to full depth.
Having a lot of experience climbing with BD’s Express and Turbo Express screws in the past, I have always been a little annoyed with their winder mechanism. I found that the small metal crank would snag the leather palms of my gloves sometimes damaging them and making it fiddly to get that critical screw in and clipped on a tenuous lead. The ultralights with their larger plastic winding knob and extended wiregate crank arm elegantly solve this problem, significantly increasing performance and usability of the screws.
In addition, I found the new forged alloy hanger design was easy to clip and I really like the fact that they have retained their second clip in point. I have always found this feature useful since it was introduced to the Express screws, for belays and multi pitch abseiling. As a result I was happy to see it was not sacrificed for weight savings on the Ultralights.
The majority of the significant weight savings gained when comparing the BD Ultralights to BD Express ice screws comes from using an aluminium tube, as opposed to stainless steel. This combined with the new forged alloy hanger and lighter crank system make these screws so light, when you get your hands on one you won’t believe you are a holding a fully certified ice screw. That’s right, a fully certified ice screw that weighs 74g!? Seems crazy, but it’s actually amazing…
As I mentioned above though, wight saving is critical but it’s only worthwhile where the functionality of the equipment is not compromised. Having tested them in the field now I can honestly say I am really happy with the performance of the BD Ultralight Ice Screws. I can’t say I have yet found myself reaching for a heavier screw, even when pumped on a steep lead, because it would be easier to place. BD’s Ultralight screws have truly succeeded at eliminating a huge amount of weight from my rack without reducing functionality, so in the end I have to say I am extremely impressed with them.
The only feature that remains untested is their holding power in a large fall. For the time being I hope to leave this feature untested but I will report back if and when it happens! That said though, I am completely confident in these ice screws and believe they are the way of the future. As a result, I hope to expand my rack with even more over the coming seasons and i’m excited to see what incredible innovations Black Diamond will come up with next!