Crampons & ice axe: Recommendations for the High Sierra

A boot track across a steep snowfield during the ascent to Muir Pass, late-June 2006.

In July I’m running six trips in Yosemite National Park, split between two guide teams: two intro-level 3-day courses, and four more advanced 5- and 7-day trips. We will be hiking sections of the John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra High Route, and Yosemite High Route, in addition to other trails and off-trail routes.

Because of the exceptional 2018-19 snowfall and a stormy spring, we expect to encounter more lingering snowpack than normal (as well as higher runoff, more prolific mosquitoes, and more intense sun exposure). This post is designed primarily to guide my clients in the purchase of crampons and an ice axe. But I’ve included a broader discussion to make it applicable to other backpackers, too.

Recommended reading

I’ve written elsewhere about early-season conditions and the 2018-19 snowpack:

1. For my Outside blog, in late-March I wrote a piece, “What Epic Snowpack Means for Summer 2019 in the West.” It details the snowpack, predicts likely conditions, and runs through critical gear and skills.

2. When PCT and JMT hikers were losing their $hit in 2017 after a similarly wet winter, I posted a six-part tutorial on backpacking in early-season conditions. I have not updated it since, but it remains just as relevant today.

3. For JMT/PCT hikers specifically, read the three-part interview with Sam Chaneles, who thru-hiked the JMT in June 2017. It will give you an idea for the likely experience.

Sam on the JMT in June 2017

Considerations

Do you need crampons and an ice axe? And what specific models should you buy?

Well, it depends. I know that’s not that the answer you wanted, but it’s a nuanced topic.

Below I’ve discussed four considerations to inform your decision. My general advice would be to purchase now what you are most likely to need, and to exchange or return the items later if your needs change. This approach has two benefits:

  1. Take advantage of start-of-summer sales, usually 20-ish percent off a full-price item.
  2. Move onto other aspects of your trip planning.

In determining whether you need crampons and an axe, and which products to purchase, consider:

1. Current conditions

We know that the High Sierra got whacked this winter. But what do conditions look like right now? Nowadays, the most current information and images will be shared online by hikers after they exit or while they resupply.

Start your search with the JMT and PCT (e.g. #JohnMuirTrail, r/PacificCrestTrail, and John Muir Trail Group), which transect the High Sierra and which receive heavy backcountry use. Then narrow your search for more specific results (e.g. #RaeLakesLoop), or start following specific hikers to observe trends.

2. Time of day

Throughout the spring and summer, the snowpack is in a general state of melt. The seasonal trendline is interrupted most nights, however, when radiant heat loss and colder ambient air temperatures cause the snow to firm up or crust over. This can make even low-angle snow problematic for early-risers and dawn-to-dusk hikers. A few hours after sunrise, such sections will be unremarkable.

3. Individual comfort and skills

If you have prior relevant experience (e.g. early-season backpacking, mountaineering, climbing) or if you’re fit and athletic, you may need less equipment than others. For example, on steep but soft snow, you may feel comfortable with just an axe, whereas another hiker would want an axe and crampons.

4. Route

What challenges should you expect? For example:

  • How often will you hike on snow (which is a function of elevation)?
  • What steep pitches along your route are unavoidable? Pour over those maps!
  • Might you encounter a cornice on the leeward sides of some passes or ridges?
  • Will a boot track or glissade track have formed by hikers ahead of you?

Prior experience — with map-reading, early-season conditions, and the High Sierra generally — is really helpful is accurately predicting the likely conditions.


For a thru-hike of a high route in July 2017 after a snowy winter, I carried an ice axe for steep slopes and Pocket Cleats as just-in-case insurance.

Ice axes

An axe is used to:

  • Self-arrest a fall,
  • Self-belay up or down a snowfield,
  • Control a glissade; and,
  • Cut steps or cut through a small cornice.

On most backpacking routes, axes are needed only occasionally, usually to gain or descend a pass, or to contour across a steep snowfield or avalanche chute below a pass.

I recognize that it’s difficult to justify a ~$100 expense and 12 ounces of extra pack weight for an item that you infrequently need. But it can be a vital safety tool.

Recommendations

I’m requiring that every client in my 5- and 7-day trips have an axe, since we’ll be hiking over several steep off-trail passes like Don’t Be A Smart, Stanton, and Matterhorn. Generally, I’d recommend an axe for backpackers who will:

1. Travel on or across steep slopes in June and July without the aid of a boot track. This would include low-traffic trails and off-trail routes. By August, most snowfields will have melted, and most cornices will have lost volume and steepness.

2. Follow a major trail (e.g. JMT/PCT, High Sierra Trail) in June and some of July. As summer backcountry traffic increases, a boot track will form on the trade routes, helping to take the edge off steep slopes and chutes that are holding snow. The consequences of a fall could still be very bad, but the risk of falling will be lower.

Specific ice axes

Shopping for an ice axe is fairly simple: options are limited, and the styling and technologies are mostly the same. Select a/an:

  • Entry-level axe if you want to save money and are willing to carry the weight;
  • Performance axe if you will use it often and/or need a longer length;
  • Ultralight axe if you are willing to accept at least one tradeoff (e.g. price, short shaft, performance).

Personally, I own an ultralight axe. It’s been sufficient for the occasional instances when I want it, and I don’t curse its weight during the miles in between.

Sizing

Stay upright, holding the pick and keeping your arm by your side. Conventional wisdom says that the spike should fall between your ankle and mid-calf. For early-season backpacking I think mid-calf is better, because you probably will use it only on steep slopes. Mountaineers use their axe like a cane, and thus prefer a longer shaft.

Leash

I installed a wrist leash on my axe, believing that the risk of losing it on a steep slope is greater than the leash’s fussiness and its entanglement risk.


The relationship between traction and weight is inverse: the heavier the device, the better the purchase (with a rate of diminishing returns). Left to right: Pocket Cleats, Micro Spikes, and the original aluminum-spiked Kahtoola KTS crampon.

Crampons

On slick and steep snowfields, boot rubber alone will probably not cut it. And on low-angle and slushy slopes, hours of slip-and-slide can be tedious and energy-sapping. The solution is to increase your purchase with crampons or shoe chains.

Recommendations

I told my groups to skip the crampons. By mid-July more ground will be melted out than still snow-covered, and the snow will be soft enough to kick steps. Generally, I’d recommend:

1. Hiking crampons in June, and for aggressive routes in July.

2. Shoe chains for high-traffic trails in July to maintain traction in the boot track, which can get packed out and sometimes slick.

Typical boot track on a high-traffic pass.

Specific products

Traction devices fall into three categories:

1. Just-in-case crampons are better than nothing, and weigh very little. If there’s a low chance of needing traction or if there’s just one token problem spot, this is a good option.

2. Shoe chains are good for packed-out trails and boot tracks. They are lightweight, relatively inexpensive, easy to put on and take off, and bite well into firm surfaces.

3. Hiking crampons are best for icy/crusty snow and deep snow, and steep slopes. For backpackers, they are the most robust option.

Questions about axes or crampons, or your need for them? Leave a comment.


Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content

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23 Comments

  1. Dano on May 28, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Thanks Andrew for this post. A brief and slightly dumb question. How do you pack the spiked crampons in the pack without endangering the contents of your pack from rips, etc. ?

    Thanks again, Dano

    • Andrew Skurka on May 28, 2019 at 11:59 am

      The crampons normally come in a carrying case. Use it, or strap them to the outside of your pack (less ideal).

  2. Parker on May 29, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    The regular Corsa is 7.2 oz according to Camp

    • Andrew Skurka on May 29, 2019 at 4:29 pm

      Per REI product pages, 60 cm is 8.8, and I was trying to standardize the weights for 60 cm so that it was more apples-to-apples.

      I’m less certain about the weight of the Nanotech for 60 cm. REI says it’s 250 g (8.8 oz) for the 70 cm. Seems light.

      • Kyle on June 6, 2019 at 2:20 pm

        On my home scale, the 60cm nanotech weighed 9.67 oz.

        • Andrew Skurka on June 6, 2019 at 2:22 pm

          Thank you, chart updated.

  3. James on May 30, 2019 at 5:28 am

    How do you feel about the SUL Tica 46 ice tool?

  4. Travis Briles on June 12, 2019 at 7:15 am

    A bit off topic, but what would you take for the WRHR primary in late August? Mostly thinking about glacier/ice travel at the end in NE corner.

    I think I remember from a post last year that you were skeptical of vargo pocket cleats.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 12, 2019 at 3:39 pm

      I’d go with microspikes. Late in the summer after normal or drier winters, there’s a lot of ice exposed (snow has all melted off), and any angle can be pretty rough going, if not extremely dangerous. One of the scariest moments I’ve ever had was climbing the Dinwoody Glacier to the base of Bonney Pass, using just those tiny Pocket Cleats, which were not reliably staying square on my shoes. When I finally reached the base of pass, there were three guys there with full crampons and plastic boots. They must have thought I was an idiot, and I can’t say I would have disagreed, although I didn’t really have another option either.

      • Travis Briles on June 13, 2019 at 12:59 pm

        Thanks! Exactly the kind of info I was looking for.

        Also, I assume that since the snow is mostly melted leaving just ice that an ice axe can probably be left at home?

        • Andrew Skurka on June 13, 2019 at 1:01 pm

          Definitely leave it at home, but as much because it’s low angle stuff, very low risk of falling, or of sliding if you happen to stumble.

  5. David Spencer on June 26, 2019 at 7:14 am

    Boots or Trail runners with, day, shoe chains.

    My trip is July 19, MTR to Martha Lake (thus 1 day on JMT, 1 day along
    river), and ideally then off trail to Ionian Basin, snow gods willing.

    If conditions are too hard above Martha Lake won’t push it.

    thx,
    Dave

  6. Alex D on July 2, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    I wouldn’t consider any of those “crampons.” These are light traction devices, and it seems very odd to me to pair them with an ice axe. Now, I am not familiar with the terrain on this route. However, in general, if the terrain steep enough that a long sliding/tumbling fall is a possibility, I would want a real pair of mountaineering crampons and suitably rigid boots to prevent falls before I bother with the axe that may or may not save me once the fall happens. If I can have one or the other, I would go with the crampons. Even 60 degree ice can be climbed without an axe if you have suitable boots and crampons.

  7. Walt on July 7, 2019 at 9:55 am

    Thanks so much for all this info! It seemed like a lot of your timing for making decisions on gear hinged on July…I am leaving from Yosemite on PCT to Echo Lakes on July 20th and hope to do it in 2 weeks. At that point, would you still recommend both axe and microspikes or just one of the two?

    • Andrew Skurka on July 7, 2019 at 10:16 am

      After looking over the maps, are there particular sections that concern you and that you think may warrant an ice ax or crampons?

      • Walt on July 7, 2019 at 12:51 pm

        The sections that appear to have snow still based on Postholder (https://www.postholer.com/snow/Pacific-Crest-Trail/1) are Benson Pass, northern boundary of Yosemite, northern boundary of Emigrant, Sonora Pass, and Dick’s Pass. Having trouble finding info on the current conditions of these locations, however, or what to expect come later this month. Would calling the rangers be the best source of info or is there something else you’d recommend? Thanks again!

        • Andrew Skurka on July 8, 2019 at 2:02 pm

          None of those passes are very steep, and I think a fall would be a very low-risk event.

          I always like to be conservative, so I’d probably buy the gear I think I might need, and then make a last-minute call based on last-minute conditions. I do the same with my other gear. For example, I’m packing a rain jacket and pants for Yosemite trips July 12-26, but I’ll check the forecast immediately before each trip in the hopes that I can leave behind the pants.

  8. Bart on July 11, 2019 at 11:13 am

    I’ve seen several people on the PCT this year pairing this crampon
    https://www.rei.com/product/130563/camp-usa-xlc-490-universal-aluminum-crampons
    with Altras.
    I thought Altras would slide out of them.

  9. Mark on July 17, 2019 at 3:23 am

    Hi!

    What’s your opinion regarding Petzl Leopard flexlock crampons? Weight-wise these are on-par with the microspikes but with larger aluminium points.

    Kind regards,
    Mark

    • Andrew Skurka on July 29, 2019 at 9:22 am

      No experience with them, and feedback about them generally seems thin.

  10. John on August 1, 2019 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for this great information. We are planning to complete the SoSHR just after Labor Day. Sounds like we should be fine with no ice axe/crampons throughout the route. I’m still wondering if it would be worth carrying just for the Mountaineers Route up Whitney. I know it’s a ways out, but with these conditions, should we count on needing ice axes/crampons if we want to attempt the Mountaineers Route in early to mid-September? I appreciate your help!

    • Andrew Skurka on August 1, 2019 at 11:48 am

      I’m not familiar with the conditions on the Mountaineers Route. I try to avoid that zone entirely.

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