OR Summer Market: Climbing/Mountaineering gear wrap

As is our tradition following Outdoor Retailer trade shows, SNEWS continues our look at who is doing what in the world of climbing and mountaineering -- Extreme Engineering, Climb-it, Spiroll, Mammut, Metolius, Camp, Simond, Excalibur, Petzl, Petzl Charlet, Trango, Grivel, Black Diamond, etc.
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As is our tradition following Outdoor Retailer trade shows, SNEWS continues our look at who is doing what in the world of climbing and mountaineering. Please realize that this is not a "we're writing about everyone just because you were there" kind of affair. On the contrary, we're offering only highlights that grabbed our editors' attention as we perused the Summer Market show floor:

Euro Woes -- A common lament among the distributors of European climbing wares was the fall of the dollar against the Euro. As one company put it, "the mothership is having to absorb the difference." This fiscal reality has put a damper on overseas Internet sales, a good thing, but also makes it harder for the smaller brands to compete.

On top of that, some European companies, such as Grivel and La Sportiva, have achieved ISO 4001 certification, which means they operate in an environmentally correct and sustainable manner. This is a very expensive process but it's something that retailers and consumers should consider when shopping. Expect to see more of the larger European brands touting their eco policies and the Americans trying to say it's much ado about nothing while promoting wilderness (ahem).

Black Diamond -- Certainly the talk of the show was CEO Peter Metcalf's laudable battle with Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt over wilderness. And the new Zenix headlamp (discussed last week) also created a stir. But there are other noteworthy products headed our way next spring.

The carabiner line gets snazzed up with a lot more anodized offerings and three new models: the LiveWire (redesigned), the Dynotron (a bigger Positron), and the Quicksilver2 Screwgate. Of course, that means even more options in quickdraw sets, too. Still scary to use, the Spectre ice piton has been revised with an improved shape and cutouts that reduce weight by about one carabiner (54 g).

The pack line also had a much-needed major makeover with nearly everything getting replaced. Overall, the new packs are much cleaner and more sophisticated; truly competitive instead of boring anachronisms. The company also introduced the Huey, which certainly ranks as one of the world's burliest travel duffel bags.

It will be interesting to see who ultimately uses the new line of Black Diamond ultralight tents with canopies of Epic fabric (why does that name sound ominous?). The Firstlight is basically a Bibler I-tent (Black Diamond owns Bibler) with water-repellent ripstop in the walls and SilNylon on the floors instead of a waterproof/breathable laminate and pack cloth. Despite its limitations, a total weight of only 2 pounds, 9 ounces will inspire some to push the envelope. The bigger Lighthouse and smaller Lightsabre Bivy complete the line while the venerable Ahwahnee gets a second door.

Grivel -- Call us retro but there is something cool about a wood-shafted ice axe. Because they couldn't meet the testing standards, it's been decades since wood was replaced by aluminum on nearly all ice axes. Grivel has long made the Replica with a solid ash shaft but it was only sold for non-demanding tasks. The new Monte Bianco, however, features a lamination of carbon fiber and wood (reminiscent of Rexilon) plus a new head design and is certified to the CEN B-standard. The forged steel head and wood shaft give this axe a great feel at a reasonable weight and price.

Companies are finally awakening to the fact that crampons require anti-balling plates but they still seem an afterthought. The new Anti-Botts, included with most Grivel crampons and sold separately, are a significant step above the rest. The super-rugged material is shaped to pop snow buildup out and the rivets will not rip out. The new Air Tech crampon is a high-end mountaineering model intended for maximum performance with the new generation of boots.

Anyone who's ever tried knows that sharpening modern ice screws is an incredible hassle. So many climbers never bother and keep using dull screws that are hard to place. Though not made for 110 volts yet, the new Automatic Sharpener would allow stores to offer real service; it's in the price range of a stone grinder for skis. It works on any model ice screw and easily returns it to peak performance, something worth $5 to many.

Trango -- While still in the prototype stage, the new Cinch belay device appears to be a significant improvement over the Petzl Gri-gri. Although the latter has become standard in many gyms and on big walls, the user interface has been the downfall of all too many lead climbers (as in SPLAT). The Cinch reduces the chances of user-error, has a nice design, and will retail for $10 less -- cool.

The Squid is the new incarnation of La Xriba, using plastic instead of anodized aluminum that takes the old carabiner taped to a stick to the next level. Attached to the end of a telescoping pole (not included, yet), it allows a climber to both clip and unclip a carabiner from a bolt hanger 20 feet in the air. At $30, less than half the price of the original, this should prove popular with sport climbers.

When every gram counts, climbers will want the new Superfly wire gate carabiner, which comes in at a mere 30 grams yet has a gate open strength of 9 kN and is rope-friendly. It's somewhat smaller than other carabiners but still easy to operate. Also remarkable is the LightWeight Screwlock that, at only 46 grams, weighs less than most non-lockers.

At long last, Trango has finally managed to produce anti-balling plates for its Harpoon crampons. With this final piece of the puzzle solved, this is easily the best value in a technical crampon. Plates are also available for the Mountain and Alpine Light crampons; all that's left is the Hyper Harpoon and Hyper Guide.

Just about everybody has borrowed Trango's idea for selling discounted starter packages; consumers appreciate the discount and stores don't have to work as hard. Taking the concept further, it's offering dealers five different kits: two for men, one for women, a cam set and a quickdraw set.

Petzl Charlet -- While the new brand name lacks elegance, the new mountaineering tools are quite sophisticated. The Cosmique ice axes (a T-rated version with a rubber grip and a lighter B-rated model) are nice improvements over its previous general mountaineering axes; less expensive and cleaner lines. The Snowscopic is a lightweight 65 cm ice axe with a steel head that can handle moderate climbing tasks. When the going gets easy, the twist-lock inner shaft extends to 105 cm and has a removable snow basket; making the Snowscopic a good choice for alpine climbing over glaciers.

As had been promised, several of the crampons received a makeover. The Dart loses the nasty-looking heel spur (that flexed too much) and gets a dual-point sibling, the Dartwin; neither has replaceable front points. The M10 gets an improved heel lever that should be less snag-prone and a better length adjustment system. And two new mountaineering models appear that include anti-balling plates: the Vasak and Sarken (essentially the same but the latter has more aggressive front points).

Also noteworthy is the new version of the Laser ice screw called the Sonic, which has a unique rotating "bolt hanger" attached to the handle. This makes the screw somewhat easier to place on lead and a lot easier for the second to remove since the rope can stay clipped.

Excalibur -- Nearly as light as the Trango Superfly, the Wild Country Helium (33 grams) wins on the design elegance front -- this is a beautiful carabiner. The unique wiregate has a shielded nose to minimize accidental opening (only higher-end Black Diamond and DMM wiregates share this feature) and the body has an I-beam construction that is more sophisticated than the old MSR's. Unfortunately, the Helium will also rank as the most expensive biner on the market so the new Oxygen will capture more sales. This features a snag-less gate similar to some Salewa biners with a superior body design at a tolerable price.

Wild Country revamped its harness line with a switch to the relatively new style of threadless buckles pioneered by Petzl. This is a significant safety feature since the climber does not have to remember to back thread to avoid dying. In addition, the new harnesses offer more contoured support and one model, the Matrix, is articulated to allow maximum freedom of movement. These improvements leapfrog the Wild Country harnesses to the front of the pack.

Meanwhile, DMM introduced a larger version of its popular Prowire called the Livewire, both have shielded noses, and an even bigger Eclipse Wire that is stronger (10 kN) but has an unshielded nose. First shown as a prototype last winter, the new Revolution has become a reality that passes standards for both a carabiner and a pulley. While the price ($20) will keep many out, the reduced friction changes the dynamics of falling and could be beneficial in rescue situations.

Simond -- This brand of ice tools and carabiners has been cursed by a musical chairs of lackluster distributors in the States for years as well as one unjust review in a magazine. Indeed it's one of the most innovative lines on the market and its gear is on par with the other major brands. Hopefully, the new distributor (Vertical Addiction) will provide the rep force and stability needed to finally establish Simond as the equal that it is. The new Anoconda Cup and Coyote ice tools feature a unique ice shaft construction to improve power and reduce vibration.

Anker Climbing Equipment -- Hidden away up in The North Face booth, you might have missed the happenings at ACE. At long last, the reincarnation of A5 big wall gear is up and running, with the necessary insurance that held things up. Quite simply, its series of portaledges blows the competition away (though Metolius is a strong runner-up). Sure this category is tiny but those who rely upon their ledges in far-flung corners of the world cannot afford substandard equipment. Expect to see more innovation next year and hopefully ACE will join the gang on the main show floor.

Camp -- Another one of those lines that has been around seemingly forever yet remains relatively unknown. Perhaps more adequate promotion will help? Certainly moving away from a past tendancy to offer some truly funky Italian styling will help, as Camp appears to have done this year. The new Awax ice tools claim to be the lightest technical tools on the market and actually look stylish and functional. Of particular note for schools and outdoor programs, Camp harnesses and quickdraws have a new wear indicator designed into the stitching that warns when a product has sustained a severe load or is just used up.

Metolius -- The big news from Bend was the introduction of ropes made to its specifications by Lanex. The so-called Monster ropes only come in 9.8 or 10.2 mm diameters, in either 60 or 70 meter lengths, and with a dry treatment. Though we haven't tested them yet, the ropes appear to have a good hand and rugged sheath. Hopefully, they are not a monster to handle. Since rope makers need an incentive these days to sell products, these will be packaged with a nice rope bag; however, some consumers may see this as paying extra for something they don't need. A nice improvement to all of its cams is the Range Finder system of color-coded dots. This allows beginning lead climbers to better estimate the safety of cam placements. It's a great idea (though red dots are needed on the narrowest position) that enhances the value of the Metolius cams. While climbers have made their own wooden holds to go on gym walls for at least 20 years, this hasn't been a commercially viable option until now. The Wood Grips will be available in 25 different shapes that are ergonomically correct (no tweaked tendons) and less abrasive than conventional holds. Anyone who spends too much time on indoor walls will appreciate the texture and feel of these.

Mammut -- The new Revelation single rope is sooo skinny that it is being packaged with the Matrix belay device to stores that preseason by the end of the month. This 9 mm rope only weighs 54 grams/meter yet holds five UIAA falls. The Revolution has a dry treatment and changes weave pattern 22 feet from each end for greater safety. However, a standard retail of $215 for a 60 meter is going to keep the riff-raff out; especially since it's likely to wear out quickly. It's an impressive display of technology but, like one-piece mountaineering suits, it's so specialized and expensive that most will go to sponsored climbers and pro deals.

Spiroll -- In climbing areas where top-roping is common, and for rescue groups, caving and big wall climbing, guarding ropes against sharp edges is mandatory. Protecting ropes from abrasion or cutting has generally been a nuisance requiring either padding the rock or attaching a sleeve to the rope. Enter the Spiroll, a polyurethane sheath that self-wraps around the rope and stays in place. Cheap, effective, easy to use -- this is a handy climbing accessory. (www.spirolls.com)

Climb-it -- Lost in the purgatory of the forgotten outer rooms of the Salt Palace, the Climbing Cave seems like a great idea until you look at the price. This is a free-standing, easy-to-erect climbing wall that has a footprint of only 10 by 5 feet. Ten plastic panels each accept 22 climbing holds and a crash pad is included. Ideal for apartments and dorm rooms, this would be a great training aid for serious boulderers and climbers. But the suggested retail of $1,995 will probably relegate it to a backyard play toy for rich kids. Figure out how to get the price down to $499 and these would move. (www.climbitgear.com)

Extreme Engineering -- The hottest thing going at climbing gyms these days is an auto-belay device. When a prospective customer is deciding which gym to join, the availability of a belay anytime versus having to scrounge for sometimes dubious partners or just bouldering can make the deciding factor. Extreme Engineering's main business is portable climbing walls but it also offers the most sophisticated auto belayers around. Its newest system, the Angel, is nearly maintenance free and works with climbing ropes instead of cable or webbing so wall height is not a factor. (www.extremeengineering.com)

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