On the mountain, safety must always come first. Negligent behaviour can cause injury and, should that occur, there is a rather large economic cost to send out a chopper to taxi you to hospital. Crampons are sharp and dangerous; their misuse can cause deep lacerations. The key to staying safe is to use the correct equipment and exercise proper technique.
You can learn about the crampon equipment you need in the sections on Crampon Types and Crampon Attachment. The first mark of good cramponing technique is being able to identify if you need to use crampons at all. As a rule, your crammies will slow your progress by about 10%, so you should only fit them when they are necessary. Snowy terrain does not automatically merit the use of your crampons. If you are finding good traction and secure footing with your boots, then there is little need for spikes.
Kick your toes into the snow when ascending and dig your heels in when descending. You may also find suitable footholds in the snow by following the line of a previous climber. If the snow is soft and your boot is biting, then your crampons are probably not required.
You should use your crampons when you are unsure or lack confidence in your footing. Alternatively, if there is hard packed snow, ice, or a steep incline that your boots cannot gain good traction on, then your crammies should come out.
The decision to switch to crampons will depend on your experience, ability, and confidence. Treat each situation on its merit but remember to plan ahead; it is far easier to attach your crampons on a flat spot prior to a climb than to faff around on steep and treacherous terrain.
Once you have your crampons securely fitted, it is necessary to adjust your technique and take additional precautions. Be aware of climbers fore or aft of you; if you slip wearing your crampons it is all too easy for them to come to a dead stop in your friends’ shinbone.
Take the time to regularly check and free the spikes of excess snow, ice or debris. The accumulation of snow on the base of your crampons in known as balling up, which you can reduce by purchasing crampons with an anti-balling system.
When walking in crampons you should consciously increase the size of your gait to keep your legs wider apart. The idea is to prevent your spikes catching your other leg, boot, or clothing. The use of snug-fitting Gaiters is highly recommended to keep loose clothing in check and to prevent snags. Avoid walking over ropes or any other equipment when wearing your crampons.
French Technique – or flat-footing – is an odd-looking but efficient and effective way to climb or rest on steeper slopes. A video is worth a thousand words, so we have included a clip on flat-footing below:
The technique can look awkward and it does require some balance and practice to master. You should take the time to practice on a suitable easy-angled slope where there is little danger should you slip or fall. When flat-footing be sure to flex your ankles to allow full contact between all of the crampon spikes and the snow or ice – you should avoid using the edges of your crampons. If the terrain becomes too steep to allow full crampon contact, you can climb diagonally to reduce the pressure on your ankle.
For steeper slopes, or where the ice is particularly hard, you can switch to Front Pointing. As a technique, Front Pointing is an easier and more natural way to climb. As the name suggests, you ascend by kicking the front points of your crampons into the snow or ice – much like kicking your toes in when you are not wearing your spikes.
Keep your feet horizontal and ensure a good contact between your points and the snow/ice before stepping up and repeating the process. A more rigid crampon/boot combination is best for using this technique. Be sure not to raise the heel of your planted foot above the horizontal, as this will lever the points out of the ice.
Your technique coming back down the mountain in crampons very much depends on the angle of the slope. On shallower slopes, you can face directly down the fall line and plant each foot flat such that all crampon points are used. If the terrain is steeper, it can often be better to face the slope and descend backwards using the Front Pointing technique.
Never Glissade – a controlled slide – down the slope when wearing crampons. Your crampons can easily catch in the snow or ice putting you into an out of control tumble. In addition, there is a high risk of severe ankle sprain or breaking your leg.
As a tool, an ice axe is an essential accompaniment to your crampons. When ascending or descending it will serve as an important additional contact point and is useful for clearing out an accumulation of snow and ice from the base of your crampons. If the conditions merit the use of crampons, then they almost certainly merit the use of an ice axe as well. You can read more about ice axes in our Ice Axes section.
Using your crampons safely is largely down to applying good common sense and not doing anything you are uncomfortable with or inexperienced in. Take the time to understand how your kit works and how to use it effectively. As always, pack with the worse conditions in mind, take necessary safety equipment with you, and inform others of your route and when they can expect your return. Climb safely and enjoy the countryside responsibly.