Kev has been out testing the Switch ice tools from DMM. What did he think of their top end, all round, technical ice and mixed offering?
Overall Rating: *****
Ice tool design has developed considerably and is a major factor behind the rise in standards over more recent years. From the very beginnings when shepherds used their “alpenstock” to aid stability on glacial terrain and snowy slopes, to the evolution of this when mountaineers decided that sticking a blade (essentially a pick) opposed by a flattened blade (an adze) on the top of the alpenstock was a good idea and essentially creating the first ice axe. These modified alpenstocks developed into shorter shafted versions to allow swinging overhead and in awkward confined spaces. From here the biggest changes and the first big jump towards a modern technical ice tool that we see today, was through the work of Yvon Chouinard and most notably, Hamish MacInnes. MacInnes was responsible for the famous “Terrordactyl” with it’s short shaft and dropped pick and along with Chouinard’s Ice Hammer, these were the tools of choice and created a jump in steep ice standards in the 1970s.
- There is an interesting short article on the BMC website which gives a more in depth history of ice axe design.
Even since my first ice and mixed climbs as a clueless student in the late 1990’s there have been massive leaps forward, with some pretty specialist looking designs now being offered. The Mountain Technology Vertige was still in vogue back then (just!) with many and leashless climbing in the modern sense, hadn’t really been invented yet (although climbers had used axes without leashes, particularly in more general mountaineering situations for some time). Since then I’ve used a variety of different tools from manufacturers such as Cassin, Grivel, Black Diamond, Petzl and DMM. It has not necessarily been a case of one has been better than the previous one and I’ve definitely seen what I’d consider to be some backward steps but generally, more modern tools have made climbing easier, more fun and I’d say safer too.
I was always a bit reluctant to give up my trusty BD clipper leashes and embrace full on leashless tools. The whole concept sounded terrifying, I mean what if you dropped one half way up a route?! It wasn’t until 2009 that I tested the Petzl Nomic whilst working for UKC, and was instantly hooked! Since then I climb everything without leashes, although I do use umbilical style tethers some of the time.
So, on to the Switch Ice Tools from DMM.
DMM say this about the Switch:
“Setting new standards for technical climbing in any terrain – ice, mixed or alpine.
A true, leashless all rounder! If swinging around on a marginal pick placement with both hands matched, gunning for the next sketchy hook is your thing, then look no further, likewise, if quick enchainements in the Alps or psychedelically featured Continental ice float your boat then this is the tool for you. The Switch is DMM’s new ‘state of the art’ full strength leashless tool that takes all of our design heritage and manufacturing knowledge and brings them together as a modern classic.”
In order to test these properly I’ve used them on pretty much any terrain I could think of. Scottish mixed, steep continental ice, ridges, moderate snow and mixed ground, Ben Nevis face routes, Scottish gullies, turf, pure drytooling and alpine north faces.
The first thing I’d say is that the DMM Switch ice tools are brilliant on steep and technical ground, be it funky featured ice, M10 upside down fun or tenuous, technical UK trad mixed. Clearance over bulges and on tricky cauliflower ice is fantastic and they feel stable on even the most tenuous of hooks.
Some people have mentioned that they are quite a heavy pair of tools compared to the competition, but I must say I’ve definitely not noticed this as a limiting factor in my climbing, it’s usually more my weak arms or the fear getting the better of me! Saying that, out of the 3 tools I’ve used most over the last few years, the Swich (with compact hammer and pick weights) at 717g, compared to the Petzl Nomic at 605g and the BD Fusion at 672g, is clearly the heaviest. You can save 40g per tool by removing the pick weights though which brings the Switch in line with the Fusion 2 and there is no doubt in my mind that the BD and DMM offerings are way ahead in terms of build quality and sturdiness.
One thing I really like about the DMM Switch ice tools is that they feel utterly bombproof to climb with. Laybacking off a single torqued pick, feet up by my waist, smeared flat against the frosty rock, both hands and my full weight pulling with all the strength I could muster and not once did I have to worry about a wobbly head or a failing handle. The hot forged ergonomic handle with full strength upper and lower rests, is super comfortable and stable in all grip positions and it doesn’t matter whether I’m wearing thick or thin gloves. The fact that the whole handle is one full strength piece, means that there is very little can go wrong with it. Yes, it can’t be adjusted for different hand sizes but it works whether you have big or small hands or gloves anyway. On all of the adjustable handle tools that I have used I’ve had comfort and stability issues with the lower part of the handle coming loose in some way at some point. This has never happened with the DMM Switch tools.
So for steep continental ice, M-style and Scottish mixed in the grade 6 and above category, they get the thumbs up. I could continue to harp on about how good the Switch tools are for hard climbing but as DMM proclaim them to be a great all rounder, lets now look at what they’re like for other applications.
One thing the Switch has got over some of it’s competition is the fact that it will take a proper adze and hammer. This means that you can knock in pitons, hack away snow and ice and construct snow anchors with a little more ease. If I’m climbing steeper ice or mixed routes I’d usually just climb with 2 hammers (it’s really easy to change the pick units) as it feels a lot less intimidating when you’re pulling hard rather than staring an adze in the face. However on Scottish routes at grade 5 or less, or whilst mountaineering I find an adze to be quite useful for the reasons I stated earlier.
Obviously the fact that the shaft is not straight, does mean it is not as effective when plunging it into snow but it does work, you just have to adapt a little bit. The Switch does have a serrated metal spike on the bottom to protect the handle and offer some purchase against ice and snow. This is not a proper spike I do find that it can bounce off hard ice, but in most conditions it works well enough. This spike also allows you to clip a karabiner in to attach umbilical style tethers and there is also a small hole to attach cord if you wish to attach the tethers via this instead. I prefer this second option as you don’t get any metal on metal rattling, feedback when swinging or the unwanted twisting and accidental unclipping, that is more likely when clipping metal into the metal.
For less steep ground the main issue I’ve found is the way the pick seats. There is a tendency, on less steep ice and neve, for the head of the axe to bury due to the pick angle and the curve of the shaft. This can make retrieval difficult. There are also instances where the pick places in such a way that you end up pulling out on it rather than down, which can make the placement quite unstable (Toby Archer reviewed these over on UKC and also has some interesting thoughts and images regarding their use on less technical ground). These are all things that you can get around, but they just hilight that sometimes you have to compromise, if you want one tool to do every job.
I think for me, in my personal climbing I have no problem using the Switch tools for everything, I can reap the benefits on steeper ground and adapt on less technical terrain, but there are definitely instances where a different tool might be better. For example if I was spending a lot of time working in the mountains doing classic mountain routes of AD standard and below or Scottish winter routes where I needed to construct snow anchors, I’d probably opt for something a bit less radical, such as DMM’s Apex, BD’s Viper or the Petzl Quark.
All in all I love the DMM Switch ice tools and they are my current tools of choice. They’ve been with me on many routes over the last few months, from classic alpine traverses, big north faces such as the Eiger and Matterhorn and moderate ridges and gullies. They tick the boxes as an all round tool, particularly if you want something that performs well on the harder stuff but can tackle everything else as well. The grip is brilliant and incredibly comfortable, and the whole construction feels utterly bombproof. They’re made in Wales too 🙂
- RRP: £400 per pair
- Find out more at the DMM website.