A serious contender for the best technical alpine tool crown.
Grivel have an enviable history in the climbing world – they were the company that first produced modern crampons back in 1909, they had carbon shafted axes in 1986 and they have continued to innovate since then. Grivel also put great stock by their environmental standards and have been using solar power to support its manufacturing since 2010 – all grivel products come tagged with a ‘Sun at Work‘ label, global warming being both an environmental and industrial disaster if your market relies on alpine ice and snow!
The Grivel North Machine would seem to be the successor to their Quantum Tech which had a bit of cult following in mountaineering circles (or perhaps it reflected the sponsorship deals of the time). With its black and yellow livery and carbon fibre shaft the North Machine is a very sexy looking tool that is aimed at technical alpine and cascade climbing (a similar niche to the BD Cobra). It has a comfortable lower hand rest and a slight lip where the second curve on the shaft begins, identical to the Quantum, which helps with quick hand changes if swapping through on a traverse but no pronounced higher hand rest for choking up or hanging off. The North Machine lacks the more extreme curvature of the shaft and full on hooked handle of an out and out mixed tool (the Grivel Tech Machines cover this market). The spike is small tungsten affair that bites well into ice and the pommel is clip-able with a normal carabiner. The shaft itself is carbon composite (T – rated) in the G-bone cross section that is designed to improve strength and aid grip. Additionally carbon should allow more vibration dampening which though not that important if hooking your way up a mixed line it is noticeable on sustained ice pitches helping to reduce fatigue and carbon is also ‘warm’ to the touch. Length wise the North Machine is at the shorter end of the technical tool range at 50cm. The other great thing about the Grivel tools is the forged pick. My North Machines came fitted with their ‘Ice’ pick but this is still ‘T’ rated and like all Grivel picks that I’ve tried before it penetrates superbly well – probably the best pure ice pick I’ve experienced. Oddly (in my opinion) for an ‘ice’ pick it has needlessly aggressive teeth all along the underside to the head and over the head section. For your average winter/alpine climber the previous generation of high end Grivel tools had a bit of a down side with a peened three bolt attachment for the pick and integrated adze/hammer. These were a pain to swap out and often hard to get hold of. Thankfully the current generation has returned to a simple nut and bolt arrangement that is easily field swappable.The picks fasten with simple and secure allen key bolts, the adze and hammer are then bolted to a tang which is part of the pick extending past the head. This arrangement is simple but does require another size of allen key and means that with hammer and adze removed you still have the tang protruding beyond the head. You can of course buy picks sans tang if you should wish. Throughout the review period there was no sign of the picks loosening.
The North Machines got their first outing in Chamonix this summer on a variety of ‘dangerous walks’ type glacier/snow plods as well as steeper ice such as the Cheré Couloir. As you would probably expect they were far more at home as the terrain got steeper.
Used piolet canne on easier ground the North Machines were OK but a little short and the teeth were noticeable on bare hands and abrading gloves – I’ll be filing these down before their next outing to blunt their bite for alpine use (if you wanted a pick for stein pulls Grivel make a mixed pick). The moderately curved shaft plunged fine in soft snow but obviously the hand rest made plunging difficult as things firmed up – still better than ‘handled’ tools though.
Once things moved more toward the vertical the North Machines began to shine, the double curved G-Bone shaft made daggering easy and comfortable and as soon as things got vertical the tools were in their element. The swing is beautifully balanced and together with the excellent pick made for efficient fatigue free climbing. Despite the surfeit of aggressive teeth the North Machines never became stuck through being over driven though this may reflect the ice conditions encountered more than anything else.
They are definitely a light tool (545g for the adze and 561g for the hammer version on the CGR scales) which is great for approaches and the balance is good so I never felt the need for additional weight to get good ‘sticks’ whilst climbing. I look forward to using them on steeper ice routes as they were a joy to climb with on the Cheré. In fact I got a little carried away and strung a couple of pitches together effectively pinching the best leads – apologies again to Bob! The hammer only got used to test a few of the in-situ pegs but it is clearly effective – far more so than the ‘toffee’ hammers that have been appearing on a few axes in recent years. Having used Nomics exclusively for the last few years it was revelation how much easier it is to use a hammer again on a more moderately curved tool – a definite plus on big mountain routes. One thing the North Machine lacks is a distinct upper hand rest, there is a ‘bump’ but nothing you can really hang off. On classic steep ice this may not be a huge issue but I think it is certainly something I would miss mixed climbing especially when traversing and on more convoluted terrain requiring swapping tools etc. I didn’t really get a chance to test the North Machines hooking and torquing prowess beyond an occasional move or two but they felt secure and the picks seem more than up to the task. The pommel clip in point has been designed with Grivel’s own mini screwgate carabiners in mind as it is too bulky for the mini wire gates on some leashes but this is easily solved with some 4mm accessory cord.
In Alpine terrain the North Machines are superb, like any technical tool they are not going to compete or replace a classic piolet on easy snow or glacial terrain but they’ll get by. Once you hit more technical terrain they excel. Their well balanced swing and easy penetration reduced fatigue on route and their light weight helped make the approach sack less of a burden. They have already become my favourite alpine tools (and its not just because of the sexy black and yellow colour scheme!). With the Scottish winter season upon us I will update this review after using the North Machines in the Scottish hills and maybe some european cascades with a bit of luck. Whilst I don’t envisage using them on truly technical mixed routes it will be interesting to see how the carbon shafts withstand the rough and tumble of typical Scottish winter climbs.
SRP £200.00 (per tool)
Stockists Grivel GB
Richie is the enthusiastic amateur of the team. Enjoying all aspects of climbing but especially alpine, winter and his local grit . Having managed to survive the vagaries of both fluorescent Koflachs and rainbow tights in the 80s he looks forward to an even more stylish future. A shady past in mountain marathons and adventure races, including the Marathon des Sables, means he’s an advocate of fast and light. Though the former is debatable if you’ve seen him on a tricky lead!