Grivel Monte Bianco: The Pleasure of Wood

Posted on: February 16, 2012


MSRP: $185

Weight: 1 lb, 5 oz (65 cm) or 1 lb, 7.5 oz (75 cm)

In the spring of 2011 I was fresh out of an Alpinist internship, where I spent months sifting through old alpine journals and books. Each day immersed me in climbing history: the pioneer days on remote peaks, deep sacrifice and exceptional amounts of risk, all performed with gear that's considered rudimentary by today's standards. It got me thinking about gear, necessity and what I wanted to get from climbing.

I left Alpinist and drove 5,000 miles to south-central Alaska to catch the spring ski-mountaineering season in the Chugach. Along the way, I had time to think about ways to integrate some of that ancient climbing soul into my own life. My solution? I brought along the composite wood Monte Bianco ice axe to remind me of those ideas that had been stewing around in my head about climbing history and soul.

I took the Monte Bianco on multi-day ski tours that involved a bit of classical mountaineering, glacier travel and snow climbing. Grivel says that the shaft "brings together the pleasure of wood with the strength of carbon." While you may be tempted to make a "that's what she said" joke, keep in mind that wood has always been as much about pleasure as function. And this shaft definitely does have a better feel to it. The thing I liked most about the wood actually wasn't the grip, but the oversized width. The shaft is very large in diameter, which makes it a more comfortable and natural hold. I also appreciated that wood stays warmer than metal.

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Okay, back to ice axes. The pick and adze on the Monte Bianco worked as well as any similar ones I've used, and it pounded in snow pickets like a jackhammer on the Skyline Traverse above the Turnagain Arm of the Gulf of Alaska. The axe also has a strange balance to it. Because of the burly shaft, the weight is distributed more evenly throughout the axe. I found this to be both good and bad. With less of the weight concentrated in the head, it doesn't swing like a normal axe, and it's harder to drive the pick into snow and ice. But when walking with the axe I appreciate the even weight distribution because it feels sturdy and strong. With it's classic design, neutral angle blade and abnormally large spike, it seems as though this axe was well designed for meandering through low-angle snowfields thinking about the late greats and golden ages—but nothing more.

The performance of this axe was decent, but it was not good enough to outweigh its two pitfalls: weight and price. My beef with the Monte Bianco is that there are so many axes out there that are designed for the same purpose at half the weight and half the price. Put simply, this axe is not for technical mountaineering. Fine. But why spend so much on a piece of gear when you can get something that is better at a cheaper price? For this reason, it is difficult to recommend the Monte Bianco to anyone doing anything more than simple traverses.

In the end, this wooden axe didn't bring me any closer to the spirit of classic mountaineering, and I don't think any piece of gear can. Ultimately, all I can say about the Monte Bianco is that its craftsmanship and homage to traditional alpinism is well-intentioned, but when it comes to serious fun-having in the mountains I'd recommend leaving the wood-handled axe at home on the mantel.

Pros: Wood handle is comfortable; balanced weight distribution is nice for walking.

Cons: Heavy; expensive.

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