The Alpinist Mountain Standards reviews apply Alpinist's tradition of excellence and authenticity to gear reviews by providing unbiased, candid feedback and anecdotal commentary to equipment tested (hard) in the field. Our panel is comprised of climbers who use the gear every day as part of their work and play. Only the gear they would actually buy themselves, at retail price, qualifies for the Alpinist Mountain Standards award. The five-star rating system is as follows:
One Star = Piece of junk.
Two Stars = Has one or more significant flaws, with some redeeming qualities.
Three Stars = Average. This solid piece of gear is middle-of-the-road on the current market.
Four Stars = Better than most comparable gear on the market. It has one or two drawbacks, but still 90% positive.
Five Stars = Is there such thing as perfection? An Alpinist Mountain Standards award-winner.
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Grivel Force Carbon: Carbon Sea Horses with a Price on Their Heads
Posted on: February 27, 2013
MSRP: $750 per tool
Okay, don't abandon reading this review because the price is more appropriate for a mountain bike than an ice axe. Part of the "Reparto Coarse" collection, Grivel designed and marketed the Force Carbon as an extreme drytooling and competition climbing axe. It costs twice as much as most tools on the market, but also outshines them. By producing this futuristic-looking axe, did Grivel unleash the next advancement in the ice climbing industry or just make a really expensive axe that looks as much like a carbon sea horse as it does an ice tool?
Keeping the intention of the axe in mind, most of my time testing the Carbon Force was spent drytooling at various crags in France. In total, the tools logged more than 150 pitches in my hands, plus climbs by a handful of partners and curious onlookers who wanted to try out these crazy looking tools. They were tested on a variety of routes up to D10+ (comparable to "M" grades but lacking ice), ranging from big, pocketed roofs to technical face climbs.
Two things make these excel on mixed ground: the shape and weight. The "sea horse" curve of the axe comes from bending only the very top of the shaft; other axes bend in the middle or gradually, over the entire length of the shaft. This shape greatly reduces any pick shifting, especially when switching hands, creating an incredibly stable axe. The design also increases the overall reach of the axe (two centimeters more than the Nomic), which is surprisingly noticeable when climbing harder routes that involve big moves. I spent time projecting a climb using both Nomics and Forces, and the extra reach made a big difference.
The second factor in the Force Carbon's skill is its feather weight. At 19.8oz, it's one of the lightest axes out there (The Petzl Ergo is 23oz and BD Fusion 34oz, for comparison). While a few ounces isn't much, it can reduce fatigue over long or sustained climbs.
The carbon construction makes this light weight achievable, but I was skeptical of the material's durability especially for mixed climbing. Pulling and torquing on the tools in every possible direction for 150 pitches, I have yet to chip the finish. They were even dropped from about 10m without consequence. The carbon material also gives the Force incredible stiffness. I never once felt any flex like I have using some aluminum tools, and at 180lbs, I'm not the lightest climber out there.
Despite excellent performance, there are some noticeable flaws that detract from my overall impression of this tool. First, the rubber "spray on" grip has a short lifespan. Indeed these tools have seen some use, but already the rubber grip has shown significant signs of wear, and replacing isn't easy. (I assume they would have to be sent back to the factory to be re-sprayed.) Secondly, there is no clip-in point on the top of the tool—a real annoyance if you are trying to stow the tool on your harness for a move or when cleaning a route. The Force Carbon does have a small metal shield wrapping the back of the pick that can be bent enough to accept narrow carabiners, but is not a convenient solution.
My last criticism about the Force Carbon is their poor performance on ice. The axes come with a seemingly indestructible, five-millimeter pick that Grivel says cannot be replaced with a narrower, water ice pick. The robust factory pick is great for scratching around on rock, but it's too wide for long stretches of ice. On serious water ice, I'll stick to my Nomics or a pair of Cobras any day. To be fair, the Force Carbon is not marketed for ice climbing, in fact, Grivel makes an ice-specific version of this same tool (called the Master Carbon). Nonetheless, I see this lack of versatility as a disadvantage, and the thought of purchasing two sets of tools is hard to grasp!
Those looking for a tool with similarly high performance and eye-catching design—that doesn't cost as much as a used vehicle—might be happier with Grivel's Force Alloy. This economy version of the Force Carbon costs $275 less per tool. It weighs 2.2oz more, but even with a weight difference, I would expect the same performance. At $475 per tool, the Force Alloy is still $150 dollars more expensive than most tools on the market. For comparison, the Petzl Nomic weighs about 2oz more than the Force Alloy and costs $175 less.
The bottom line is that, while the design looks too strange to be functional, and the price tag steep, I have to admit the performance of this odd shape signals a notable advance in ice axe technology. Based solely on mixed climbing performance, I would give this axe five stars without hesitation, but I feel my aforementioned criticisms do detract from the overall product. Nonetheless, Grivel has produced a forward-thinking design sure to give any (well-funded) mixed climber an advantage.
Pros: Shape reduces pick shift; incredibly stiff; additional reach due to shape; durable pick; lightweight
Cons: Price tag; rubber grip coating wears easily; no clip-in point; thick pick too wide for ice and is not interchangeable