Twenty years ago, I did my first ice climbs in Boulder Canyon with straight-shafted Chouinard tools and leashes. The gear has changed a lot since then. Leashless tools are now standard, and today’s new ice climbers might not even think about the concept of leashes (straps that connect a climber’s wrists to the heads of each tool). Now there are a plethora of ice axe designs for terrain that ranges from snow slopes to overhanging, cauliflowered ice blobs and mixed climbing on rock.
I now live in Bozeman, Montana, and am fortunate to have Hyalite Canyon in my backyard. The canyon is home to more than 200 ice routes and it has been an ideal testing ground for the Black Diamond Reactor ice tools, which the company describes as “winter cragging machine(s).”
My first objective was the Hyalite classic The Good Looking One (WI5). I was excited to test the new tools on a personal favorite that I had l just led the previous week, because I thought this would provide a great comparison to my BD Cobras.
As I started up the route, I noticed that the swing weight of the Reactors felt different. These tools are specifically designed for steep ice, and the offset lower handle and high center of gravity make this intention clearly evident. A series of glancing, inaccurate blows above my first two screws caused me to lose confidence. The screw at my waist was good but I couldn’t bring myself to climb above it. I yelled, “Take” to my partner below. After struggling up the rest of the route, I clipped the anchor, and lowered, feeling slightly dejected yet excited to try the tools on a few toprope laps – especially the mixed lines to the left. I tackled the middle line, which had slightly more rock but was still mostly ice. This time, I began figuring out the swing dynamic, and my accuracy, confidence, and disposition all improved.
For the third route, I ventured to the far left and cruised up the mixed line. The offset handles made it super easy to choke up on the shaft and switch between tools, and they also minimized pick shift–the tendency for the pick to pivot because of the higher grip on the handle. By now, I had figured out the swing dynamic, and I could bury the tip of the new Natural Ice picks easily into each small indention and thin seam in the chandeliered ice. The lower profile of these newly designed picks, coupled with the high center of gravity, required less effort to produce a solid stick and greatly reduced the number of times the picks got stuck. During the ascent, I also noticed a couple of good rock gear placements that would allow access to overhanging ice above. I had never led this line and figured it would be an ideal way to redeem myself for the morning’s poor showing.
My partner pulled the rope as I re-racked the gear and eyed up the line, which would require moving farther off the ice and onto the rock to place protection. The Reactors worked well for the dry tooling portion; however, this wasn’t steep, overhanging terrain, and I couldn’t help wondering how the Natural Ice picks would hold up under more demanding conditions. The new tools felt solid transitioning onto the ice from the mixed section. The Reactors allowed easy movement between the series of mushrooms and small flows leading to the anchor. I was now pretty sold on the Reactors, especially after leading a route that I’ve had my eye on for over decade.
For the second outing, we headed to a more remote route in Hyalite’s Flanders Cirque. The first pitch of Bobo Like (WI5) is a small/mixed free hanging column with the second pitch consisting of 20 meters of WI4 followed by 30 meters of rolling WI3 in a narrow slot surrounded by 10- to 15-meter cliff walls.
As before, the Reactors proved adept on the steep ice; however, I was more interested in how they would perform on the easier ice above. Several of the new tools I’ve used seem poorly suited for lower-angled terrain: they require an awkward swing or they tend to produce insecure sticks because of the overly aggressive geometry. This wasn’t the case with the Reactors. However, I did notice minor bruising on my pinkies the following day. This may have been because of the open pommel structure. While this design would be advantageous on colder days with heavy gloves, it also appears to allow your hands to bounce between the handle and the pommel if the pommel strikes the ice first.
Despite the strong performance on the route, the geometry of the tools definitely altered the handling while I climbed the snow bands just below the route and between the pitches. I felt less secure holding the tool upright by the pick, partly because of the smaller and less aggressive spike on the bottom of the handle. Instead, I found myself holding the shaft just below the pick and jabbing the pick into the snow. This isn’t as much of a concern for cragging, but it could be inconvenient on longer alpine outings.
Next up was one of Hyalite’s best cragging destinations: Alpha (WI5) and Omega (WI4). The cave behind these two aesthetic, free-hanging columns contains a couple of steep, overhanging mixed lines–perfect for testing the durability of the Natural Ice picks. The lower-volume picks worked well when torqued in all angles and I felt confident these picks would handle a modicum of abuse. if hard mixed climbing is your forte, however, you will probably require a different set of picks.
Overall, the Reactor is a versatile and well-engineered tool that provides an excellent new addition to the Black Diamond family of ice tools. The only major shortcoming is the lack of a hammer (which must be bought separately). Although this is fine on most routes (and maybe preferred by some climbers), you’d need to make an additional purchase if you were planning thin, mixed or alpine routes that required specters and/or pitons.
Todd Preston is a geologist with the US Geological Survey. He has been ice climbing for 20 years and exploring the frozen drips of Montana from his home in Bozeman for more than 11 years. He grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where he fell in love with all things related to rock, ice and snow.
Lightweight shaft and steel head shifts the center of gravity towards the top of the tool, which minimizes backswing and improves swing accuracy, especially on thin, delicate ice.
Large, offset handles make gripping up, switching between tools, and hanging in steep terrain easy and efficient.
Lower-volume Natural ice pick requires less effort and minimizes stuck picks.
Natural Ice pick seems less capable of enduring the rigors of hard mixed climbing.
Lacks hammer (although one can be purchased separately). Also, the geometry of the tool would likely make swinging an added hammer difficult.
Offset handles and lack of hammer makes it more difficult to attach the tools to older backpacks.