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Petzl Nomic: My Deep Affection (Affliction?)


MSRP: $299

My theft of services, I hesitate to call it larceny, started casually enough. Three seasons ago, a guide service I work for began renting Petzl’s Nomic ice tools to clients. It was fairly easy to switch the rental tools for my own before heading out each day. And I figured it was a bit of restorative justice for hours spent shouting “Trust your feet!” But then I developed a habit. I might “forget” my own tools at home on a steep climbing day and be “forced” to scare up a pair of Nomics in the parking lot. Soon, I knew where every pair of Nomics lived in Ouray, and I had sophisticated system of borrowing worked out so that I wouldn’t lean too hard on any particular friend, lest they notice my habit. It is with this foundation of affection, or affliction, that I embarked to spend a few months with Petzl’s latest re-up.

Petzl’s Nomic is designed for steep ice and mixed climbing. It debuted on the market about five years ago and encouraged both a new leashless standard for ice tools and a higher technical standard for alpine tools. An updated, somewhat more alpine-capable Nomic hit the jewelry cases of your local gear store in 2012. This latest incarnation leaves most of the previous design intact. The handle now accommodates larger hands and thicker gloves. The griprest now includes a serrated blade on the bottom so that the tool can be used as a cane and gain another point of purchase on steep ice as the handle presses into the flow. The modular head incorporates the Quark’s hammer or an adze and is a few feathers lighter in the shaft and heavier in the grip, making for a total of 30 grams lighter than its older sister.

I spent 20-some days with the previous Nomic design and about 15 days with the shiny new pair. From home in Silverton, Colorado, I sunk my teeth into steep and mellow ice and scratched my way up some mixed routes. I also took the tools along for a trip to Lofoten, Norway, where I arrived too late for the ice (whoops) but put them to work on alpine ice approaches to ski descents (if only to confirm that they are, indeed, not intended for this).

Every climber has a different torso length, forearm length, wrist flexibility, posture and history of middle school softball trauma; everyone’s swing is different. Consequently, the swing of this tool will feel good to some and not to others. The Nomic climbs beautifully for me. It is one of the very few pieces of equipment that actually increases my ability level dramatically, rather than simply making me look the part. And my “never-ever” clients with chicken-wing swings and tippy-toe stances start to really enjoy the sport when they manage to wrestle their Nomics back from me. But this is not the tool, redesigned or otherwise, that I would take on an alpine climb, steep or otherwise, despite the manufacturer’s suggestion. Unless that alpine climb were the Andromeda Strain or Blood from the Stone: dead vertical terrain, ice and rock. No runnels, no alpine approach pitches, no breaks.

Sheldon Kerr confirms that the Nomic struggles on moderate terrain during a first descent in Lofoten, Norway. [Photo] Mark Allen

For those of you targeting unrelenting alpine objectives, the improvements are worth checking out. As always, the Nomic’s griprest pivots to accommodate larger and smaller hands or gloves. But now the entire griprest is larger for your alpine climbing, Alti Glove pleasure. Unfortunately, in accommodating meaty hands on alpine objectives, Petzl has left those of us with petite, girlish hands with a void that no glove can fill. Score one for the boys.

The next improvement on the grip also makes the tool more alpine capable. The tool has a blade/spike on the end affixed to the griprest that allows a climber to piolet canne to their heart’s delight. If, that is, the climber has big hands. This is because the blade’s big teeth are only positioned best if the griprest is in the medium or large setting. Thirty-love, boys serving.

Smaller hands start to benefit from the serrated blade when the climber goes vertical. It is in the small and medium positions that the blade sinks best into the ice, quieting pick shift and increasing stability while you match hands on the tool. In the large position, however, the blade does not touch the ice in as many variances of steepness, so this benefit is less noticeable.

Anna Quathammer tests the Nomic’s drytoolability in Ouray. [Photo] Sheldon Kerr

With the new ability to add an adze or hammer, everybody wins! All hand sizes will also be pleased to find that the interface between the griprest and the shaft has been improved with a set of interlocking teeth. A couple pieces of four-millimeter cord strung through the hole in the shaft hidden behind the griprest render the tool compatible with the leash system of your choosing.

But all told, they didn’t quite nail it. Here are a couple suggestions I would offer to further alpine-ify the tool to match the initial marketing. If the serrated blade on the bottom were to have the two large teeth extended (more spike-like), and an additional long tooth added behind the existing one, the tool could increase its alpine dexterity; it could be used for a much wider variety of piolet positions (canne, ramasse, etc.). The addition of another long tooth would also allow the tool to be used as a cane when the grip rest is in the small position. A redesign of the pick or the head so that it doesn’t need a guaranteed-to-be-dropped spacer would also make the tool more suitable for alpine terrain.

The Nomic is excellent on steep ice and in mixed terrain–no question–and I will continue to use it there. But, spike or no spike, it just isn’t an all-around alpine tool (no matter what Ueli Steck says). The curved shaft, the steep pick and the offset handle mean that it can’t perform well on ice that isn’t steep. It is awkward to try to swing into grade-two ice. That offset handle combined with the protruding upper grip means the tool also won’t plunge well into snow.

If, however, you are a dude or dudette with beefy man-hands, and you want a tool for very steep, sustained alpine ice climbs, this is the tool for you (and give a call, I know a girl who will give you a good price on your old pair). Just make sure that you have an alpine ice tool in your arsenal as well.

Pros: A bit more alpine capable; head now accommodates a removable adze and hammer; new blade on grip rest; fits bigger/gloved hands better; interface between griprest and shaft is more secure; same beautiful swing.

Cons: Not much more alpine capable; new pick spacer in head makes tool easy to drop; serrated blade not quite enough for cane; doesn’t fit small hands as well.