Grivel Dark Machine Ice Axe Review
By Graham Johnson
Those that have read my previous reviews will know I have a love/hate relationship with Grivel. They are capable of making the best ice gear on the market, but often seem to (deliberately?) fall short. There was a lot of hype around the Dark Machine (and it's more aggressive cousin, the Dark Machine X - not tested) when it was first announced in 2018, but it was still a few seasons before there were actually enough tools produced to get into the shops and for me to get my hands on a pair. There was a lot to sustain the hype in the meantime—a light (490g!), carbon fibre, ergonomically-shaped ice and mixed tool with a real, non-adjustable, spike. Grivel's use of a fully carbon handle and a carbon composite shaft promised to deliver a nice, head-heavy swing, without the weight. Could this be the perfect technical alpine tool? Grivel has made something similar before—the (mostly) excellent Tech Machine Carbon, but it at 595g it was in the weight range of non-carbon tools. And there's no denying that the Dark Machines looked pretty amazing on the aesthetics front.
Last September, I had plans for some technical alpine routes in Nepal—coincidentally I also was thinking about retiring my heavily used Cassin X-Dreams (fantastic tools, by the way …) and when we received some support from Grivel it seemed the logical choice to get some Dark Machines. I had the opportunity to climb on them a bit before we left, and some annoyances became apparent. The handle is just textured carbon—it gets slippery quick and the hand support (both upper and lower) are relatively low profile, which means that hanging on them is not as comfortable as on a Nomic, X-Dream, Fuel … Bare handles are common on competition, or dry-tooling specific tools, where the athlete wraps the handle to custom form the grip. But this isn't one of those types of tools. It would have been so easy for Grivel to coat the handle in a thin rubber like the North Machine, but no, they did not. I typically wrap the shafts of my tools to provide extra grip and insulation (3M 2155) so I just continued and included the handle. This improved the grip and the overall comfort of the handle, but plunging the tool over time caused the wrap to start to come undone. So, not a permanent solution. Once back from Nepal, I kept climbing on them to make sure my impressions were correct and I continued to be disappointed.
The tool doesn't have a natural swing like the Petzl Nomic or Cassin X-Dream. That's okay—not every tool can be as natural as those. And one can ‘learn’ the way a tool wants to be swung. But even once the swing is learned, they swing … just okay. The overall weight of the tool is so low, that even with the heaviest of hammers I found it hard to get one-swing sticks. And it's not the pick—the standard Ice Vario pick is the same as on my North Machines and on my Tech Machine Carbons—it’s a fantastic pick—it’s the tool. Perhaps the geometry could be tweaked for better ice performance? Climbing with both the large hammers and blank heads (there a variety of hammer, blank and adze attachments) changes the swing, but it's still difficult to flick it into the ice. I climbed on both the standard Ice Vario and the Total Ice picks, with Ice Vario having the best performance. On rock, performance is good—on par with other top tools. Shifting from the lower grip to the upper grip (once some accommodations are made for hand comfort) is about the same as Nomics or X-Dreams—perhaps marginally less stable—but not so much so that I can really notice it. The shaft is stiff but damp—it doesn't flex much when cranking on a crack and feels solid when pulling down on small holds. The overall light weight is good for mixed and alpine performance—but let's be honest—running up névé doesn't require a particularly sophisticated tool and the Dark Machine falls short when the climbing gets real. Like most modular tools these days, there is a full complement of attachments—from blank heads to multiple hammers, an adze and a large variety of pick options.
Grivel famously does not take feedback from their sponsored athletes very well and it shows. In my opinion, Grivel is trying too hard to be sexy while losing the performance attributes that draw us to Grivel tools in the first place. The handle needs to be better and the geometry tweaked for this to be a contender in the realm of top tier tools. Great idea, poor execution.
Do they work? Yes. Are they light? Yes. Can some super strong athlete climb anything with them? Yes. Are there better tools on the market? Absolutely. I'm back on my X-Dreams and Nomics and the Dark Machines are long gone.
2 of 5 stars