An ice axe

Grivel North Machine Carbon Vario

It seems like all the climbers these days seem to be focused on the most ergonomic, techiest ice tools for the hardest of dry tooling routes. Except that not that many of us are climbing those routes. I would wager that most readers are probably more interested in climbing moderately technical routes up peaks than sending the M10 in some dirty little cave of crumbly rock. The last time a non-ergonomic tool for steep ice and alpine routes was reviewed in The Climber was in 2012—with Black Diamond's venerable Cobra.

The North Machine Carbon (and its fully aluminium shafted sibling, the North Machine) have been out for a few years now and are updates to the now classic Quantum and Quantum Tech ice tools. Readers may remember my review of Grivel's Tech Machine Carbon a few years ago in which I complained bitterly about the stupid hammer/adze attachment system. Grivel has fixed this with its new Vario system—a much more streamlined and sophisticated system worthy of Grivel—that can also be retroactively applied to earlier ‘Machine’ tools with the same head design. The only drawback to this system is if you want to take your hammer or adze off and climb with nothing behind the pick, you have to buy a ‘blank’ to fill the void in the construction (these cost around 15 euros).

Grivel's carbon tools are not 100 per cent carbon fibre—they are carbon overlaid on an aluminium shaft. This purportedly combines the best of both worlds—allowing the tool to be light (or lighter than their aluminium counterparts) while still maintaining the strength required, as well as having the characteristics associated with carbon—poor cold conductivity and good swing dampening. By comparison, the North Machine Carbon comes in at 495g (Grivel's measurements) and the fully carbon-shafted Black Diamond Cobra with the hammer attachment is 588g.

The Vario attachments are a big adze (not tested), a micro hammer (not tested) and a standard hammer (tested). The attachments slot into the back of the pick in a very nice flush design. The hammers are a bit of an unusual shape—kind of like a four-leaf clover—but they function well and are nice and beefy. I chewed up the micro hammers on my Cobras pounding pins and snow stakes—these are much more robust.

Now, there is a fine line between how light an ice tool can go before performance is compromised. You simply can't get good penetration into hard water ice when you're swinging a feather duster. Grivel is playing with that line here. There’s still excellent performance on water ice, as most of the weight is concentrated in the head, but I really wouldn't want to go much lighter. I had thought about buying the micro hammers, but  was concerned they would be too light in the head for hard ice. These would be perfect for névé, however. I've used these tools on many WI5 routes, as well as some moderate mixed lines and alpine routes. They swing great, the picks are the best in the business and the shaft provides enough clearance manoeuvre around most obstacles found on moderate routes. That's not to say you can't climb harder on them, but this is not the best tool for the job on that D9.

There are three features of the North Machine that I think require a bit of addressing:

1) There is no secondary grip. I think this is a massive failure by Grivel. What they should have done is have a removable one like everyone else does. While many of us remove these for alpine climbing, it does occasionally come in handy while climbing steep ice. I have seen people add on Petzl Trigrests or Grivel's own upper grips, but they are not as aesthetically pleasing as one designed specifically for this tool. And who wants to go out and buy an extra bit for a tool when all of its competitors have one as standard? I don't use upper grips enough on moderate climbs to warrant buying one, but I sometimes miss it.

2)The spike. I only mention this because it is unusual. The spike is more like the tip of trekking pole than the spike of an ice axe, but I think it works well, especially when balancing on rock.

3) The handle. The handle on the otherwise very similar Quantum Tech curved up and around to provide good support when hanging on the tool. Grivel has trimmed this down to ostensibly make it easier to plunge into the snow. This may be, but it also makes it a lot harder to spend time hanging on. I would have preferred a more substantial handle.

The North Machine is a great tool—it climbs well and is very light—perfectly suited to alpinism and moderate ice. I would happily use it on just about any alpine route and I actually prefer to use it on moderate ice and mixed climbs than my X Dreams. But despite Grivel having better picks, the Cobra climbs better, has an upper hand rest integrated and a better lower hand rest. So I think Black Diamond's Cobra remains a better all-around tool.

4 Stars

By Graham Johnston