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Grivel Dark Machines: A specialist’s tool for steep ice


MSRP: $419.99

With the Dark Machines, Grivel maintains its place as a contender in the ever-growing market for aggressive technical tools. A carbon-composite shaft and full carbon handle puts this tool in the featherweight category, and a high center of gravity provides a natural, arched swing tailor-made for steep ice and mixed terrain.

I used the Dark Machines over a full winter season in Colorado–on everything from Vail’s vertical curtains and pillars to chandeliered water ice in Ouray–as well as on rambling multipitch epics in Cody, Wyoming.

The first thing I noticed about the tools was the weight: At just a little more than 17 ounces each, the Dark Machines feel unnervingly light, especially for a technical tool (the weight is fairly average as far as carbon tools go). For comparison, the Trango Kestrel weighs 15.5 ounces with its incredibly Spartan design, and the Black Diamond Cobra, also a straighter-geometry tool, weighs just fewer than 22 ounces.

Corey Buhay leads East Vail Falls (WI 3/4) with the Grivel Dark Machine ice tools. [Photo] Erica Givans

Corey Buhay leads East Vail Falls (WI3/4) with the Grivel Dark Machine ice tools. [Photo] Erica Givans

The handle is comfortable; a straight grip and a generous first-position pinky rest provides an ergonomic hand position. (Climbers with larger hands might find the second-position pinky rest undersized–a 6-foot-2 friend recently pointed out to me that the pinky rest fits me very well but pinches mid-knuckle on his larger fingers.) Though a rubberized wrap around the second-position grip provides a tacky surface and some insulation, the first-position grip remains bare. The slender bareness of the handle makes it ideally primed for wrapping with tennis-racket or hockey-stick tape (I recommend doing this; the carbon on its own is a little slippery).

The Dark Machines come equipped with Ice Vario picks, which are decent all-arounders. However, the tools are also compatible with Total Ice Vario picks, which are 0.7 ounces lighter and better designed for pure ice, as well as the ballistic steel Katana Ice Varios and the carbon steel Total Dry Varios, both of which are designed for hard drytooling. The Dark Machine can also take an optional hammer or adze, which are sold separately.

I first took the tools out to East Vail Falls (WI3/4), where I tested them on both brittle vertical ice and, later in the day, on wetter, more mellow lines. I appreciated the oversized carabiner hole, which made it easy to stow tools on ice clippers quickly while building anchors or coiling rope. And the pommel spike offered useful traction while traversing ice-slicked bulges and scrambling up moderate snow gullies.

Buhay on the first pitch of Charmin Tubes (WI 3), Ouray, Colorado. [Photo] Wes Fowler

Buhay on the first pitch of Charmin Tubes (WI3), Ouray, Colorado. [Photo] Wes Fowler

Later that in the month, the Dark Machines accompanied me on a trip to Cody, Wyoming. There they really shone. The aggressive geometry and high balance point sent the tool arcing overhead with every swing, making them a dream for climbing the steep cauliflower ice on classic routes like Moonrise (WI5-), or gaining purchase over high bulges.

What a pity that the glorious ease of use existed only for Cody’s steeper pitches. For many of the area’s ice climbs, the crux sections are stitched together with lower-angle WI2-3 gullies and slabs. On those portions of climbs like Shank Stew (WI4-) and Grandma’s Chicken (WI4), the arched profile of the Dark Machines proved to be more of a liability than an asset–the pommel contacts the ice first and spits the pick out, rendering deep sticks impossible.

The Dark Machines found limitations on hard, chandeliered water ice, as well. The Ice Vario picks are beefy, and while they worked fairly well for hooking edges on mixed climbs, the tips’ higher contact area caused the ice to shatter more often while climbing pure ice in temperatures in the low teens (Fahrenheit). Between the wide tips and the tools’ light weight–which puts less force behind every swing–the picks were prone to glancing off divots and grooves on scalloped vertical surfaces. I had better luck dropping my elbow to add a “daggering” motion to the bottom of my swing, but even with the modification, heroic, first-swing sticks were rare for this tool, even while climbing backcountry ice near Ouray, Colorado, in mild, 30-degree temperatures. It seems strange that such a lightweight tool would be so improved by the use of pick/head weights. It’s unfortunate that the design doesn’t offer the option to mount them. As it is, I would have gladly carried a few extra ounces to have a heftier head and a more forgiving swing.

Buhay swinging the Dark Machines on the first pitch of Grandma's Chicken in Cody, Wyoming. [Photo] Noah Bergman

Buhay swinging the Dark Machines on the first pitch of Grandma’s Chicken in Cody, Wyoming. [Photo] Noah Bergman

Carbon comes with other controversies, besides weight. One is brittleness, though I saw no reason to doubt the durability of the Dark Machines, even after a season of throwing them down on talus (and, on occasion, accidentally swinging into rock). The other is the rigidity. Glancing blows feel jarring on any tool, but even solid sticks with the Dark Machines send shudders up the elbow; unlike aluminum, the rigid carbon absorbs none of the shock of the swing.

Fortunately, that rigidity did have some benefit. The vibrations, while harsh, provided instantaneous feedback about the quality of a stick. There was no questioning whether or not the pick was secure–a quality I appreciated while soloing short sections of ice to access pillars along Ouray’s Camp Bird Road.

3.5 stars: At the end of the day the Grivel Dark Machine is a tool for the focused specialist. It’s well suited to steep terrain, ice that’s dead-vertical or just beyond, and objectives that are long enough or remote enough to merit the weight savings of a carbon tool. In those situations, they shine. But if your winter tick list involves complex mountaineering, snow climbs, or moderate ice, a more generalist tool will likely be a better choice.

Corey Buhay is a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado. She has been a member of the U.S. Ice Climbing Team for three years. She recently won gold in Ouray’s 26th annual mixed climbing competition.

Buhay on East Vail Falls. [Photo] Noah Bergman

Buhay on East Vail Falls. [Photo] Noah Bergman

Lightweight carbon design (17.2 oz.)
Aggressive geometry ideal for steep ice
Great responsiveness
Large selection of picks and accessories
Comfortable, ergonomic handle (recommend taping first-position grip)

Offset handles inhibit swings on low-angle ice
Rigid materials can make swings feel jarring
Light weight is less forgiving on swing accuracy
No options for adding head weights