Friday, February 28, 2014

Buying Crampons: More Complicated Than You Think

I've noticed during the last few years that there is no better resource for finding answers than Google. No matter how obscure the problem, I always find a forum thread or blog post detailing how someone solved that same problem. So when I go through a hilariously aggravating experience and come out the other side, I like to document it in the hope that someone will Google it and find succor. So, if you're thinking of buying crampons... you're welcome. 

In January my wife and I climbed Mt. Washington as part of an Eastern Mountain Sports guided trip. We had a blast. I can't recommend it highly enough.

The gear that EMS Climbing Schools provided worked out very well for me, especially considering my double-wide feet and my experiences with cold extremities. The Koflach Degre mountaineering boots fit me as well as I could ever hope a size twelve would, and my feet were never cold and never sweaty. The crampons behaved like rock-solid extensions of the boots, and the 70 cm Black Diamond Raven Pro ice axe seemed just right for me. So on the day after the climb, I called the school and found out that the crampons were Black Diamond Sabretooth Pro. Then I waited for a sale on and bought all three items.

The package arrived in the mail, and the gear worked just as the climbing school and the EMS website had led me to believe they would.

Ha! No.

The package arrived in the mail, and the gear was bewilderingly incompatible. The crampons had not one, but two problems. The toe bailnot that I knew the term "toe bail" at the time, but boy was I about to learndid not fit securely in the front toe groove of the boot, as I remember it doing so well on the Mt. Washington climb. But this was irrelevant, because even at maximum extension, I couldn't get the flanges on the sole plates to fit around the boot.

I called EMS and they started throwing baffling terms at me like "wide toe bail" and "long center bar". Well, OK, "long center bar" isn't baffling, but the question of why the website mentioned no such options most certainly was.

After doing some digging and getting back to me, the guy at EMS essentially threw up his hands and directed me to call Black Diamond. I wasn't happy about this, but I figured there was no point in grumbling, so I made the call. I described the problem and, sure enough, there are two different options for both the toe bail and the center bar. I needed the wide and the long, respectively.

The guy at Black Diamond said he'd throw in the toe bails for free and knock 35% off the $20 cost of a pair of center bars. With shipping, this brought the cost up to around $20. I was still less happy, but I figured "What the heck. Black Diamond probably has no control over what EMS puts on its website, so there's no sense making a big deal of it. It's only $20." I gave him my information and he said the items would ship immediately.

So the other day I get the package and... man. Rarely have I been so furious over service that I feel the need to convey some of that fury to a service representative who's almost certainly got nothing to do with the problem, but that did it. Because when I opened the package, I was looking at a pair of center bars... and one toe bail.

All I could think of was the maddening image of someone actually putting one toe bail into a box, sealing it, slapping on the address label and sending it on its way. I called Black Diamond and boy, I had to work hard not to yell "You sent me one toe bail? ONE?! What the hell am I going to do with one toe bail?!! HOW MANY GODDAMN FEET ARE ON THE HUMAN BODY?!!!"

Instead, I limited myself to saying "I'm furious right now, and I'm going to try not to take it out on you. I've had two experiences with Black Diamond so far, and both have been HILARIOUSLY bad." I proceeded to explain the problems, and he offered to send out a new toe bail. I asked him "Could you please FedEx it? Because I'd like to use this equipment this weekend." He agreed, and I was satisfied.

So F- to Black Diamond for not making their gear options clear and for shipping me one toe bail, but A for their responsiveness during my second customer service experience. And to all of you who are considering purchasing mountaineering gear: do your research, and even then, don't expect to use it immediately.

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