Tuesday, 6 February 2018

A Sticky Business

Poles, batons, "cheat sticks", whatever you call them, they've come to the trail and mountain running world and they're here to stay.  Strongly held contrasting opinions are not slow in appearing as soon as they are mentioned. So what's it all about? Let's try to set aside all the rhetoric for a short while and tease out just how and why this bit of kit really affects us and this game we play.


I'm not sure exactly how the process started but I guess it was around 30 years ago that I first became conscious of people starting to use poles as a fell-walking aid. We called them ski-poles at the time, because of course that's where they had come from. Downhill skiers had always used poles to balance and initiate turns, and to push along the flat bits. More significantly, both cross-country ("langlauf") skiers and ski tourers (or ski-mountaineers if you prefer) had used them to provide steady progress on flat and ascending terrain, advancing one ski and the opposite pole together then repeating on the other side in a steady walking rhythm.  More of this later, but for now it's easy to see how someone must have seen that this walking rhythm on skis could apply equally well without them, probably first on snow then later on dry land.

Just over 20 years ago, when poles were well established tools for walking easy angled snow, I set off with a friend to climb the Aiguilles Grises route on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. Quite a lot of Mont Blanc is at an easy angle so we took poles. The route starts from the Italian Val Veni and another friend gave us a lift from Chamonix round to there. It was only when we reached the hut, something like a six hour walk from the valley, that my companion realised that he'd left his ice axe in the car. Nevertheless he managed quite adequately with his poles to reach the summit and descend the Grands Mulets route back to Chamonix. Probably not Sound Mountain Judgement as the experts would term it these days but a pretty good indicator of the usefulness of poles as a walking aid.

First choose your weapon

There are basically two types of collapsible pole (collapsible so you can stow them on or in your pack when not using them), telescopic and fixed-length.

Telescopic poles normally have three sections which slide inside each other and can be fixed at any extension length by locking ferrules at the joints. Advantages of these are that they can be set to different lengths for different conditions or different people. Disadvantages are that they are generally bulkier and heavier than fixed-length poles, and their integrity under load is dependent on how well you lock the ferrules. They are normally made from aluminium alloy; carbon models are available which are more expensive but  much lighter, however they are harder to lock/unlock and susceptible to break rather than bend, especially in very cold conditions.

Fixed length poles are more commonly used by runners these days. They consist of three or four lengths of alloy tube which slot into each other like a tent-pole. When assembled they are held together by an internal shock cord which is tensioned into a slot in the top section and held there by a simple jammed knot. They are normally lighter than the telescopics, much faster to assemble and stow, and rigidly secure under load. The disadvantage is that the length you buy is going to be the only length you can use until you throw them away. Selecting the best length for yourself is a bit like selecting ski poles; hold the pole with the point on the ground, on level ground and with your upper arm vertical  - your forearm should then be horizontal. This won't be the best for all conditions but is probably the best compromise.

You can pay anything from around £10 to over £100 for a pair of poles. In general you get better performace, features and longevity the more you pay, but convincing yourself that you're getting value for money for a particular model within a given price range is not easy. You tend to get more choice and better value by buying in the Alpine areas rather than in the UK.

Whether and when you put baskets on the ends depends on the terrain you envisage covering and how you want to operate. On snow and very soft ground,  poles with no baskets can sink in enough to make them almost worthless, but they tend to hamper easy stowage and are not needed on harder surfaces. I've reached a bit of a compromise with my fixed-length poles by fitting home made baskets around 3cm in diameter, which are good enough for most mud and grass but small enough not to get in the way on the pack.

So what are they for?

Poles are used for three basic scenarios, and which you choose to use them in will depend on the prevailing conditions and your own strengths and weaknesses.

1. As an aid to progress when climbing on easy ground

If you've ever been ski touring you will be familiar with the almost zen-like state you can achieve steadily skinning up a long slope in a good rhythm with poles and skis working together. Height seems to be gained almost effortlessly and as every movement is the same you can let your mind wander where it will. The same can be done using poles when walking, and as well as helping to promote the rhythm the pressure you put on the poles will aid upward and forward motion, taking at least some of the effort off your leg muscles.

The two keys to efficient ascending are (1) establishing the rhythm, and (2) planting the poles in the right place. For the second of these think about the physics for a moment. The only force a pole planted ahead of you is likely to impart is one which pushes you backwards, so to aid forward motion the pole must be planted level with or slightly behind the line of your body.  Your hand will be forward and the pole inclined backward as you plant it. This means that you won't be able to see the spot where the point of the pole contacts the ground. That's why this type of progression is only  possible on easy ground. It can be as steep as you like, but it must be regular enough (a) for the rhythm and (b) so the pole will stick every time and not go skating off a rock or plunging into a hole.

Paths in the Alps, and on continental European hills generally, are often well engineered with steady gradients and an even surface - grass, earth or gravel, and it is here where poles were popularised and come into their own for aiding ascent. For those familiar with the UTMB, think of the paths up the Seine, Mont Favre, Ferret, Trient and so on. Such ground is less frequent in the UK where many paths are just the result of the passage of feet rather than any engineering,  so are much more uneven. Again, using a well-known route as an example, poles for ascent on the Lakeland 100 will only be really useful on the ascents out of Coniston, Keswick, Pooley Bridge, Howtown and Troutbeck. For much of the other ground they are likely to be more of  a hinderance than a help because of the uneven ground. Using poles in this mode on rocky ascents like the top half of Black Sail is just a waste of time and effort.

2. To lessen the load on your legs, particularly knees, when descending

Now if you had asked me about this ten or even five years ago I would have said don't be daft, we're runners; we run the down hills, on any tricky ground there's enough mental stress trying to manage sensible landings for two points at speed, adding another two into the mix is just asking for trouble. I always stowed my poles at the top of the hill and ran down as fast as my brain could cope. But around 20,000 miles over the past ten years, on top of a lifetime of climbing and mountaineering, have left me with one or two deficiencies and I have to admit I now use poles to take the strain occasionally when the going gets tough. I'm still better off without them on the  most technical terrain but on easier long descents the use of poles planted a pace or two ahead, either alternately or both together, definitely makes life easier on the knees. If this stage hasn't reached you yet then it will, if you carry on with this activity long enough.

Ideally you want longer poles for descending than ascending, you can reach a bit further down the hill more easily. If you use telescopics you can adjust them to suit (if you can be bothered with the faff) but fixed length don't give you this facility. I find that holding my poles with the palms of my hands over the end of the handle grip works well enough.

Worth a word here maybe about how you normally hold poles anyway. A friend of mine once commented after finishing the UTMB that he was getting cramp in his hands and forearms towards the end from gripping his poles for two days. I commented that if you hold them like ski poles only the lightest of grips is necessary for most of the time. Not being a skier he didn't know what I was talking about. Now I'm sure 90% of people reading will know this already, but just in case you don't......

You hold a pole by putting your hand upwards through the loop, then grasping the grip together with the loop as it comes up between your thumb and forefinger. The length of the loop should be adjusted so that this leaves you with a comfortable hold in the centre of the handgrip when your wrist is pressing downwards on the loop. You may have to find a compromise loop length that works with and without gloves so you don't have to fiddle about changing it when you put gloves on or off. Then when you use the pole to push down on, the majority of the force is taken through your wrist to the loop, not through your handgrip on the pole.

3. For balance on uneven ground

Again, this is what ageing ramblers do isn't it, not fit young ultra-runners? Well, maybe. But even in the days when I put my poles away at the top of every climb as not required until the next one, there have been occasions when they have proved useful, sometimes near essential, such as:

- adding some security on long muddy descents. One year on the UTMB it rained solidly for several hours before the start of the race. The first descent from the Col de Vosa down to St Gervais, normally a straightforward grassy slope, became a continuous mud slide. Runners without poles had a very hard time.

- crossing deep fast flowing streams with rocky beds. Not falling in or getting swept away becomes even more attractive when the temperatures are near zero.

- following icy (or more often, sporadically icy) tracks; poles can often make secure progress possible at a better overall speed and without the faff of donning Yaktrax/Kahtoolas etc.

- providing extra security in very windy conditions. Poles can sometimes keep you on your feet when otherwise you may be blown over; although in windy conditions a pole is liable to get blown horizontal when you unweight it, so this needs good wrist control and a bit of practice.

- (I'm sure I could think of more if I took a few more minutes)

And I'm not too proud to admit that these days I'm happy to use poles to provide a bit of extra security on ground that I would have been happy to cross without them a few years ago, crossing streams and longer wet areas,progressing on wet and greasy bouldery tracks and so on.


One of the reasons why poles seem to cause such offence to non-users is that they are often not correctly controlled, and I have quite a lot of sympathy for this. There's no excuse for inconsiderate behaviour when you're carrying around a couple of sharp pointy sticks in close proximity to other runners.

In summary, this means that you shouldn't carry poles in such away that you are likely to "spike" anyone else; whether contact is caused by your crashing into some-one else or their crashing into you is not relevant  -  slips, trips and stumbles happen and it's up to you to ensure that no damage occurs from your poles if they do. Two basic rules should see you right:

1. Poles should be stowed on or in packs with the points downwards (or at the very least sideways, never upwards).

2. When you hold your poles in one hand to run without them but without stowing them, you should hold them with the pointed ends to the thumb/forefinger end of your grip (not the little finger end). The points will then naturally come to the front where you can see them and point them downwards, rather than upwards and backwards into the face of the runner behind.

Are poles "cheating"? 

Of course not. The Race Director decides the rules for his race. If poles are allowed then using them is just as legitimate as any other piece of permitted kit. If you perceive that they may give an advantage to runners using them (which you must if think of their use as "cheating"), yet decide not to use them yourself, then that's a personal choice to handicap yourself and nothing to do with anyone else. There are races than do not permit poles (the West Highland Way is one example), but also races that do not permit other stuff, such as GPS, support crews, support runners, pre-knowledge of the course, and so on.  There is no moral high ground in any of this, we just have to remember that this is a game we're playing, and when we sign up for an event we sign up to the organiser's rules.

So I'll continue to think about the ground any event I sign up for covers, and if poles are allowed and I think they'll pay back the effort of carrying an extra 360 grams, then I'll put them in my bag.

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