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Black Diamond Ultralight Express screws: A versatile screw for a more refined audience
Posted on: January 10, 2019
Ice screw technology, like all ice climbing equipment, has come a long way in the last decade—and the Black Diamond Ultralight ice screws are no exception. These screws are a far cry from the old BD Turbo ice screws I used during my first few seasons of ice climbing along the Front Range of Colorado in the 1990s. Black Diamond clearly states that these screws are designed primarily for ski mountaineering, glacial travel, and fast and light alpine pursuits. But I live in Bozeman, Montana, where my main passion is steep ice climbing, so I tested these new screws in Hyalite Canyon, one of the premier technical ice climbing venues in the Lower 48.
My first impression of the Ultralight screws was the weight, or lack thereof. These screws are 45 percent lighter than the traditional BD Express screws and this is immediately apparent when you pick one up. The drastic weight savings are the result of pairing a steel tip with an aluminum body and a wire-gate Express handle that is color-coded according to size. The steel tip provides the same sharp bite and easy starting as previous Black Diamond ice screws, while everything else is engineered to shave weight.
The author places a Black Diamond Ultralight Express screw in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. [Photo] Jim Menkol
This weight savings would certainly be noticed on a sustained alpine push; however, in the world of steep ice at your local crag, a full rack of the Ultralights probably does not make a ton of sense. For example, if you swapped two full sleeves (12 screws) of 16 cm Express screws with Ultralights, you would save 780 grams (1.7 lbs); roughly equivalent to a three-quarters full Nalgene bottle. Not trivial, but this amount of weight savings may not justify the additional $300 (price difference between 12 Express and 12 Ultralight screws). That said, having a couple of these on your harness to place at the end of that steep project might be worthwhile. Another option to consider is replacing your V-thread kit or anchor screws with Ultralights, which have the same strength rating (10kN) as regular Express screws. The weight savings on a single 22 cm screw is 79 grams. The Ultralights also have a slightly larger diameter than Express screws, which makes threading a V-thread that much easier.
The author on Pitch 2 of Bobo Like, Hyalite Canyon, Montana. [Photo] Chris Luehder
Another thing you'll notice when you look at the Ultralights is what we quickly dubbed the "reservoir tip" on the screw cap. Unlike most screws, where the cap is flush with the points, the Ultralights have an extension on the cap that allows for easy removal while wearing gloves. I thought this extra material seemed superfluous at first, especially when the goal was to make the lightest ice screw on the market. However, after thinking about it more, I realized this feature would be extremely advantageous for ski mountaineering or glacial travel. In these situations, it is common to rack up long before ice screws will be needed, if at all. By keeping the screws capped on your harness while you travel up steep couloirs or across ice sheets, you could minimize snagging on other equipment and protect the points, yet the cap could be removed easily with a gloved hand when needed. This feature would also be useful in colder temperatures by minimizing the need to handle frozen metal with bare hands.
Nothing in this world is free, and Black Diamond had to pay a cost to achieve the reduced weight of the Ultralights. Specifically, the pairing of the steel tip with an aluminum body has come along with a redesign of the hanger on the Ultralights that is inferior to that of the Express screws. The hangers on the Express screws are steel forged in a sharp 90-degree bend that is excellent at clearing/shearing ice during the last few rotations of insertion. In contrast, the Ultralight hangers are comprised of rounded aluminum that does not clear ice as easily. The flip-out wire gate, which feels as if it might bend if torqued on too hard (especially in wet, actively forming ice or on the longer screws), also discourages hitting the screw to clear ice. The Ultralights also have a larger driving circumference, as the hanger is approximately an inch longer than that of the Express screws when the wire gate is open. This will produce greater torque, but also requires more uniform ice or clearing and can limit some placements in narrow clefts. Lastly, the hangers on the Ultralights do not pivot as far off the shaft as the Express hangers do and this limitation causes the Ultralights to bind on the ice sooner.
Close up of a Black Diamond Ultralight Express screw (green) racked next to regular Express screws. [Photo] Jim Menkol
Black Diamond designed the Ultralights to fill a specific niche—mainly ski mountaineering, glacial travel, and big alpine adventures. For these pursuits, where weight savings can be critical, the Ultralights are clearly the new gold standard, and I would rate them 5 stars. However, after several days of climbing frozen waterfalls using both Ultralights and traditional Express screws, I noticed some design limitations that, in my opinion, were not offset by the reduced weight when used exclusively for this application. Therefore, these screws will prove ideal for specific audiences and applications, but do not look to the Ultralights to become the new workhorse screw at your local ice crag.
Todd Preston is a geologist with the US Geological Survey. He has been ice climbing for 20 years and exploring the frozen drips of Montana from his home in Bozeman for more than 11 years. He grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where he fell in love with all things related to rock, ice and snow.
One of the black, "reservoir tip" caps can be seen on the long Ultralight Express screw that is racked on the author's harness in the background while Kanut the dog stares down the camera. [Photo] Chris Luehder
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