BLACK DIAMOND CONTOUR ELLIPTIC CARBON POLES
TEST SERIES BY EDWARD RIPLEY-DUGGAN
May 8, 2008
FIELD REPORT July 23, 2008
LONG TERM REPORT September 27, 2008
||Catskills, New York
||6' 0" (1.85 m)
||215 lb (97.50 kg)
I enjoy walking in all its forms, from
a simple stroll in the woods to multi-day backpack excursions. Though by no
means an extreme ultra-light enthusiast, from spring to fall my preference is to
carry a pack weight (before food and water) of 12 lb (5.5 kg), more or less. In
recent years, I've rapidly moved to a philosophy of "lighter is better," within
the constraints of budget and common sense.
PRODUCT INFORMATION & SPECIFICATIONS
Manufacturer: Black Diamond
Year of manufacture: 2008
Manufacturer's Website: www.bdel.com
Listed weight: 1 lb 3 oz (536 g)
Measured weight, pair: 1 lb 3 oz (536 g) [with trekking baskets]
Manufacturer's stated length, fully extended: 55 in (140 cm)
Manufacturer's stated length, minimum usable: 27 in (68.5 cm)
Measured length fully extended: 55 in (140 cm)
Measured minimum length for pack attachment, fully retracted: 24 in (61 cm)
Supplied baskets: trekking, powder
Intended use: Year-round, trekking and snowshoeing
The poles fully retracted
The poles arrived in good condition, housed in the manufacturer's wrap-around printed cardboard display sleeve, with the instructions attached to the inside (these are also available on Black Diamond's website). The wording is generic, i.e. it refers to several poles in BD's range, not the Contour Elliptic Carbon poles in specific. Regular inspection of poles is suggested, a sensible precaution, although in my experience pole failures occur suddenly and catastrophically, often (but not always) as a result of the stresses of a tumble. Mention is also made of periodic cleaning of the shafts (inside which an oxide coating can build up). In the past I have used a shotgun brush for this, but it remains to be seen if this will be as effective with the elliptical shaft, as the brush has a cylindrical profile.
The warranty is stated in the literature to be for one year, but excludes "normal wear and tear, unauthorized modifications or alterations, improper use, improper maintenance, accident, misuse, negligence, damage, or if the Product is used for a purpose for which it was not designed."
Design and materials
The most intriguing and unusual aspect of these poles is obvious on first inspection. It is the "elliptical" pole cross section, which Black Diamond states has "double the fore/aft stiffness of a traditional round pole." In fact, the pole section is closer to an aerofoil than a true ellipse in shape, with a wide leading edge and a somewhat narrower trailing edge. Coupled with the gradual taper of the pole, more extreme towards the basket, I find the design aesthetically pleasing, although the functional aspects remain to be examined over the period of the test.
The poles use Black Diamond's Long Flex Tip (some of their poles, including the one I have been using most recently, have a somewhat shorter tip). These have a pretty standard design with a cupped carbide point at the very end, so that the tip "grabs" rock. I have tested the ease of basket change and there's no problem removing the trekking baskets and replacing them with the powder baskets, or vice versa, though a reasonably strong grip is required. The baskets are well designed, with projecting cleats around the rim of the trekking baskets for additional grip. The powder baskets are gray in color, and are quite flexible. Unfortunately I probably won't have a chance to use them during the test period.
Lower section and tip
The lower section of the pole, made of aluminum with a bright finish, enters the tip with a cylindrical cross section, then flares to the elliptical section already described. It is marked with graduations at 5 cm intervals, from 100 cm to 135 cm, with "STOP" marked at the 140 cm position. This section is held in place when in use with BD's patented FlickLock device, which is attached to the middle section.
The middle section of the pole, also aluminum, is similarly graduated at 5 cm increments, although curiously there is no "STOP" marked at the upper end, leaving it somewhat ambiguous as to how far above the 135 cm mark the pole may be safely extended. I'm slightly concerned by this omission. On the trail, I use full extension infrequently, usually on very extreme downhills, where small ledges have to be negotiated. On the other hand, it is just on such descents that maximum strain is put on the pole (sometimes full body weight), and I would have appreciated an indication of the safe extent of full extension. Still, common sense would indicate that it should be no more than 5 cm above the 135 cm mark. I plan to use the same upper and lower shaft lengths most of the time (e.g. if I have 130 cm on the lower shaft, I will use 130 cm on the middle shaft).
FlickLocks, open and shut
The middle shaft is held in position by the FlickLock mounted on the carbon fiber handle section. All sections have the BD logo and name in various positions, though the branding is most prominent on the top carbon fiber section. The region immediately below the handle (about 5 in, 12.7 cm in length) is rough, approximately the same in texture, and possibly composition, as emery paper. My assumption is that this is intended for those of us who like to use a "choked" hand position on the uphill pole on sidehill traverses, rather than have poles set to uneven lengths. While the roughened surface does seem to provide an excellent non-slip grip, with bare hands it's not the most comfortable of surfaces, at least on first acquaintance. I was a little disappointed by this implementation; some of BD's other poles offer a foam grip on the pole below the main handle, and while simply roughening the surface certainly saves weight, I cannot believe that a thin foam layer would have added much more. I'll be curious to see how durable this sandpaper-like surface is, and whether it causes any serious discomfort with extensive use. Of course, having a sandpaper surface available can be useful on trail, for cracked nails and the like.
The main handle is of high-density foam, with a pommel of smooth gray-and-black plastic (described by Black Diamond as "dual density"), through which the straps run. These are very easily adjusted, but seem to hold their set length well. They have a Nubuck exterior finish and are foam padded, with a mesh interior (presumably for breathability). Curiously, the loop on both poles is similarly "handed" in the topological sense, so unlike most ski poles and many trekking poles, there is no left and right pole. at least so far as I am able to determine. When my hand is engaged in the loop, it is held firmly and comfortably. Though I generally prefer a cork pommel on my poles, the dual density plastic seems perfectly adequate. I do wonder if it will perform as well as cork when sweat-slicked, as I usually use a pommel grip (without use of the loops, for safety reasons) on long descents. I'll report on this.
Use of the poles with shelters
There are a variety of tents and shelters that use trekking poles for support. I own two: the Dancing Light Ultralight Brawny Tarptent (now sold in slightly different form by AntiGravity Gear), and the Shires Double Rainbow Tarptent. In the former, a single pole is used as a vertical support. The Contour Elliptic Carbon works well in this manner. The Double Rainbow is slightly more problematic. With this tent, the poles are used horizontally to create a free-standing shelter. At full extension, the poles did not provide quite enough spread for a properly taut pitch (to my taste, at least), and unless they are very carefully orientated so that the strain is not taken sideways, they showed a significant degree of curvature that had me somewhat concerned. I have made a pair of short pole sleeves (using a section of metal taken from a pair of old ski poles) that fit over and extend the tips, and I intend to experiment with these when pitching this tent. Preliminary results with these in place are encouraging. I'll report further on this in future portions of this report.
I look forward very much to testing this pole in the coming four months. I'm really intrigued by the design. I will be especially curious to see how well the elliptical cross-section of the pole works out in practice, and if the Contour Elliptics are durable in the sometimes harsh terrain on which I hike and backpack.
FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS
I used the poles on one two-night backpack on a section of the Long Path in the Catskills, and for eight day hikes in the Catskills and Shawangunks. The hikes ranged from flat-out bushwhacks under very tough conditions (steep slopes, slick rock concealed under dense vegetation) to near-strolls. Temperatures at which the poles were used ranged from a night-time temperature of perhaps 45 F (7 C) to 80 F (27 C). Elevations varied from 1000 ft (305 m) to 3800 ft (1160 m). Terrain ranged from gentle to exceedingly steep slopes studded with wet talus, and while I am reasonably sure-footed I have had to preserve my balance with a hard pole-plant on several occasions.
PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD
As noted in the previous section, the poles were used under difficult conditions. This has been a fairly wet summer, which has led to heavy growth of vegetation, and slick, algae-covered rock. Even comparatively benign trails offer some challenge to my sense of balance under these conditions. I have been using the poles with the small trekking baskets, and I haven't noticed the tips getting lodged under rocks or in crevices with any frequency. It's possible that the Long Flex Tip used in these poles gives them a bit more flexibility when the tips snag, allowing them to work free of their own accord.
I have taken more than a few skids and near-tips, usually on wet rock, and the poles have prevented a few uncomfortable tumbles. They have showed no tendency to concertina (or break) under fast, heavy loading, and I'm no lightweight. They seem extremely rigid under the sort of stresses that occur in a near fall, with no evidence of bending or twisting.
Most of my day hikes have been with a fanny pack (it makes for a dryer back in summer), which unfortunately doesn't have anywhere to strap the poles on steep, scrambling sections of terrain, of which I have seen plenty. I've tossed them ahead of me (sometimes down short climbs), and so far the finish still looks pretty good despite this mild mistreatment.
In the initial report, I mentioned that there didn't seem to be a left and right pole. I did subsequently note that one pole has a tiny "L" beneath the Black Diamond logo, and I am assuming that this is the intended left pole, and have generally used it as such. In terms of the straps and the placement of the FlickLocks it seems to make no substantive difference to the way the poles are used, or how they perform.
I have used the poles as the base support for my Shires Double Rainbow Tarptent (on one nightthe other was spent in a lean-to). Though I had to use a small section of aluminum tube as an extender (slid over the tip of the pole) to achieve the correct spread width, the poles performed well in this regard, a fact that I feel is fairly significant, as many lightweight tents now utilize trekking poles.
I do have a couple of cavils, one fairly important, one relatively minor. I'm starting with the minor issue. I like to adjust the pole length according to whether I am going uphill or down. The length graduations on the upper pole (in particular) are really hard to read, especially in bright sun, but are not easy even in low light. They are printed in a small sans-serif type in pale blue on silver (hardly a legible combination to begin with), and when the pole is held with the loop around the wrist, the lettering indicating the measurements (which runs lengthwise on the pole) is inverted. This, in combination with the poor legibility, makes my attempts to get both poles of equal length something of a guessing game, involving much squinting. I will admit to the fact that I don't wear my spectacles in the field (graduated bifocals distort the immediate foreground, interfering with my foot placement), but legibility is not an issue that I have had with any other pole. As a design element, the blue-on-silver type looks quite elegant, but typographic design is fundamentally about readability, which is poor in this fairly critical area. I would prefer to see a larger point size, and lettering in black, orientated correctly to the user.
My second, and more serious concern, pertains to the durability of the padding on the hand loops of the poles. While the basic webbing loop is inherently solid, the cushioning at the head of the loop, next to the handle, separated within two uses (on one pole) and three (on the other). The failure point in both cases was where the upper section of the loop is sewn into place (see image below). It appears to be tacked into place solely by the stitching along the edge of the bias of the covering for the padding, rather than properly bar-tacked. I am concerned to see that further unraveling has occurred, and it is clear that this component of the pole is vulnerable to damage. So far as I can determine, this has nothing to do with the way I carry or use the poles.
This aspect of the construction seems poorly thought out. I intend to talk with Black Diamond about having the straps replaced, but only if I can do it myself, as I do not want to delay the test. Even if replaced, I'm not sure how long the replacements will last, given the speed with which these loops have deteriorated. I should make clear that this is not (in my opinion) a major functional issue. Even if the cushioning on the loops was to be totally removed, they would still be fine. Plain webbing (while not as comfortable) is all many other poles I have owned use. On a functional note, the loop length generally stays put at whatever position I set. There is little or no slippage in the straps' locking mechanism.
While on the subject of comfort, two more remarks come to mind. First, the pommel of the poles functions extremely well as a hand grip on descents (as noted in the initial report, I use trekking poles without loops on my wrists on most descents). This is true even when the surface is moist with rain or sweat. Second, the shaft grip, with its sandpaper-like covering, does give an extremely sound hand placement for sidehilling, but is not entirely pleasant on bare hands.
All-in-all, though, I like these poles very much. The elliptical construction seems to afford great strength, and the double FlickLock arrangement is extremely convenient. It's a pity these two design defects mar what is otherwise an excellent set of poles.
LONG TERM REPORT
FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS
For the past two months I have used the Black Diamond Elliptic poles for a variety of hikes and backpacks over rugged terrain in the Catskills and Shawangunks. Temperatures have been from 50 F (10 C) to 80 F (27 C) during the day. They have been used rain and shine. I have not used the poles again with a shelter, as they are not compatible with the Integral Designs SilDome that I am presently testing.
PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD
The poles have continued to perform admirably. I did call Black Diamond in regard to the fraying of the hand-loops, noted in the Field Report. BD were supposed to send a new pair of loops, but to date these have not arrived, and I have not had a chance to call them about this. Since the detached portion didn't have any effect on my ability to use the poles, but did bunch and cause some discomfort, I cut the separated portion away, and this seems to have stopped further fraying.
The poles still look substantially unworn. I have not had to adjust the FlickLock tension, and have experienced zero slippage. If it wasn't for the deterioration of the hand-loops, the awkwardness of reading the length measurements, and the slight discomfort of the "sandpaper" lower grip, I would consider these to be just about the perfect pole. As it is, they are still among the best that I have used.
As noted above, these are well-designed poles, and I will continue to use them for the foreseeable future. The elliptical cross-section makes them very sturdy, and I like the fact that they have yet to show any sign of collapsing under full load. They have saved me from at least a couple of bruising falls. I hope that Black Diamond addresses the few small points I have raised, but (with the arguable exception of the loop stitching) none of these minor complaints outweighs the solid benefits the poles provide.
Many thanks to Black Diamond and BackpackGearTest for the opportunity to test these poles. This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org
Version 1. Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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