Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not For The Uninitiated - A Review of the Black Diamond Fusions

Winter's over. Time to start ogling gear for next ice season....

Earlier this year I reviewed the Black Diamond Fusion pick, as I have been using them with my Cobras all season long. My Nomics, which have lots of mileage on them but are still serviceable, were getting used less and less. This got me thinking. I became curious about the Black Diamond Fusion ice tool. Would it climb well? After lots of hemming and hawing I purchased a pair of the Fusion tools back in early February.


Before I start my review of these tools, it's worth mentioning that I look around a lot at gear reviews on the internet before buying and reviewing gear. Is there information publicly available about the specific item? Is it accurate? My own internet research has led me believe that most magazine gear reviews are favorable even if a product is only "ok" and that many guide services and sponsored climbers will review gear favorably as a friendly nod to their free gear source. I am not sponsored, I am rarely given free gear and I don't think I'll ever favorably review something I don't like. At the same time, reviewing something unfavorably is not a bridge I'm keen on burning.

I want to compare the Fusion to the Nomic, it's most obvious competitor, so that readers can make an informed decision about this tool.

First Impression

When I received the Fusion I was impressed. Like all the other BD tools, the Fusion is beautiful. It's clear from this, and their other newer tools that they value form as much as they value function. Petzl's tools, on the other hand, are not as pretty but are highly functional. Actually, this theme is prevalent throughout each company's products - some BD products look great but just don't work well, while most Petzl products won't win a beauty pageant but operate smoothly and last a long time.

The tool is shaped identically to the Nomic, has a great handle that doesn't require taping and feels like it will be really durable. This should come as no surprise considering the track record of most other durable BD tools. It feels heftier than the Nomic (it's an ounce or two heavier and this is noticeable in hand) and has a different balance. The tool is balanced with most of it's weight at the bend in the shaft. This means the dynamics of swinging this tool are going to be different than the dynamics of swinging the Nomic, which has most of it's weight in the solid aluminum head and  steel pick weight. More on this later.

The stock pick on the Fusion is, duh, the Fusion pick, which I know from experience is burly and durable. The head is easy to clip, the removable spike easily accepts umbilical tethers or full-size carabiners, and the head is easy to clip into an ice clipper. The overall design seems good.

Climbing Ice with the Fusion

If you're going to climb any substantial amount of hard ice with any BD tool, the logical pick choice is the Laser pick. It's thin, sharp and penetrates easily. I took my brand new Fusion tools with me on my February trip to Newfoundland. Using the Laser picks, I found that the Fusions climb ice well. The swing takes some getting used to. Unlike the Nomic, which is head heavy, the Fusion has a tendency to dive sideways upon impact with the ice. It felt weird at first, but many of the sideways placements where just as secure. Unconventional doesn't necessarily mean insecure.

The Fusions feel like many of the other BD tools. When placed well the in-hand feedback you receive is more like a dull thud than the tuning fork reverberation of the lighter Quark or Nomic. Once you get that secure dull thud, which frequently took me several swings in colder ice, the tools feel good, and using the upper grip isn't scary at all. In fact, once they were well placed I felt like the tool was more secure in the upper grip position than the Nomic. For better and worse, the Petzl-Charlet picks seem to release more easily and this always made me a bit hesitant when using the Nomic's upper grip while ice climbing. The flip side of the Fusion's secure feeling is that the tool was harder to clean on low angle ice or high-density ice. I frequently had to yank the tool so hard that I would destroy the placement entirely instead of leaving a hole for the next climber to draft in. Ultimately, this leaves me wondering about the integrity of the placements I was trusting in the first place.

On steep, funky and chandeliered ice the Fusions climb very well. The grip is easy to hang on to and the tool felt responsive even when the placement was less than ideal. In fact, blown out and wobbly placements are where the Fusion shines. It's stiff and responsive so hooking doesn't feel sketchy the way it can with many other ice tools.

With the Fusion picks, climbing ice is a little less straightforward. A friend, and devotee of the Nomic, tried the tools and commented "I always swing one too many times with this tool". There is a tendency to "explode" tool placements necessitating many more swings before one finds a good tool placement. This "digging" for placements can become exhausting. The Nomics, even with the "Rock" pick climb ice well and have almost no learning curve. You can give a beginner ice climber a Nomic and they'll find good ice placements. The Fusions, on the other hand, would probably confuse, exhaust and dismay a newbie.

Climbing rock with the Fusion

The pretty green hydroformed shaft is what makes the Fusion shine on mixed terrain. The tool, when paired with the Fusion pick is stiff and responsive on steep rock terrain. My first real mixed day with them included a flash attempt on Hydropower in the Black Chasm. I let go only 4 feet from the ice, in the midst of sustained M9- climbing. I doubt I would have climbed any better with my Nomics, which I've used for miles of mixed terrain. The Fusions edge well, match well, and don't flex as much as the Nomics when hooking and torquing. They are really good for technical rock mixed terrain.

During my second effort at Hydropower I worked my way through the rock and up to the ice. I was ferociously pumped and the high density ice was challenging to get good sticks in. Here, I felt, was the Achilles heel of the Fusion. If you're too pumped to use the tool effectively on ice it's not going to climb well. With the Fusions I kept destroying perfectly good ice placements. Fortunately, I was able to keep it together and get decent tool placements despite a bad pump and funky ice.

Bottom Line

The Fusion is a good tool for someone who has a quiver of tools and climbs a lot of rock terrain during the winter. It's a tool designed specifically for hard mixed climbing and steep, funky and low-density ice. Climbers looking for a radically curved all-around tool will be better off choosing the Nomic, which climbs all types of ice terrain well and will still climb mixed terrain admirably. Other good all-around choices include the Cobra and Grivel's Quantum Tech.

I'm going to continue using the Fusion into next season and will hopefully dial in it's swing even more. I like it's stiffness for mixed climbing but am unsure whether it's a logical replacement for the Nomic, which climbs most winter terrain admirably.

Here are two useful reviews of this tool for readers who are more interested:

Cold Thistle - http://coldthistle.blogspot.com/2011/01/black-diamonds-fusion-2.html

Cascade Climbers - http://cascadeclimbers.com/blog/2011/03/12/black-diamond-fusion-vs-petzl-nomic-review/