Like a lot of essential back country ski gear, pole choice is nearly completely dictated by the popular brands seen at every gear store. In the US, Black Diamond seems to dominate the field with a variety of offerings. All them are adjustable and BD has developed numerous incarnations of the adjustment mechanism because, well, they often suck at some point. More on that later. In Europe, there are more options, some adjustable, some fixed. If you can break the spell of the former, you may be tempted by the latter.
My first pair of backcountry ski poles (above) were made by Chouinard Equipment, the predecessor to Black Diamond. These were heavy duty aluminum, fixed length poles that had a couple of thoughtful features. One was a directional breakaway pole strap that allowed your arms to stay attached to your shoulders should a pole snag on a tree while skiing fast. The other was the ability to unscrew the grips and then screw the two poles together to fashion a long avalanche probe. Cutting edge stuff at the time. I still have them and love to break them out on the rare days I lift ski. Shows my age.
After these, I joined the herd of lemmings and bought numerous adjustable poles from Black Diamond, Smith and Life Link. No matter that the finicky mechanisms failed, slipped or froze at some point, I had to have ‘em like everybody else. I’ve snapped both carbon and aluminum versions of said poles. More comically, while hacking at a cornice at the top of a steep couloir, I flung half my pole down the run as the locking mechanism failed. Lovely. But for some reason I continued to use them even though I rarely adjusted them at all.
To say that I’ve been less than enamored with these designs is an understatement. A few years ago I was exposed to the European answer to adjustable poles - fixed length poles with long grips. This allows the skier to choke up on the pole on side hills and boot packs as needed without fiddling with thumb tweeking locking mechanisms. These poles tend to be more robust and reliable in almost all situations.
My favorite in this genre is made by the Chamonix-based boutique ski maker, Black Crows. No longer a Europe only company, Black Crows is quietly gaining a following on this side of the Atlantic, importing skis and poles for the discriminating consumer. Their flagship pole, the Furtis, is a thing of beauty. First, the pole is STOUT. You’re simply not going to break it. I even hung a single pole up and did a pull up on it to prove my point. Broken poles in the backcountry can lead to serious epics. With these poles in hand, I don't give it a second thought.The utility of this quality is that you can use it as a deadman belay or rappel anchor. Additionally, the long grip does not feature the typical ergonomic grip seen in nearly all other poles. The beauty of this is that the pole can be easily plunged vertically into the snow when transitioning, probing snow layers or for use as a climbing aid when pulling over the top of steep chutes. This year’s version is made of composite but is no less dependable and drops the weight from 314 grams to 253 grams for the 125 cm length. It also comes with a pivoting basket for less shearing on steep slopes and a tungsten carbide tip.
Like so many equipment options deemed “necessary” by American skiers, whether it be impossibly fat skis, 4-buckle boots, platform bindings or adjustable poles, the truth lies in the alternatives and Black Crows Furtis poles are one such option I don’t leave home without.