UKH

Black Diamond Raven Pro axe Review

© Dan Bailey

This review was carried out in accordance with Scotland's lockdown guidance on travel for work, and for outdoor exercise within the appropriate local authority area. Please abide by the restrictions where you live.


Black Diamond's revised Raven Pro features a number of updates over the previous version. It's gained a kinked shaft and lost a bit of weight, and together with some smaller refinements these changes add up to make a better, more ergonomic axe. Sitting in Black Diamond's line-up between the mountaineering-oriented Swift and the more sedate Raven, the Raven Pro is well suited to snowy hillwalking, classic Scottish winter ridge traverses and alpine snow plods, while still remaining light enough to appeal to ski tourers and backpackers.

Its lightness and ergonomic shape make it spot on for hillwalking and easier mountaineering  © Dan Bailey
Its lightness and ergonomic shape make it spot on for hillwalking and easier mountaineering
© Dan Bailey

I've been a fan of Black Diamond's technical axes for many years, but this is the first of their walking axes I've handled. It fills a handy gap in my current axe collection, being lighter than my other general mountaineering axe, the DMM Raptor. While the Raptor is better suited to rough use and technical ground, with a more aggressive pick angle, a modular head, a hefty swing and a T-rating, the Raven Pro beats it by miles for lightness. With its well-thought-out design, satisfying ergonomics and well-made feel, this is probably the most refined axe in the walking/mountaineering crossover category that I've used.

Like climbing cauliflowers made of icing sugar...  © Dan Bailey
Like climbing cauliflowers made of icing sugar...
© Dan Bailey

Design

The most notable difference between the Raven Pro and its souped-down stablemate the Raven is the former's kinked shaft. Compared to a straight shaft I find this gives the axe a slightly more precise feel in the hand when used spike down in piolet canne (walking stick) mode, with the angle between the head and the spike feeling just right when you're plunging the point into snow. If you're wielding the Raven Pro by the handle, its slight bend is good for clearing ice or rock bulges, and for increasing stability and security when hooking over an edge. The textured aluminium finish gives the shaft a bit more grip than a shiny finish, while its funky trapezoidal cross section is marginally easier in the hand than the standard flattened oval.

Giving the Raven Pro a workout on Beinn Eighe  © Dan Bailey
Giving the Raven Pro a workout on Beinn Eighe
© Dan Bailey

It's an excellent design, and feels well made  © Dan Bailey
It's an excellent design, and feels well made
© Dan Bailey

For extra grip when swinging the axe you get a series of grooves at the bottom end of the shaft. This is simpler and than any sort of moulded rubbery grip - such as is featured on the straight Raven with Grip - and likely to outlive one too; but of course it offers nothing by way of insulation. Given that the Raven Pro is more often going to be carried head-in-hand than wielded like a technical tool, I think this is all the handle it needs, and so far I've not had a problem holding on with cold hands and big gloves. Ideally you're only ever going to be 'climbing' with this axe for short steep sections on otherwise easier terrain, so a clean shaft that plunges well makes sense.

Up top, the investment-cast stainless-steel head is all one piece, and while that means you're not going to be able to replace the pick I don't think that matters on an axe of this type. If you snap it or even seriously blunt it then you're arguably pushing it beyond its remit. In any case it feels pretty solid.

The adze is small but seems effective. From new, the pick is very sharp, and it bites nicely in ice, while the bent shaft gives a bit more of a drop to the pick than on the straight Raven. However it's not as aggressive as axes such as the DMM Raptor or the Black Diamond Swift, and the Raven Pro feels more like a walking axe-plus than a mountaineering axe that you can also go hillwalking with. Having less of an angle on the pick should make it better for axe braking, less liable to suddenly stick and snatch out of your hand. However solo walking on lockdown hasn't been a good time to test this aspect of the Raven Pro's performance, so I haven't tried to.

The sculpted geometry of the head, pick and adze has been slightly refined from the previous Raven. Its pronounced niche for fingers and thumb means the head is really easy to grip, while the flattened top edge just feels right in the palm. This thing has so clearly been designed to sit snugly in the hand. People with smaller hands in particular may find it handles better and feels more comfy over a long day than a more typical bulky axe head. When carried pick-backwards, as you usually would when walking, your thumb fits beautifully into the niche at the crook of the adze. However, with my large-ish hands, and particularly when wearing thick gloves, the sculpting on the pick itself is almost too much for me, and if anything I'd prefer slightly more to hold on to.

At both the head and the spike you get a decent sized hole for easily clipping a leash - some people still like to, though speaking for myself it's been a long time since I've had one on a walking axe.

Sharp spike, and grooved shaft for grip  © Dan Bailey
Sharp spike, and grooved shaft for grip
© Dan Bailey

Length

A number of lengths are available, from a stubby 50cm to a whopping 75cm, so there should be a length to suit users of a range of heights and with specific preferences when it comes to axe length. Perhaps you like yours short and maneuverable for easier wielding in 'climbing' mode and neater carrying on the pack; or maybe you favour a long axe that can be used more readily as a walking stick on easier angled ground? While received wisdom would tend to suggest longer for hillwalking, I prefer slightly shorter so that the axe can be swung more effectively on steeper ground and is easier to handle should you need to arrest. At 183cm/6 foot tall, my ideal length for an all-round mountaineering/walking axe is around 55cm, which is long enough to use as a prop on moderate-angled slopes without being too long to swing accurately when the need arises. That's what I went for here.

Raven Pro on a very cold Scottish hill  © Dan Bailey
Raven Pro on a very cold Scottish hill
© Dan Bailey

Kinked shape helps clear bulges, grooves add some grip  © Dan Bailey
Kinked shape helps clear bulges, grooves add some grip
© Dan Bailey

Weight and uses

At 384g for my 55cm review model, the Raven Pro is at the lighter end of the scale for an all-round mountaineering/walking axe, similar in both weight and remit to the Petzl Summit and the new DMM Spire Tech, to take two obvious examples. While ultralight axes well under 300g are available, these tend to compromise on durability or functionality and will be of most interest to ski tourers and perhaps winter hill runners. For most other applications a weightier all-rounder will be better, and in Scotland I can't imagine wanting something much lighter for hillwalking or mountaineering that the Raven Pro. But even for less weight-critical uses, saving a few hundred grams on your axe is going to appeal, and for the sort of axe you're getting here the Raven Pro feels lovely and light in the hand. Compared to a chunky old piece of metalwork, the difference this makes to a Scottish winter hill pack will be noticeable. For snowy hill days, and overnight backpacking where an axe may be required (but ideally isn't going to be too heavy), the weight feels spot on. It'd be good on big easy mountains overseas too, where you're working hard and want to make sensible weight savings, but still need something solid and reliable. A bit of heft helps the pick to stick in ice, after all, and there's just enough here for that.

Build quality

All details on the Raven Pro are nicely finished, and so far the build quality feels high. There's no denying this is a satisfying object, almost a work of art, as my wife put it. But how tough is it? While I don't think it needs to be handled with kid gloves, given its lesser weight this axe doesn't strike me as a knock-around work horse.

When you're carrying this much, a bit of weight saving on the axe is welcome  © Dan Bailey
When you're carrying this much, a bit of weight saving on the axe is welcome
© Dan Bailey

Traditionally, the head and spike of an axe are attached to the shaft with rivets, but BD use a different construction method. Another manufacturer had infamous issues with one of their technical axes that featured a non-riveted head, but between team members at UKClimbing we've had long experience of Black Diamond axes, and have always found them reliably durable. I've no reason to think otherwise with the Raven Pro, except that its lightness doesn't instantly suggest the sort of longevity you'd expect from something considerably heavier. My DMM Raptor, for instance, is built like a tank and has the attitude and weight to match (682g), while the Raven Pro feels more like a racing car. I'll only be able to comment on its longevity after more use, so come back winter!

B-rating

The Raven Pro is CEN-B (basic) certified, which is the less exacting of the two standards for ice axes, and the one which models designed for less technical and less demanding use are typically built to meet. On the other hand a T (technical) rated axe is certified for use as a belay anchor (the pick and shaft are rated separately), and it will be strong enough to take the hammering it gets from technical ice or mixed climbing. If you want an all-round mountaineering axe that's regularly going to take you onto graded Scottish winter climbing type terrain then this level of certification is arguably must. For me its less exacting B-rating gives the Raven Pro a clear upper ceiling: winter scrambling is fine, but if I was carrying a rope then I'd be bringing a different axe. If you want a similarly walking friendly model, but one that's also T-rated, then your options narrow. Perhaps look at the heavier but clearly more robust DMM Cirque.

Summary

With its light weight and refined design, the Black Diamond Raven Pro is a joy to handle. Its angled, trapezoidal shaft and sculpted head give it a satisfyingly ergonomic feel, whether you're using it in walking mode or swinging it on steeper ground. While the B-rating rules it out for more demanding mountaineering, it is spot on for a one-axe day on UK winter hills or big non-technical snow peaks overseas. The lightness will also appeal to ski tourers or anyone looking to save some weight on an overnight trip with a big pack. While it's not a budget option, the Raven Pro is a thing of beauty. Hands down, the nicest walking axe I've used.

Black Diamond say:

Our technical mountaineering axe, the Raven Pro is now lighter and features a slightly angled and ergonomically improved trapezoidal shaft for better grip and more aggressive climbing. The updated pick, adze and spike geometry allows for more secure placements, whether you're kicking steps up Aconcagua or winding through crevasse fields in the Alps, while the investment-cast, polished stainless-steel head provides dependable durability.

  • Weight: 384g 55cm (our weight)
  • Sizes: 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 75cm
  • Lightweight trapezoidal, slightly curved aluminum shaft with grooved grip for more control during self-arrest or climbing
  • Investment-cast, one-piece stainless-steel head with a tuned aggressive pick and large hole for a carabiner
  • Ergonomic head
  • CEN-B certified

For more see blackdiamondequipment.com



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23 Feb

I can add that although i usually find light axes hard to cut steps with the adze on this seems razor sharp. Great for cutting steps/ledges, less ideal when I leant over one sitting on my downmat. "Puff" and the snow hole filled with feathers :-)

Anecdotally too I had a light person trying unsuccessfully to self arrest with a light axe on firm neve on a course and the moment I gave them my big chunky mountaineering axe they were able to stop successfully. Just another consideration but maybe not the primary one.

24 Feb

That's lockdown for you, Dan...

b

You've done well to lose weight

Yes it's razor sharp: the spike too. Handle with care if you are self arresting!

24 Feb

Investment-cast Stainless Steel? Bloody hell... I wonder what type of shell composites and protective cover gas was used...

On a related note, do Black Diamond cast / create their own products internally, or are they made externally and then assembled by Black Diamond?

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