Leki Tour Stick Vario Carbon Trekking Pole Review

23rd Mar 2016

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Climbing, with loose rock, rapidly changing weather, possible equipment failure and the risk of tasting the debilitating effects of gravity, is dangerous enough.  Fortunately, most climbers don't also have to fight off lethal animals enroute to their climbs - unless, that is, you are Greg Boswell and Nick Bullock.........

It was November 2015 and Nick and Greg were recceing a climb on Canada’s Mt Wilson.  The route is remote and the pair had already trekked and climbed tricky loose ground to reach a point where they could stash some gear ready for an ascent in the coming days.  Greg turned a corner and, on the edge of his field of vision, noticed a flash of brown.  He swivelled around to face a nightmare few of us have ever, and hopefully will never, face - a grizzly bear was pounding his way.  Greg is well known for his bold ascents and cutting edge routes but, despite a proven pedigree of gnarly ascents on cutting edge routes, even he took the the wise decision to run.

Unfortunately for Greg, bears are notoriously quick on their feet and so, despite his best efforts, before long the grizzly had securely clamped its jaws into his leg.  Where do you go from this horrifying position?  You fight!  As the bear swung him around Greg is said to have reached up to the bear’s mouth and tried to prize open it’s mouth with all his strength until, miraculously, it unclamped it’s jaws and ambled away.  How often does a person versus bear scenario end this way!  Greg's evacuation from the remote location was, by all accounts, an epic battle for survival for both climbers and I gather his rehabilitation is ongoing - but at least he survived (Greg has written a detailed and emotive account on his blog here).

Enter Leki.  A leading manufacturer of innovative trekking poles.  Maybe the marketing team sat in Leki HQ and imagined a pair of poles would help Greg fight of any future wild animals?  Maybe, they reasoned, Greg would need some poles to support (literally!) his rehabilitation?  Probably, I would really think, as a leading trekking pole manufacturer they simply saw the value in having a leading and visionary British climber as one of their international ambassador team…….

 

Trekking Pole Evolution

Trekking pole use has spiralled in recent years and the evidence clearly shows the benefits poles offer to a user.  Among other things they can help to protect the knees, assist with balance in descent, aid stream crossings and help provide some power through the upper body in ascent.   They also come into their own when crossing deep snow, can help when wading through tricky foliage, and, if the worst comes to the worst, even make a good splint!  Nowadays, everyone from dog walkers to cutting edge mountaineers seems to be appreciating their benefits.  

The original pole adjustment system, which is still widely available, is a screw mechanism that allows a cone shaped lug to be pushed tight against the hollow tubing.  It works well but has several moving parts that can malfunction and can also be prone to icing up in winter conditions.  Some years ago Black Diamond introduced an alternative adjustment system called 'Flicklock'.  This was a brilliant innovation which kept the adjustment on the outside, was simple and was far less prone to icing up.  Its only drawback was maybe that because the adjustment was on the outside there were some catching points if the pole was used in terrain where that was likely to be a problem.

Another huge innovation came some years later and, despite its genius, is actually, a simple concept.  Manufacturers began to use the model of avalanche probes which have a cable running through them and can be opened by simply pulling all the sections together until they click into place.  It is a quick, streamlined, secure and lightweight system.  

The only drawback can be that you lose the length adjustment facility which is really useful as you may often want to change the length at different times such as lengthening the poles to descend steep ground.  No problem really, as some manufacturers have started adding an adjustable section in the end which allows a reasonable amount of adjustment.  After that, other main innovations that have sneaked in over recent years have mainly come through the use of materials that make the poles as light as possible such as carbon fibre and lightweight alloys along with lighter weight handles, shock absorption and adjustable wrist loops.

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My Experience

I have been using these folding 'probe' style folding poles for several years and they are fantastic.  They are simple to use, easy to adjust, streamlined, strong and there is much less chance they will freeze up in cold temperatures.  That is all important and desirable, but one other hugely significant feature is that, because there is no closure system, they are also very compact.  This means they can be very easily stored inside your rucksack which is an advantage for all users but maybe of most significant benefit to users who want to store them away while climbing.  I explored this in a previous post here.

For the last few seasons I have used a couple of types of folding poles - a pair of super light carbon fibre ones for summer use and a much stronger alloy pair for winter.  Winter, of course, when you are trudging through deep snow and crossing all types of terrain, is generally much harder on poles.

So, after all this preamble, I was delighted when Leki offered to send a pair of their Tour Stick Vario Carbon poles to test.  These were, they explained, a favourite model of bear wrestling ambassador Greg.  Of course I will test some I said, hoping very optimistically that some Boswell style winter ninja might rub off on me if I used the same type of poles he does.

I had a batch of work coming up in Scotland and would also do my usual trick of offering the poles to clients and other instructors to try to get a broader range of opinion.  We agreed on a short term test and 4 week turnaround time and so, although I wouldn't be able to comment too much on long term durability, I could certainly see how well they performed in varied and challenging terrain.

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The Poles

The Leki parcel arrived and, when I took it from our postie, I actually thought they may have only sent me one pole.  I opened the package and was relieved to see there was definitely 2 Tour Sticks, but they are very light and so it was very easy to make the mistake.  The actual weight is 235g/unit which is impressive.

The Tour Stick pole sections are made from a variety of materials.  An alloy lower section is combined with full carbon upper pole sections which gives a good combination of durability and lightness. This is a fairly common material combo which means the more durable alloy lower section is positioned well to deal with the bumps and scrapes that occur when the pole contacts your skis or rocks.  To add durability the poles also have aluminium reinforcements on the poles ends where the sections slot together. 

The poles also have an extendable section that offers 20cms of adjustability and fasten with a clamp closure Leki call a Speed Lock 2.  This offers a good range of adjustment allowing users to adjust the length for varied terrain (or maybe for different heights if the poles are used by different users).

Leki have used their Aergon Thermo Grip handle material on the Tour Stick which is said to provide good insulation and grip and, as they have continued the material further down the pole shaft, it also offers a variety of holding options.  The wrist strap is made from a fleece lined neoprene with a push button adjuster.

The lower baskets that came with the poles are a push to fit broad diameter basket ideal for use in snowy conditions (or deep wet peat bogs!) but they are easily interchangeable with smaller compact baskets for drier conditions.

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The Test

My main uses for trekking poles is on walk ins to climbs and general trekking.  For both uses, the development of folding probe style poles has been a game changer for me.  The ability to quickly and easily fold them up ensures they can be stored in seconds.  The simplicity of the connectors also means they are no fasteners that can freeze up and catch on things.  There are also fewer parts which allows them to be lighter and there are less moving parts that can break.  However, the  biggest advantage is that the folded poles end up a very compact length.  The Tour Sticks tick all these boxes and, at a folded length of 39cms, they are extremely compact and can easily be stored inside a rucksack, which as mentioned above, is a great place to keep them.  

The opening and closure system is extremely simple.  To open the poles all you need to do is hold the handle, drop the lower sections and then simply pull the sections together until the locking pin clicks into place.  For closure, push in the pin, pull apart and fold.  They are really that easy and quick to operate.

The broad basket that is supplied with the Tour Stick has proved to be great for the deep snow we’ve been experiencing in the Scottish Highlands recently.  Having baskets that resist sinking into snow or soft ground is a massive help when you are trying to power your way through.  The baskets are then secured in place by being tightly pushed on to the pole end.  It is a secure fit but does mean the baskets can be easily swapped with smaller diameter ones for summer activities.

Having some adjustment on the poles is a great benefit when ascending steep ground (you may want to shorten the pole) or descending (a longer pole can help a lot) and the 20cms available on the Tour Stick should suit most users although the overall pole length range available is 115-135cm so it is important to check the pole length range will work for you (Leki have a convenient pole length calculator on their website here).  I’m 5’ 8” and have found the length, and the adjustment range, is perfect for me.

The wrist straps are comfortable and very easy to adjust although I have to say I rarely use straps for walking (and especially not when traversing some snow slopes where I may combine using one pole in my lower hand with my ice axe in the uphill hand) although I always use them for skiing.  Nonetheless, they are spot on for when you do need them.  

The trend in many modern pole designs has been to add a section of foam down the top section of the upper tubing which extends down from the handle.  This is a real benefit when, for example, you are traversing a slope and want to hold the pole lower down to compensate for the slope angle but also have the flexibility to change position quickly.  

Leki say the handle is their ‘Aergon’ model which offers good thermal insulation and grip.  I can certainly say the handles are extremely comfortable, warm and offer a good level of grip.  They have also coped well with freezing temperatures, being held with cold hands and they also, crucially, don’t seem to absorb water.

Like all folding designs, the Tour Stick has a cable running through the pole sections.  For the poles to close firmly this cable needs to be the right level of tightness when fastened.  To do this, the poles have an spring system in the lower pole section that automatically adjusts the cable tension.  The cable itself, which is so far showing no signs of wear and tear, is PE coated for smooth action and a long life.  

I can’t really comment yet on the long term durability of the Tour Sticks and will add further details as they get more use.  However, they are holding up extremely well so far and, in line with all other Leki products I’ve used, they are extremely well made and styled.  I see no reason they won’t serve me well for a long time to come and it will certainly be a pleasure to keep using them.

 

Summary

The Leki Tour Stick Vario Carbon is a superb pole with great design, quality construction and user friendly features.  The high tech construction and quality means that, although selling at a relatively high price (RRP £144.95), the poles should give you a long and trouble free life on many adventures.  They have everything you need in a trekking pole and every design feature seems well thought out and well executed - like all good design there is everything you need but nothing more.  I certainly hope (for both your own and the poor bear’s sake) that you don’t need to fight off an angry bear with them…… but if you do I think they stand a good chance of being well up to the job!  Oh, and so far I’m still waiting for the Greg Boswell climbing ninja skills to rub off on me :)

Posted by Paul      

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