Breaking Point: Trekking Pole Test

This column is part of a series of gear reviews based on tests in the 2011 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race, a weeklong competitive event in southern Chile. The race stretched 300+ miles and included trekking, kayaking, climbing, mountain biking, and wilderness navigation. Team GearJunkie.com took second place.

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

The clean snap of carbon fiber breaking in half was a distinctive sound and a slight sensation in my hand. It was day five of the week-long Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race, and I was apparently testing trekking poles to their breaking point.

In a gully deep in the wilds of Patagonia, bushwhacking while rain pissed from the sky, I’d stabbed a pole for balance into a steep hillock of moss. The pole plunged down. My feet slid out from under me, and off I went, gravity grabbing hold, riding on my rear end over wet moss and coursing down the hill.

leki trekking poles.jpg

LEKI Carbon 4 poles weigh just 7 ounces apiece

At the bottom of the gully, I looked up. I’d slid 30 feet but was unharmed. My trekking pole? Snapped in two, the carbide tip and lower pole buried somewhere above in a patch of deep Patagonian moss.

My team started the Wenger Patagonian Race with eight poles, the lightweight LEKI Carbon 4, which are new for this spring. By the end, five of the eight original poles made it to the finish line. Two broke on the trek — both moss-induced catastrophes — and one was lost in a tumble I took through a stretch of bushes and vines so thick I wanted to just lie down and cry.

Patagonia is an extreme testing ground for gear. The poles were hardly the only casualties. We ripped pants, wrecked gaiters and gloves, and popped two camping mats. The wilderness of Patagonia beat us down, physically and mentally, and our kit of gear suffered, too.

trekking poles in patagonia.jpg

Scenes from the race: Members of Team AdidasTERREX/Prunesco climb, trek, and crawl through the dense underbrush of Patagonia, trekking poles always in hand. Photos by T.C. Worley

Before my Carbon 4 poles broke, they were holding up to the rigors of our trek quite well. As a runner, I often eschew trekking poles. But for long distances like on the Wenger race — we trekked for more than 100 miles in trail-less terrain — poles are a crucial piece of gear.

The Carbon 4s are premium products, and they have a premium price tag to match. At $229, the poles have carbon-fiber shafts, carbide tips, and LEKI’s super nice Aergon handle grips. They are telescoping poles and can pull apart and pack down small enough to fit inside a backpack.

Feathery weight — at about 7 ounces per pole — is the kicker with this model. They feel airy and non-existent in the hand.

In normal use, the poles are durable. Indeed, I was the only person on Team GearJunkie.com who broke a pole. The other team members’ poles survived miles and miles of off-trail trekking and abuse. My moss scenarios were rare and unfortunate mishaps not often replicated in average outdoors situations.

We collapsed and telescoped our poles a couple times a day, putting them away when the terrain got steep or too thick. The spin-to-tighten locking system was bomber — our telescoping poles rarely ever slipped. But in a race, the system was too slow. Adjusting eight poles — two for each team member — was a time-consuming process when you’re racing hard and trying to milk every minute of the day.

trekking poles in patagonia photo.jpg

Mark Humpfrey of Team AdidasTERREX/Prunesco digs in.

I ended the Wenger Patagonian Race with no poles. Now, I am an adherent to “leave no trace.” But somewhere in the wilds of Patagonia, my broken shafts and carbide tips remain buried in the moss — I lost them and could not dig them out. Please forgive.

My hope is that a future explorer or archeologist might find the poles some day. He or she will admire LEKI’s clean design and stout carbide tip. Then the explorer will wonder what happened. They will look at the broken pole and then glance at the steep slope below. They will laugh and wonder who was the half-wit who slipped long ago off a hillock and snapped his pole in two.

—Stephen Regenold is founder of Gear Junkie. Read more on Team GJ’s experience in the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race at GearJunkie.com/Patagonian-Race.

Commenting on post : Breaking Point: Trekking Pole Test
Posted by ChipK - 03/11/2011 11:14 AM

I have heard other horror stories of people breaking carbon poles. There is no warning. They snap with an explosion. At least a few people have been hurt by them. Aluminum bends, and is much safer. The other thing is that aluminum poles are not really that much heavier. My aluminum poles weigh less than 12 ozs. each.

Posted by eric Chan - 03/11/2011 02:05 PM

$229 for snapping poles?

no thanks … not unless i get it from mec or rei which has a no questions asked warranty ….

Posted by Bruce Warren - 03/11/2011 02:08 PM

Using hiking poles that break during a normal fall is a strange habit. Like flying an airplane with wings that crack off on a hard landing. All skinny hiking poles break. A fall by a 200 lb guy generates too much force for any 1/2” diameter tube. Bigger diameter tubes are the only way to make a pole that doesn’t break from the energy input of a falling human.

Posted by BrazosSticks - 07/26/2011 03:12 PM

Wood walking sticks are even safer…and bendable.

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