There are so many adjustable poles available
now days that it is really amazing. A decade ago you could choose
between Ramer and Black Diamond (and not too many models either)
and that was it! Now there are literally dozens of choices. In
this review we are going to focus on some of the more popular
models that we have had an opportunity to use. Over time, we
have heard stuff from the ski partners that are using these poles
and we would like to pass that information along.
Life-Link Variant Composite
Editor's note: The following review was
written last year and details some serious problems we had with
the old Variable Composite ski poles. Life-Link responded by
addressing each of the complaints we articulated below. I have
left up the old review and added an end of season report on the
revised model which I used for more than 50 days so far this
season. Life-Link should be applauded for responding quickly
to the negative points in the review and coming up with excellent
This is a very popular backcountry ski pole.
It is the only, adjustable, composite pole that forms into an
avalanche probe. It features break-away straps, a "grip
zone", up to 10 inches of adjustability and comes with two
different size baskets for hard and soft snow. The composite
lower is very strong and eliminates the problem of frequent lower-pole
breakage that plagues the standard Variant. Life-Link designed
these poles with an "ovalized" upper shaft which is
said to eliminate slippage ( a long time common problem with
adjustables in the past ).
These poles have a great feel, a terrific
swing weight and are almost up to the standards of a top-notch
alpine pole. The soft grips are very comfortable and the amount
of adjustability offered works fine for BC use. Also, the textured
"grip zone" does help when trying to adjust the poles
with gloves on.
Now for the bad news: the "ovalized"
upper definitely does not solve the problem of slippage inherent
in all twist-to-lock poles. If you tighten the pole up to the
point where you are sure it will not slip, there is always the
possibility that you will be unable to twist-to-unlock! This
happened to me with these poles, I could not unlock the pole
until I got home and used tools on it. This could be a very serious
situation: if you can't unlock the pole you will not be able
to join the two lowers to form a probe pole!
But wait there is more: as I mentioned the
grips are soft and comfortable but as it turns out they are too
soft. The rubber cracks around the break-away strap hole (see
the cracks in the corners in the photo below) and then the strap
can drop out unexpectedly. This happened to me several times
( I found the strap each time ) and I tried to fix it by using
a couple of different types of rubber adhesives to hold the strap
in ( sacrificing the break-away feature ). It did not hold due
to the flex of the rubber and eventually I lost the strap for
good. Both grips have these cracks. Not a good thing!
The "grip zone" material is also
not very durable, in two seasons of BC use ( I use alpine poles
at the resorts ) this is what the "grip zone" looked
Not much left, and that is the good side!
It appears as though it chips off even if they bang together
while riding in the trunk of the car. I am told you can replace
the grip zone with anti-slip tape commonly used on stairs and
skateboards. The grip zone may have been improved on this years
models, I don't intend to buy another pair to find out.
Conclusion: Great poles in the shop and on
the slopes when new, questionable durability and and a possibly
fatal flaw ( the lock-up problem ) keeps these poles from getting
a ringing endorsement from us. This is a very expensive pair
of ski poles ($140.00) and it is hard not to expect more than
this for the money.
Important Update: The above was written at the beginning
of the '99/'00 season. Here at the beginning of the '00/'01 season
we received a letter from Dave Ellingson, Product Manager at
Life Link. Dave wrote:
"First of all, great
web site! Just by looking at the new ski review its obvious that
you're attracting the true, hard core tele skier. I really liked
the diversity of the skis reviewed too.
As the product manager for Life-Link, I was obviously disappointed
with the Variant Composite Pole review. Not with the actual review,
but with our poles. Every negative point that was brought up
in your review has been addressed, from new molds for our grips
to new methods for applying the "grip zone". Our pole
uppers are no longer anodized, making a much more secure lock
of the mechanism without over tightening."
Dave went on to offer us the
use of a new pair of these improved Variant Composite poles for
evaluation. He and Life-Link must have a lot of confidence in
their product to do this after reading the scorcher of a review
Looking at the new poles they
do seem to be improved while keeping that great swing weight
and feel. The grips are not as soft and flexible, a feature that
felt nice off the shelf but undoubtedly contributed to the cracking
around the strap quick-release area. The grip zone does look
more durable and we will see about the all-important twist-locks.
Life-Link gets major points for throwing their new design into
the frying pan. We will let you know how they fare this season.
End Of Winter Season Report
I have used the newly redesigned
Life-link Variant Composite poles almost exclusively this season
to try to get a handle on whether the improvements have done
the job, and after 50+ days of use I can say that they have made
huge improvements to these ski poles. The "grip zone"
has not chipped off at all despite plenty of rough treatment
and being tossed into various and sundry car trunks and pick-up
truck beds. The twist locks have worked flawlessly, staying put
when locked and unlocking easily for adjustment. The grips show
no signs of cracking like the old ones did and the release feature
has also performed as it should, letting go twice, once when
a basket got caught on a limb of a tree I was working my way
over and another time when I fell hard on the pole while trying
to negotiate a bowl of breakable crust. Otherwise the straps
have stayed attached.
I am stoked that these poles
now work as they are supposed to because, as noted, they ski
like a dream. The swing weight and feel is incredible. Are they
worth a hundred and fifty bones? Now, most definitely the answer
Black Diamond FlickLock Probe
These poles from BD feature the FlickLock
camming device on the upper shaft that is BD's solution to twist-lock
pole slippage. It is designed to lock the lower shaft, after
adustment, securely, and still allow easy un-locking. The grip
is a comfortable, dual density rubber like that found on high-end
alpine poles like the Kermas. The adjustment range is a wide
95 cm to 150 cm's. The lower shafts mate together to form a probe
This is a fine, durable, pair of poles but
the swing weight and feel are not great. If you are used to high-dollar
alpine poles you will find that the relative clunkyness takes
some getting used to. The FlickLock mechanism has been out for
2 or 3 full seasons now and the word is that it works great--
no unexpected lock-up or slippage.
The non-composite lower is strong and not
subject to breakage like the old Ramers (some skiers used to
carry a spare lower with those poles).
Conclusion: They may not have the greatest
feel but at an msrp of only $89.00, these adjustable probe poles
are a good value and do what they say they will do.
Leki Makulu Anti-Shock Poles
The Leki Makulu poles are more of a trekking
pole than a ski pole but have some features that make them worthy
of consideration for the backcountry enthusiast. The three section
design makes them highly collapsible and easy to store on or
even in a pack, a nice thing on long spring hike-in tours. The
anti-shock spring loaded upper can be twisted to lock it up or
lest in the anti-shock mode which is also nice on long approaches.
The Leki Makulu also has a very nice grip and has a range of
different baskets available as well. The sections also easily
form into a probe pole.
Leki has always made very durable poles and
the Makulu is no exception. The swing and feel of these poles
is good for a non-composite pole and the twist-to-lock feature
works well. Laurie has used these poles both in the backcountry
and while patrolling (the compactabilty is nice when running
toboggans) for a couple of seasons now and has experienced no
lock-up or slippage problems.
Conclusion: A durable three-section pole that
you can count on and that has a unique anti-shock feature that
is great for long, dry trail spring hikes to the snow. A little
pricey at an msrp of $109.00.
Leki Super Extreme
Another 3 section pole from Leki that come
with a really large "deep powder" basket. The Super
Extremes feature a "Turbo Disc Grip" (never did figure
out what that meant) with an auto-lock strap. The grip is a nicely
shaped dual-density type though. The poles adjust from 28"
to 57". The carbide tip is said to flex to help prevent
lower shaft breakage if the tip gets caught up.
These poles require an adapter to form a probe
pole. Swing weight and feel is pretty good and the twist lock
mechanism, like the Makulu above, works well. I suppose the large
powder basket would be good on deep, light snow approaches but
big baskets have always seemed unnecessary to me on deep pow
descents, I don't find myself doing much of a pole plant in powder,
more of just a rhythmic flick.
Conclusion: At $129.00 a pair these are expensive
poles, they are durable and very strong but lack much in the
way of useful special features to justify the price. They also
have a dumb name. Still they are a good, heavy-duty pair of poles
and Leki quality is well known.