Girdwood, Alaska, is an icy place. It's a temperate rainforest, at sea level, in the subarctic, exposed to the brunt of the North Pacific's winter storms. That means a lot of snow. And a lot of rain. Especially in an El Nino year, that means a lot of ice. I'm talking about inch-thick on your windshield in the morning, ice skating down the street, plastered to the moss on the forest floor, falling with a bag of groceries in the driveway-ice. Yeah, one of Girdwood's fancy restaurants is called "Seven Glaciers", because, well, you can see 7 glaciers out the window. But this winter, I think they should have called it "Broken Wrist", because I saw a lot more of them than I did glaciers. So yeah, we know our spikes. Everyone here has a basket full of them sitting in their arctic entryway; wet, muddy, half-busted spikes of every brand size and type sitting sadly next to the rubber boots, the raingear, and yes--the fat skis too. So when I heard there was a new set of spikes on the market, I was interested.
Meet the Chainsen Light. I'd call it a microspike, but I think that's a trademarked name of the Chainsen's main competitor, the Kahtoola Microspike. They look pretty darn similar, but I can see why it's the Chainsen "Light". A size L Chainsen, which fit my size 9.5 shoes perfectly, weights in at 243 g--compare that with 338 g for a comparable Kahtoola. That's 28% lighter, for the same basic product: stainless-steel spikes, chain-mounted, held in place with a stretchy elastomer band over your foot. Can't beat that--if they work...
Let's start with what they won't do. You're not going to climb waterfalls with these things, and you're not going work your "french technique" on 45° blue ice. Get some real crampons for mountaineering. I've carried some of the other brands of spikes on summer traverses of glaciated terrain in the Wrangells, and I'll attest to the limits of a spiky thing that's only a few millimeters long. On dirty, rough summertime glacier ice I'd suggest that something like the Chainsen might extend your maximum slope angle--when hiking or running in shoes--by at most 15°. That's not a lot. These aren't really the lightweight ticket for steep terrain. Think of them more as the the lightweight ticket to security on moderate terrain: the kind of snow or ice you might take a chance and walk on anyway--without the spikes--but with a decent chance of falling on your A**.
As I've said, we had a lot of that icy, moderate terrain in Girdwood this winter. And I ran in the Chainsens quite a bit over the last few months. Here's what I found: they go on your shoes easily, the elastomer band is snug, the spikes are secure, the spikes don't tend to rotate on your foot during traverses, they are low profile and comfortable even on long runs, and so far at least they're surprisingly durable. The stainless steel spikes are still fairly sharp, and there are no signs of cuts or tears in the elastomer band. For me, durability is probably the biggest question mark for these--they feel and perform very similar to the Kahtoolas, so the weight saving of the Chainsens is a no-brainer IF they hold up over time. The pair shown in these photos were worn most of the winter, and not in ideal circumstances. Long runs that involve gravel, pavement, snow, ice, mud, and moss are tougher on your spikes than what many users will likely do: carry these in their pack 95% of the time, and put them on for rare traverses of short snowy or icy sections. From what I can tell so far, they should hold up a long time in those kinds of situations.
Of course, running on gravel, pavement, snow, ice, mud, and moss in a driving rainstorm sucks. At least compared to skiing deep powder. So I just didn't have it in me to stage a photo shoot this winter. So I took the spikes out yesterday, on a warm spring day, to see if I could find something slippery to run on. You can see that the doily little carry case is actually kind of handy for running--it's got a little strap that goes right over your hand, and the whole package is light enough to carry for many miles without hardly noticing. Which I did, since it turned out that one of my go-to trail runs (Abe's Trail, up California Creek, if you're wondering) seems to have melted out quite nicely.
I thought for sure I'd find some old ice hiding in the hollow of a tree well somewhere in the woods, but it was nothing like that. Spongy, soft, warm to the touch, the forest floor seemed more suited to a nap than to spike-testing. I kept rolling, and by the time I reach treelike was starting to falter in my confidence. It wasn't even--dare I say it--muddy, which is too bad since I have found that the Chainsens actually provide some nice traction in slick mud, too.
But happily, just above treelike, things started changing. I found some snow. I ran for it. I reached it. It was soft, and wet, and well... slushy. Not really crampon conditions. Sorry. Well, not really. Good riddance to running on spikes. Summer's coming. Bring it on.
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