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For some years poles were almost extinct for use in high mountaineering. But with new designs and materials, making them lighter and ergonomic, they made a comeback and gradually, more and more mountaineers adopted poles as their inseparable companion and the pros and cons of their use even generated a debate.
A debate which has since been totally overcome: although a few still prefer not to use poles, their use has extended to such a point as to become an essential part of your mountaineering kit. The multiple advantages of poles has even led to a new sport based on their use: Nordic Walking.
The main advantages of poles can be summed up in 4 points: reduction of load, balance, safety and performance.
Numerous studies show that the reduction of the load on your legs during the ascent is between 12 and 16%, while the reduction on the descent is between 19 and 22%. These results prove that poles are essential for preventing muscular injury caused by overloading, articulation damage (knees & ankles) and in particular, for preventing mountain accidents caused by fatigue.
Something similar occurs with balance: having 4 points of support greatly reduces risk, especially on the descent, which gives greater overall safety.
And this, in turn, leads to enhanced performance: poles allow us to reserve our strength which helps us complete our ascents and treks and improve our performance during trail running competition.
It is true that using poles means you use more strength in your upper body. But this increase is inferior to the reduction of strength used in your lower body, but using poles is actually a pleasant feeling: giving your hands somewhere to lean on means they no longer hang down (trekkers and mountaineers won't feel the need to hook their thumbs onto their shoulder straps, which increases the load on your upper back).
We should also take note that this strength increase in the upper body is partly due to using the wrong technique: poles are not made for leaning all your bodyweight on, as this leads to unbalance. They are designed to accompany your body movement for overall balance. Except for specific moments when a pole prevents you from losing your balance, it's a good idea to follow this simple rule: if, during activity, your pole were suddenly to sink into the ground, you should be able to keep your balance; it is meant for subtle support.
For those who haven't learnt the correct technique, it's easy with practice and by observing other, more experienced walkers and mountaineers, especially on flat ground or gentle slopes. Observe how the poles appear to accompany the user's movements, resulting in graceful and balanced steps, as the poles appear to be a prolongation of the arms.
As with all mountain equipment, the metamorphosis of poles has been enormous, leading to their popularity today. There are several types: trekking and mountaineering in general; lightweight but durable, with 3 and up to 4 sections in a telescopic device (the most widespread and versatile); lightweight poles that were inspired by adventure racing and orienteering competition, usually with 2-sections (the locking device for 3 sections would add too much weight for this activity), so they are more uncomfortable to carry in your pack, and ultra-light poles for trail running, which are more fragile and are less durable, but are almost weightless in your pack and designed for competition and for experienced runners.
Most poles are versatile, as the baskets are interchangeable and can therefore be used either on snow, rock, for ski touring, hiking, mountaineering...
Poles are certainly becoming more and more popular and they are even considered by many to be as essential as boots, ice-axes, crampons and clothing. But there's no doubt that the articulations of a mountaineer who has used poles all his life will be in a much better state than one who has opted against them.