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HOW TO CHOOSE AN ICE AXE | BUYING GUIDE
AUTHOR | STEVE HOLMES
There are many ice axes on the market and sometimes it is difficult to know which ice axe to buy. In this ice axe buying guide, I aim to clarify their uses and shed light on how to choose an ice axe. The use and benefits of each type of ice axe are detailed including why they are different shapes and sizes and why buying the correct model is important.
Which ice axe to choose will depend entirely on what terrain an individual intends to cover. A walking axe that is straight has an important role in stopping unintentional slips and helps when cutting snow. A technical ice axe will do what a walking axe can but not as efficiently. However, the bent shaft will aid in climbing steep ground and be stronger for the demands of an ice or mixed climber.
In this article; How to Choose an Ice Axe, I will not argue what a walking axe CAN be used for as historically all axes were straight and often partially made of wood. Modern climbers now benefit from tools developed for specific ‘types’ of winter climbing, and so I will focus on the benefits of modern tools rather than being nostalgic and traditional in my opinion.
ICE AXE ANATOMY
An ice axe has several components. Depending on the type of axe the pick, adze and hammer will be replaceable or removable. Some ice axes also have adjustable handles/grips whilst the style of the axe will define the shape of the shaft, its build strength and whether there is a spike on its end. It is important to recognise each feature to help decide how to choose the correct ice axe for your chosen activity.
WALKING ICE AXE
A walking ice axe can be defined by its shape, length and the metal it is made from, but the most obvious identification when deciding how to choose an ice axe is its shape. The straight shaft (or very slightly curved) and simple geometry paired with a simple and almost horizontal pick and adze makes for a good walking axe. The straight shaft can be used to plunge into the snow and aid walking stability, while on steeper terrain the pick can be used as a dagger with the hand cupping the head. Walking axes only come with an adze which is used to cut into the snow, creating steps and occasionally holes to sit in and securely hold a rope. Most walking axes have a lighter but less strong B rated shaft and pick.
Walking ice axes come in lengths between 50cm – 70cm but these days I would recommend an axe no longer than 60cm no matter how tall the user. Remember, an axe is not a walking stick, it can be used for some stability on steeper slopes but its most important use is to help stop a slide in the event of a fall and in that scenario a longer axe will hinder its performance when you need it most. On the flip side, whilst arresting a fall the spike of a shorter axe will be closer to vital organs on a heavier and much taller person.
Transferring from hill walker to winter mountaineer is a big step. There are many variables whilst travelling through snow-covered mountains. If you are interested in learning these skills, consider some Winter Mountaineering instruction.
Ice Axe Buying Guide – Black Diamond Raven | Petzl Summit Evo | Grivel G1 Plus
ALPINE ICE AXE
When considering how to choose an ice axe it is beneficial to think about your aspirations and how much use you will get from your investment. Avid winter walkers will require nothing more than a simple straight shaft walking axe, but if you consider winter walking an entrance into the world of technical mountaineering and possibly ice climbing then look no further than an Alpine ice axe.
Identified by a slightly curved stronger shaft with a spike, replaceable picks and a modular adze and hammer these ice axes allow the user to climb steeper ground more easily whilst retaining the benefits of a walking axe. This may sound like there are no disadvantages to buying this type of axe, but they will be heavier, more expensive and the slight curve will be detrimental when using the adze to cut snow or plunging into the snow. The adze is more useful for clearing cracks and the hammer can be used to bash pegs and hexes into cracks for protection.
Most Alpine axes are between 50cm – 55cm long, they will have a ‘trigrest’ to help with grip and have more aggressive geometry to cope with ice and mixed climbing.
Synergy Guides use Alpine ice axes for most of our Intro to Winter Climbing courses. They provide strength to help build belays in the snow, are ergonomic enough to climb steeper ground and allow the ability to change route choice when conditions are not as accurate as forecast. If you can only have one axe then a do-it-all Alpine axe is the one to buy.
Ice Axe Buying Guide – Black Diamond Viper | Petzl Quark
TECHNICAL ICE AXE
Easy to identify in the shop, it will be the first axe that people take off the shelf. More aggressive shape, often without an adze or hammer and made of premium materials – dare I say it; they look sexy!
The banana-shaped shaft is not very good for cutting into the snow; hence the lack of adze but it is very good for reaching over steep bulges and ‘hooking’ the pick onto small edges. The geometry of the curved shaft means the hand is in a less stressful position when gripping the handle, some of which have inserts to adjust the size depending on the weight of glove you use.
Many technical axes are produced for specific types of winter climbing, from mixed climbing to pure water ice and specialist axes for dry tooling and indoor competitions. The Black Diamond video below is a perfect example of the fine margins between very specific ice axes.
Nearly all technical ice axes are 50cm long and very strong, some are made from carbon fibre and are generally the most expensive ice axe you can buy.
Ice Axe Buying Guide – Black Diamond Fuel | Petzl Ergo | Edelrid Rage | Grivel Tech Machine
ICE AXE LEASHES
Wrist leashes are almost a thing of the past, with more climbers using spring style leashes to attach to the spike and not halfway up the shaft. Spring style leashes should not be considered load bearing meaning they could and will snap if you fall onto them. They provide a psychological advantage when dropping an axe on a route is not an option.
Whilst winter walking I travel without a leash as I swap the ice axe from hand to hand and the axe is almost always held by the head vertically alongside my leg. In this scenario, I consider a leash more hazardous as it can get snagged in a crampon and cause a trip and potential slide. An exception to this might be crossing a glacier when dropping the axe in a crevasse can be catastrophic.
SPECIALIST & SKI TOURING ICE AXE
There are some alternate ice axes on the market which are less ideal for winter walking and mountaineering. The rise in ultra-lightweight equipment means there are some fantastic ski touring ice axes out there, many of which are made from less durable materials. These are OK for very occasional use but don’t expect them to last long or be practical when you need to cross a patch of hard snow or ice.
Specialist walking poles also have incorporated an ice axe into the handle. These will be almost useless in stopping a fall and should be left to either the highly experienced or unexperienced user who might find a use for such a tool in very specific circumstances.
If you require more free advice on how to choose an ice axe please do not hesitate to get in touch via email. Alternatively consider joining one of our team for bespoke winter guiding and instruction.
Synergy Guides deliver Winter Mountaineering from our base in Fort William where we teach people how to stay safe in the winter environment. We aim to cover the basics plus climb some classic introductory mountaineering routes on Ben Nevis and in Glencoe.
Already an experienced winter mountaineer or walker? Take your skills a step further and join us for an Intro to Winter Climbing or push your grades on a Performance Winter Climbing workshop.
About the author
Steve Holmes owns Synergy Guides, he is a fully qualified Mountaineering Instructor and holds the WMCI (MIC) award. He spends most of his winter climbing on the white cliffs of Ben Nevis; a place he calls home. You can read more about him here.