When you hear the term “ice axe,” what do you think of? Do you imagine a mountaineer traversing an epic, snow-covered alpine route, using his axe in a cane-like fashion on his way to the summit? Or do you picture a climber meticulously working her way up a frozen waterfall, carefully placing each of her two axes in the ice before moving her feet up and kicking in with her crampons as she moves toward the top?
No matter which image comes to mind first, you’re right—both scenarios require the use of ice axes. Not all ice axes are created equal, however, and the axe you’d need for a mountaineering trip is quite different from the one you’d need for a day of technical ice climbing.
Mountaineering Axes v. Technical Ice Tools
While many people use “ice axe” loosely to describe the tools used for both mountaineering and vertical ice/mixed climbing, they technically have different names; axes used for technical ice climbing are actually called “ice tools” rather than ice axes.
The biggest difference between the two types of ice tools is, coincidentally, how big they are. Mountaineering axes are much longer than ice tools since they are used primarily for traversing across less-steep terrain (almost like a cane or more aggressive trekking pole) or as a snow anchor. The straight shaft of a mountaineering axe also provides much better leverage for more efficient self arrest.
In addition to be shorter, technical ice tools also feature curved shafts. A curved shaft allows for a much more efficient swing, and makes it easier to get good pick placement in the ice.
Ice Axe Anatomy
Before we go any further, here’s a brief lesson on the anatomy of ice axes and tools...
Spike: Found on all mountaineering axes and some ice tools, the spike is a sharp metal point, and helps maintain balance when walking on ice. (Some ice tools don’t have one since walking is not the primary use.)
Shaft: As previously mentioned, mountaineering axes have straight shafts (though some models do incorporate a slight curve) and ice tools have curved shafts. Shafts are typically made of aluminum, steel, or carbon. (More on shaft material later.)
Pick: The pick of an ice tool is the part you swing into the ice. On a mountaineering axe, the pick is also the part used during a self arrest.
Adze/hammer: Mountaineering axes always have an adze opposite the pick. Ice tools will either have an adze or a hammer. (More on the benefits of adzes and hammers later.)
Carabiner hole: As its name suggests, you can use the hole at the top of the axe/tool to attach it to a carabiner on your harness for safe keeping. This hole is also where you would attach a leash.
How long should an ice axe be?
In general, technical ice tools are only available in one length (which can vary by brand/model, but is typically around 50 cm). But mountaineering ice axes are available in several lengths, usually from 55 to 75 cm (normally sold in 5 cm increments).
The trick to figuring out which length axe you need for mountaineering is to stand up straight and hold the axe by its head. If the spike falls below your ankle, then the axe is too long for you. Ideally, the spike should be somewhere between the bottom half of your calf and the top of your ankle.
As with just about anything, however, there are some exceptions to this “rule.” If the majority of your winter expeditions are going to take you up steeper terrain, it’s best to go with an axe that is a little bit shorter. (Since the axe is held in your uphill hand, having one that is too long is only going to put you off balance.) If most of your trips will be on less-steep terrain, an axe that is a little bit longer will probably be best.
What are ice axes made of?
Ice axe and ice tool picks are almost always made of a steel alloy to provide you with the most durability. The shafts, on the other hand, come in a variety of materials:
Steel shafts are the most durable, but they are also the heaviest. It’s not all bad news, though—the additional bit of weight of a steel-shaft ice tool may make it easier for you to penetrate hard ice, especially if you’re just starting out and haven’t fine-tuned your swing yet.
Aluminum shafts are lighter weight, which makes them particularly well-suited for activities where you want to carry as little weight as possible, such as ski mountaineering, glacier travel, and general winter trekking.
Some highly specialized ice axes and tools feature carbon fiber shafts. Carbon is incredibly lightweight and super-strong...but also super-expensive. Unless you really need to save weight on your mountaineering trips and/or have been ice climbing for a while, it’s probably best to focus your attention on steel or aluminum tools.
Does pick curve matter?
There are three types of pick curve: classic, reverse, and neutral. However, the majority of ice axes and tools use either a classic or reverse curve pick (as of this writing, EMS does not carry any axes/tools with a neutral curve pick), so that’s what we’ll focus on here.
Most mountaineering axes will have a classic curve, which is also sometimes called a positive curve. The classic curve is excellent at self arrest and if you come to a section of steeper ice that needs to be climbed, this pick shape allows you to climb much more securely than a neutral curve would.
The biggest drawback to a classic curve is that it can be a bit harder to clean (pull out of the ice). Reverse curve picks, also called a reverse positive, are much easier to remove from the ice. For this reason, almost all technical ice tools utilize reverse curve picks.
Adze vs. Hammer
Mountaineering axes always have an adze, which has many uses, like step cutting, digging snow anchors, chopping a tent platform, or digging a snow cave. This flat, shovel-like feature also provides a great grip platform during self arrest.
When climbing technical ice or mixed routes, however, the need for an adze is much lower. Instead, many ice tools feature a hammer which can be used to pound in pitons. Many climbers choose to have one adze tool and one hammer tool, but you can have any setup you want. Since most ice tools have modular heads, you can switch out adzes and hammers as necessary, or even remove them completely to cut down on weight.
Do I need a leash?
Leashes provide extra security and contribute greatly to a climber’s peace of mind. Whether attached to your wrist or to your harness, a leash prevents you from losing your ice axe or ice tool in the event of a fall. Some ice axes/tools are sold with leashes, but for the ones that aren’t you can buy leashes separately (or make your own out of webbing or perlon cord).
The past few years have seen a huge rise in leashless ice/mixed climbing. Leashless tools feature a specially designed handle that cradles the hand for more security. (Climbing leashless is not recommended for those new to the sport, as accidentally dropping a tool can be disastrous.)
What happens if the pick breaks?
While not very common, occasionally the picks of ice tools may break. Since so many tools these days feature modular heads, it’s super easy to remove the broken pick and replace it with a brand new one. If you’re gearing up for a long expedition, it may be wise to pack along an extra pick or two just in case.
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