If you’re heading to the mountains for a high-altitude adventure, think seriously about the equipment you’ll take. An ice axe is a versatile tool that could save your life in alpine regions, so choosing the right one is crucial.
Ice axes aren’t all created equal. While some are made for technical ice climbing, others are best suited to mountaineering trips. Axe length also needs to be factored into the buying decision.
What type of ice axe do you need?
You don’t want an unwieldy, long tool for climbing a frozen waterfall or icy rock face; a short axe won’t offer support as you walk across gentle snow-covered slopes. Choose an ice axe that best fits your choice of activity.
You’ll need an ice tool if you’re chasing adrenaline-pumping technical climbing. It is suited to challenging slopes over 60 degrees.
Often used in pairs, they’re shorter than regular mountaineering axes and have a curved shaft. The adze that’s found on regular ice axes is often replaced by a hammer which helps place pickets and pitons.
Technical tools are often heavier than mountaineering axes. They are used to swing into solid ice and need to be able to take the impact.
Most adventurers need an ice axe for summiting a snow-covered peak. While technical climbing may not be required, it could save your life in the event of an unexpected ice axe arrest. You can learn all about how to use an ice axe here.
Walking axes are longer than an ice tool and have a straight shaft. They’re a good length for providing support and balance in uneven, slippery terrain. On uphill snow-covered slopes, the ice axe can be invaluable for scrambling.
What length ice axe should I choose?
Ice axe length is measured from the top of the head to the tip of the spike. The ideal sizing will depend on personal preference and the type of axe you’re using.
Technical ice tools are typically the same length, measuring 50cm. This distance may vary a little by brand, so it’s best to test a few models out in-store to get a feel for which feels most comfortable.
Mountaineering ice axes mostly range from 45-75cm. As a rule, shorter models are better for steep terrain, while longer ones are useful for low-angle slopes and building snow anchors.
How to choose the right-sized mountaineering ice axe
Follow these steps to measure yourself for an ice axe:
- Put on a pair of hiking boots you’ll be wearing on the mountain.
- Stand straight and grip the head of the axe in your hand. The adze should be facing forward.
- Hold your arm relaxed by your side and allow the spike to dangle toward the floor.
- The spike’s tip should be near the top of your ankle or lower calf.
If you can’t visit a store to test ice axes for length, refer to the following size chart. It’s not perfect but should provide a decent estimate based on height.
Advantages of shorter ice axes
- Lighter and easier to carry.
- Easier to swing on steep terrain.
- Ideal if you won’t use it much.
- Simpler to use in self-arrest
Advantages of longer ice axes
- Offers better support when trekking gentle snowfields.
- Easier probing for crevasses and cornices.
- Better for building snow anchors.
- Spike is further away from vital organs in a self-arrest.
Features to consider
When selecting a technical ice tool, the best choice will come down to the climber’s skill level, type of climb, and personal preferences. Choose one that feels comfortable in hand and offers a natural swing. Consider the following features of ice axes when making a buying decision.
The material used to construct the ice tool’s shaft is an important consideration. Popular options include steel, aluminum, and carbon fiber.
Steel shaft ice tools are a good option if you’re new to climbing. They may carry extra weight, but they’re robust and are best for self-arresting.
Steel performs better when swinging in neve and firm snow. It also excels at tough jobs like chopping steps, driving in pickets, and penetrating hard ice.
Aluminum shafts are light, a strength that will appeal to those covering long distances. If you’re involved in early-season backpacking, ski mountaineering, or need a tool for light jobs, then it’s a good choice.
Aluminum isn’t as rugged as steel or titanium. Lighter tools are also more likely to result in glancing blows if a swing is poorly directed.
Titanium weighs more than aluminum but less than steel. It can be used in all the ways steel can, so long as you don’t treat it too roughly. Titanium offers impressive performance and won’t break as aluminum does. However, ice axes that use this material will cost more.
The head of an ice tool is almost always constructed with steel alloy for added strength.
The curve in an ice tool’s shaft can vary significantly. We suggest testing a few brands out to decide what feels best in hand.
An aggressive curvature is ideal for dry-tooling and for roofs or overhanging rock. You get excellent control, leverage, and sufficient clearance for navigating overhangs. Highly curved tools are best for advanced climbers on highly technical climbs.
The shaft grip should also be considered. Some have adjustable finger rests that offer ergonomic comfort, while others have a basic rubber grip. In general, the fancier the handle, the higher the price.
Most ice tools are highly customizable with head attachments that can be swapped out, depending on the activity. If you like participating in various outdoor pursuits, then the ability to replace head parts is a huge benefit.
You can replace the hammer with an adze if you’re likely to need to cut steps into ice. Substitute a thin ice climbing pick with a thicker one if you plan to dry-tool or perform mixed climbing.
Positive pick shape: also known as a classic curve, this pick has a slight arching curve downward. It is mainly used for general mountaineering axes. It is best for self-arresting and steep snow but isn’t as useful for use on high-angle ice.
Neutral curve: a pick that protrudes directly from the head without drooping down. Its smooth design is ideal for self-arrest but isn’t great for swinging into ice.
Reverse curve: also known as reverse positive, this pick is your go-to option for climbing steep snow and ice. Its design makes pulling the axe out of ice much easier but isn’t ideal for self-arresting.
An ice tool may have a recessed or non-recessed handle. While it’s not the most critical factor to consider for a beginner, it’s still helpful to know how they impact a swing.
A recessed handle pivots at the pointer finger while a non-recessed pivots at the pinkie finger. This difference is mostly about comfort. Try to test both to feel which option is right for your swinging style.
Parts of an Ice Axe
Shaft: Curved handles are best for steep terrain. They keep your hands away from snow when driving picks into the ground. Straight shafts are great for general mountaineering and double as a walking stick.
Adze: A broad hoe attached to the ax’s head. It is excellent for digging and cutting seats or steps out of hard ice.
Pick: The sharp, pointed end of the head, opposite the adze. It is used for self-arrest and is designed for hooking into ice or snow.
Spike: A sharp spike at the end of the shaft provides support when walking. It also makes a sturdy anchor during a rescue mission or for belaying.
Ice axe quick tips
- Glaciers and steep snow call for a strong, well-made axe to help with carabiner belays and snow anchors.
- Invest in a strong pair of gloves that offer your hands good protection during arrests.
- To prevent injuries, cover the ice axe’s pick and adze with a rubber protector and remove them only when the tool is used.
- An extra-light axe with a short pick will do the job if you’re out in spring and summer.
- Buy a good quality ice axe from a trusted manufacturer for higher-risk and long expeditions.
- Rubber hand grips may seem helpful, but they make it harder to thrust the shaft deep into snow.
- Spike covers get lost easily, so don’t leave them on as you head into the outdoors.
Commonly asked questions
Do I need a leash for my ice axe?
If you traverse steep areas that could be dangerous without an axe, it makes sense to use a leash so that it doesn’t get lost. But keep in mind the strap adds an additional hazard if you slip. You’ll also need to swap it from one wrist to the other each time you change direction up the mountain.
Always fasten a leash to your wrist rather than a harness. If you fall uncontrollably, you don’t want the axe close to your torso.
Is a curved or straight shaft best?
A straight-shafted ice axe is well-suited to mountaineering. It offers the best walking support on less severe slopes and makes a useful anchor. Curved ice axes are easier to swing on steep terrain and keep your hand away from snow and ice.
What happens if the pick breaks?
Most ice tools have a modular head, so if a pick breaks, it is easy to replace it with a new one. It is well worth taking a spare one with you, especially on long expeditions.
Do I need a spike on my ice axe?
A spike isn’t crucial if you’re walking through soft snow. It’s easy to drive in the shaft without it. You’ll appreciate spikes on glacier routes and for making vertical snow anchors. They’re also handy if you’re making a third point of contact on firm ice.
How many ice axes do I need?
In most situations, one ice axe is all that’s needed. It is sometimes beneficial to have two ice axes during extreme vertical climbs.
For most outdoor enthusiasts, choosing an ice axe doesn’t need to get too complicated.
Start by working out whether you need a classic mountaineering ice axe or a technical axe tool. Have a chat with someone experienced in this area if you’re unsure.
Once you have the type of axe worked out, focus on getting the length right. Our guide above provides general guidelines, but these are just suggestions. If possible, visit a local store and test a few brands out. Make sure the axe you buy feels comfortable in hand.
Remember that even the best ice axe won’t help if you don’t have the skills to use it. Get training if you need it and stay safe.
This article contains valuable advice, but it won’t make you an ice axe expert. Always get practical instruction and practice in a safe environment before setting out on an adventure.