An ice axe is a multi-purpose tool that consists of a shaft and a head with a pick and an adze attached. It is commonly taken hiking and mountaineering, useful for support, balance, digging, and probing. The ice axe’s most important safety feature is its ability to stop someone from free-falling down a slippery slope.

Quick Tip: If you haven’t already got one, be sure to also check out how to choose an ice axe. It will help you decide which type and size is best for you.

Parts of an ice axe

Understanding the tool’s main components helps us understand how an ice axe is used. The main parts are the shaft, adze, pick, and spike.

The main parts of an ice axe.

Shaft: Curved handles are best for steep terrain and help keep your hands off the snow when driving the pick into the ground. Straight shafts are great for general mountaineering and double as a walking stick.  

Adze: A broad hoe that is attached to the head of the axe. 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. 

A red ice axe in the snow on a fine day
The spike can be driven deep into snow.

When to use an ice axe

The ice axe can be strapped to your pack while covering safe terrain. As the slopes become steeper and the consequences of falling become more severe, it’s time to use it. Always have an ice axe in hand before reaching a challenging set of conditions.

Consider the following factors to decide whether an ice axe is needed:

  • Personal and group skill level and experience.
  • Your personal level of risk tolerance.
  • Severity or weather and visibility.
  • The angle of the slope you’re traversing.
  • Your level of fatigue.
  • Are there crevices, cliff edges, or rocks below?

6 ways to use an ice axe

The ice axe can have many uses, but it’s important to understand how to self-arrest, walk up and down slopes, and climb steep slopes. It’s also handy knowing how to cut steps into hard ice and scramble uphill in deep snow.

1. Self-arresting using an ice axe

Self-arrest is a technique that could save your life on the mountain. If you fall and begin sliding down a slope without ropes or a belay system, you can use an ice axe to stop. The self-arrest technique is a backup plan that should be practiced until it becomes second nature. 

Watch the below video to get an idea of the technique involved in self-arrest:

Use your body and ice axe as an anchor to stop a fall. It’s essential to act quickly. Any hesitating will give your body time to gain momentum, making the job of stopping harder.

The steps you take to stop will depend on your body position:

Body position on the iceWhat to doTechnical rating 1 easier – 5 more challenging
Fall on stomach, facing uphillDon’t change body position; drive pick into the ground and hold the shaft against your chest. Lift body off snow.1
Fall on back, facing uphillRoll over onto stomach; drive pick into the ground and hold the shaft against your chest. Lift body off snow.2
Fall on back, facing downhillPlant pick into the snow at your side and pivot your body until you’re facing uphill, on stomach. Take care of the adze as you adjust position. Hold the shaft against your chest and lift body off snow.5
Fall on stomach, facing downhillPlant pick into the snow at your side and twist your body until you’re facing uphill. Hold the shaft against your chest and lift body off snow.4

2. Using an ice axe to walk upslope

An ice axe provides great support as you walk uphill. For best results, wrap your hand around the tool’s head, with the handle between your middle and index finger. If you find it more comfortable, position the handle between the middle and ring finger. Holding the pick or adze won’t offer good stability and could lead to injury.

As you begin walking, thrust the spike into the ground in front of you, slightly to one side, so that you don’t have to keep walking around it.

Once you’re next to the axe, remove it from the ground and re-plant it ahead. Never draw it from the snow if you’re unstable or mid-step. It’s also important not to walk past your axe, as it’s easy to lose balance once it’s behind you.

For steep inclines, hold the ice axe in your uphill hand. Use it for support and to help pull yourself upward.

Hold the ax in the upslope hand when walking zig-zag up a steep slope. Change hands each time you change directions.

Various images of people walking through snow with an ice axe in their hand
Ice axes provide support and balance on uneven ground.

3. Using ice axes to walk downslope

Descents require the ice axe to be positioned behind your body rather than in front.

To walk downhill, thrust the spike into the snow next to you, then begin walking downward. After a few steps, the axe will be behind you, so remove it and drive it into the ground again next to you.

Always check your balance and ensure your footing is stable before removing the ice axe. You’ll achieve a firm foundation by driving your heels into the snow and making steps.

4. Using an ice axe for a steep climb

As you hit steeper ground, the ice axe becomes an invaluable climbing aid, essential for ice and rock terrain. To help scale a face, you can use the axe in one of two ways:

Overhead swing: Hold the axe by the handle with your dominant hand. Aim for a suitable entry point, raise the axe over your head, and swing. As the pick’s tip makes contact, flick your wrist forward to avoid knuckle injuries.

Check the pick is firmly wedged into the side of the mountain before pulling yourself up. Once you’re stable, remove the axe and repeat the steps.     

Daggering: Instead of holding the handle, grip the axes head. Next, use body weight to drive the axe’s pick into the snow before ascending. If you can’t find an entry point for the pick, consider wedging the tool between rocks or hooking it onto a rock, then thrusting yourself up.

A range of images showing men climbing sheer cliff faces with the help of an ice pick axe
Without an ice axe, vertical ascents would be much harder.

5. Cutting steps into ice or hard snow

If you’re not wearing crampons or the ice is especially hard, you can chop steps using the adze. For best stability, try to cut them wide enough for both feet.

Before you start, get into a stable position. It would help if you were side-on to the mountain with the dominant arm uphill. Next, hold the ice axe by its shaft and use the adze like a scoop to remove ice and snow. Take care not to loosen the supporting snow next to the step, as it won’t hold your weight.

Once a step has been cut out, use your boots to firm it down and widen it. When the space is complete, step up with your front foot first and ensure it is secure before stepping up with the back foot.    

Closeup of crampons on hard ice
Crampons make walking on slippery surfaces possible.

6. Scrambling upslope in thick snow

An ice axe is a handy piece of equipment for pulling yourself up a slope covered in thick snow. It makes a stable anchor to hold onto.

Hold the ice axe’s head with both hands and plunge the spike straight into the snow. It should get embedded in solid, hard-packed snow if it goes deep enough. Begin walking up through the snow, using the axe for stability.

Continue to pull out the axe and repeat the first step. This scrambling technique is exhausting and is best avoided if you have to cover a long distance.

Check out this video, which explains the various ways to use an ice axe.

Other handy uses for an ice axe

  • Makeshift tent pole
  • Self-defense against wild animals
  • Tripod for camera
  • Digger for shelter or latrine
  • First aid splint
  • Rock prier
  • Rappel anchor
  • Cooking pot support
  • Signal mirror
  • Attaching equipment to slopes

How to grip an ice axe for balance and support

There are two popular options for gripping an ice axe if you’re using it for support as you walk.

A self-belay grip involves holding the adze with a forefinger and thumb wrapped under the pick section. The pick faces forward, providing better safety in steep terrain. It’s important to note that if you drop into self-arrest position, you’ll need to rotate the axe head around.   

The self-arrest grip has the adze pointed forward. Hold the head by the pick and wrap your fingers under the adze. This choice of grip means you’re holding the axe correctly in case you fall and have to self-arrest.

Should I tether my ice axe with a leash?

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.  

3 types of ice axe

  1. Walking axes have a straight shaft that is typically longer than the other types. They are ideal for support and come in handy in an unexpected ice axe arrest.
  2. Technical axes are for challenging ice climbs and winter ascents. The short, very curved, and come as a pair. One head has a hammer and the other an adze, perfect for ascending steep ice walls. 
  3. Alpine axes are suitable for technical climbing and walking. They are an excellent middle ground between the other two types of ice axes.

Commonly asked questions

What is the difference between an ice axe and an ice tool?

Ice axes come in various designs and help mountain climbers move across challenging terrain more safely. An ice tool is a short, curved variety of ice axe that is specially made for vertical ice climbing. 

Where should I carry an ice axe?

It is a good idea to carry an ice axe in mountainous areas with steep slopes or lots of ice and snow. It will provide helpful support when trekking and could help you come to a stop if you fall and start sliding out of control.

Why are ice axes curved?

Technical and alpine ice axes have a bend to make it easier to swing on steep inclines. A curved handle also creates clearance for your fingers; they don’t touch the snow when driving the pick into snow.

Summing up

An ice axe is an essential tool for mountaineers. For an investment of under $200, this tool could save its owner’s life. While an ice axe makes a handy safety device, it also has many other uses.

If you enjoyed this article, check out 27 types of axes you may want to add to your collection.      

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