With the first snow fall on the tops of the fells in the Lake District, and the first proper harsh frosts and icy mornings having arrived, it’s time to prepare for the upcoming winter season. Time to check you have the right kit for the winter conditions before you head out onto the fells and mountains. The full details are also online on our website, if you click here.
One of the most common misconceptions about ice axes is that they are used exclusively for ice climbing and winter or Alpine mountaineering, and so many people decide they don’t need an axe. Ice axes are also used for snow walking, alpine ski touring, ice climbing or mountaineering. The key use of an axe is always to prevent small slips developing into a fall. We know that it’s not always easy to select the correct ice axe, due to the often bewildering range of pick shapes and lengths available, especially as every single one has been designed for differing terrain.
Technical or Classic Axe?
The simplest choice to make when selecting an ice axe, is if it is for technical (often vertical) climbing routes, where a pair of ‘technical’ axes would be selected, or if it is more benign terrain where a ‘classic’ ice axe would be selected, such as for easy snow ascents (e.g. Mont Blanc), winter hill walking, snowshoeing or alpine ski touring.
What length of ice axe?
When walking with an ice axe, it’s normal to hold the ice by the head, with the shaft pointing towards the floor. If walking unroped, such as winter walking in Scotland, the pick generally points backwards, so the axe can be lifted into an ice axe arrest position immediately. On more technical ground, or if roped up on harder snow or ice, it is often safer to hold the head of the axe with the pick pointing forwards, as the short-roping skills or running belays are used to stop a slip developing into a fall. Walking axes come in various lengths, and the traditional method of choosing the correct length is to hold the axe by its head down by your side. The tip of the spike should be somewhere between the top of your mountaineering boots, and your ankle bone. For easier routes, this is ideal sizing, but for slightly more technical routes, a shorter axe is preferable, as the arm does not need to be elevated as much and the spike is less likely to catch in event of a fall, causing injury or cartwheeling. For mountaineering the axe sizes most commonly chosen are between 50 – 60cm long, and almost all technical axes are a standard 50cm length.
Pick shape – Classic or Banana / Drop curve?
This is the most common type of pick curve on a classic ice axe. If you imagine holding the axe just above the spike, and swinging it into the ice, the pick is curved slightly steeper than the arc of rotation, to ensure a positive grip and lock into the snow / ice, for a secure placement. This shape is equally good for ice axe arrest, but note that an aggressive curve can sometimes bite into the snow quite harshly, with the effect that it is ripped out of your hands, so a more neutral curve more in alignment with the arc of rotation is often sought.
Banana pick / drop curve pick
These picks with a reversed curve feature on all technical ice axes, and the reasoning for this is twofold; firstly the inverse arc of the pick is ideal for hooking into placement positions on ice or mixed terrain, and secondly when the shaft is pulled away from the ice to extract the pick the upper curve of the pick smoothly cuts out of the ice to release it from a weighted position.
What is the ‘B’ (basic) or ‘T’ (technical) rating?
Both the pick and the shaft of the ice axe are separately tested by the UIAA to independently give them a rating for the shear forces that they with withstand. Basic ratings are up to 200kg, which is plenty enough for most people for their classic ice axe, although on steeper ground where the axe is used for snow belays or in positions where greater stresses are placed on it, a technical rating might be sought. All technical ice climbing tools are also technical rated. This equates to a loading of up to 400kg on the shaft or the pick. The reasoning behind separate testing of the shaft and pick, is that the axe could have a ‘B’ rated shaft and a ‘T’ rated pick, to make it lightweight, yet have a stronger pick that is good on mixed ground.
Choice of axe materials
An alloy of steel is by far the most common used manufacturing ice axes. Depending on the alloy, and where used, it is the most durable metal, however it’s also the heaviest too. For routes where ice needs to be cut, steps hacked, or debris cleared, a steel axe is the most durable by far. Its weight makes penetration into snow or ice easier, but on long routes the weight can also be tiring on the arms. Any route where hard ice or torquing on mixed ground are encountered, steel axes are the best choice by far.
The next choice is titanium, as it is nearly as durable as steel, though it is still heavier than aluminium. Whilst on a tensile test, titanium is stronger then steel, it is easier to bend, so it’s not ideal for anything other than snow routes, and in extreme cold or duress it won’t crack or shatter like aluminium. Titanium is far more expensive than steel, but for classic routes is an increasingly popular choice.
This material is the lightest of all the choices above, but is not very durable. Its usually ideal for the preserve of super lightweight ascents, ski touring, adventure racing, or snowshoeing, on which steep snow or ice is avoided. These axes are ideal for basic routes or as an emergency back up on routes where the use of an axe is not always essential or planned.
The back of the axe behind the pick is called the adze. When selecting an axe, look to see if this is all one piece (i.e. drop forged) or welded on. The former is stronger, heavier and more expensive, but will last a lifetime, whereas the welded option is lighter, cheaper and less durable. If cutting steps in ice or hard snow, go for the durable option.
Leash or leashless ice climbing?
For classic axes, they often are sold without any leash at all, or with a detachable leash. The advantage of this is that on a route where you are changing direction often, the leash would have to be swopped to the uphill hand on every turn, and there is a risk that you could get lazy and either not swop hands on the axe, or drop the leash so it became a crampon trip hazard. Whilst these improper uses are negative, the leash may be useful on a classic axe on a long traverse, to reduce the dropping hazard. On stepper snow with a classic axe, or when using technical axes, leashes offer wrist support, to take some strain off your arms and hands. An option some climbers consider is to climb without a leash, to allow a more dynamic climbing style, and to swop hands on the axe(s) to suit placements. There is a greater risk of dropping the tool, but you can secure the tool with a long lanyard or elastic, to stop the tool falling too far if dropped, whilst retaining the advantages of leashless. There’s no right and wrong with selecting whether to use leashes or not, so select what style you feel provides you more security, and minimises risks.
Selecting an Adze or a Hammer
The back of the pick either has an adze (triangular blade) or a hammer attachment. The adze is useful for clearing ice, cutting steps, or digging out a t-belay or bollard. The hammer is useful for torquing in cracks, hammering in any protection, or placing pitons. On technical climbs either two technical ice axes with hammers are carried, or one axe and one hammer. On snow climbs, an adze is always preferable.
What type of spike is required?
When winter walking, glacier hiking or Alpine mountaineering, a spike is useful as a third contact point, as this is most often the first or only point of contact with the snow. When on soft snow or powder snow, an axe with a cut-off style shaft is fine, as it saves weight, and it will penetrate the snow easily anyway.
Our Icicle shop in Windermere stocks and sells a wide variety of ice axes. If you need any assistance in deciding which ice axe is best for you, visit our shop and Office in Windermere in the Lake District for kit and course advice; or see our online shop (click here) or email our team with any queries if you are looking to purchase a axe, or wish to know if an existing axe you have is suitable.
To view the equipment lists and advice pages overview, please click here.