Find the right ice axe for your mountaineering objectives
Few sports are as indelibly connected with a symbol as mountaineering and the ice axe. The profile of an ice axe evokes scenes of unattainable white peaks scarred with black rock jutting into a blue alpine sky, windswept Himalayan ridges and teetering seracs, or explorers pushing the limits of human endurance. To those with mountaineering experience, the ice axe takes on a different meaning; it is a piece of crucial equipment that provides stability and traction on steep snowy slopes and a final means of protection in the event of a fall. This season, if you are planning a trip to Mt. Rainier or another alpine climbing destination, an ice axe is one of the most critical pieces of gear to bring along, yet it is also key to find the right axe for the type of terrain and conditions that you will encounter.
A great starting point when buying an ice axe is determining the proper length. An ice axe should not be long enough to use like a cane on flat ground, since this will render it much too long on steeper terrain. An axe should be short enough that, while ascending, you can reach out in front of yourself to plant the end, without lifting your hand above your head to do so. If the shaft is too long, you will lose stability when ascending steep terrain. Also, in the event that you must self arrest, the end of the axe is less likely to catch in the snow during a slide if you have a shorter axe. Generally, when you are holding an ice axe by the head, the spike or pointed end of the shaft should fall just above your ankle.
Once you have found the proper length for your axe, the next important feature to consider is the shape of the pick. The pick of your axe is crucial to your safety, as it gives you the ability to self arrest during a slide, as well as allows you to ascend steep, icy terrain. There are three pick shapes, each of which has specific benefits:
The classic, or positive curve is the most common pick shape for classic mountaineering axes. This shape features a downward curving pick that was first designed by Yvon Chouinard in the 1960s to provide better performance when climbing steep ice compared to the straight picks that were standard at the time. This design allows you to self arrest quickly and effectively during a slide, as well as provides a secure hold when swung into steeper ice. The classic curve is a versatile shape for a variety of conditions and is a perfect choice for steep snow climbing without technical ice.
A neutral curve pick comes out of the head of the axe with relatively no downward curve. Although a neutral pick is the most effective for self arrest, it is much less common than a classic curve since it is very insecure when swung into ice. This type of pick was generally phased out of ice axe design with the introduction of the positive curve pick shape. This type of pick is no longer an ideal choice for mountaineering, as the positive or reverse curve shapes are more effective for any type of terrain that you will encounter. Most major ice axe manufacturers do not incorporate neutral curve picks into their products.
The reverse curve pick shape is the most modern. This pick is intended for climbing steep water ice and is standard on technical ice climbing tools. Reverse curve picks are the best option for swinging into hard, steep ice, because they are easier to remove once driven in. The downside to this shape is that it does not self arrest as smoothly as a classic curve and can feel less stable when sliding a reverse curve shape is ideal for routes with any steep, technical ice and essential for vertical ice climbing.
Traditionally, mountaineering axes have featured a straight shaft, which is more effective when plunging the spike into hard snow. Many traditional design ice axes that are available today, such as the Black Diamond Raven or the Petzl Snowalker, still feature this design.
However, many ice axes available now have shafts that are curved or bent. A perfect example of this design is the Petzl Summit. These shafts allow for more leverage when self arresting, added clearance when swinging the axe, while also keeping the climber’s hands out of the snow when climbing very steep terrain where he or she must dig the pick into the snow while gripping the shaft. The main disadvantage with this design is that the shape makes the axe harder to drive into the snow vertically.
Many ice axes and tools feature a shape spike on the base of the shaft. This spike allows the climber plant the axe in the ground while ascending steep terrain, enables the tip of the axe to better break through hard snow and ice, and provides a balance point. For most mountaineering situations, having a spike is useful. However, if you are embarking on fast and light missions, ski mountaineering, climbing vertical ice, or any adventures where reducing weight is a serious concern, you can opt for an axe without a spike or a tool with a removable one to lighten your gear.
Most traditional mountaineering axes on the market feature an adze on the back of the head. An adze is beneficial in mountaineering for digging out snow caves, steps and anchors, as well as providing a better grip for self arresting. However, many hybrid axes and all technical ice tools come with the option to substitute a hammer in place of the adze, which allows a climber to hammer pitons or snow pickets. A hammer also greatly reduces the weight of an axe or tool. If you have an option to choose between an adze or a hammer, the hammer is the ideal option for versatility in modern mountaineering and climbing situations.
Other styles of ice axes for technical terrain
On technical mountaineering missions featuring moderate angle water ice or alpine climbing, you can opt for a hybrid ice axe. Hybrid ice axes are more aggressive than a general mountaineering axe, while less technical than an ice climbing tool. These axes feature a curved shaft, a rubber grip or hand rest, and a reverse curve pick. Many of these axes also have the option to choose a hammer over an adze. Axes in this category are effective for climbing steeper sections of ice and hard snow, while still useful on sections of less technical terrain.
Some hybrid axes, like the Petzl Sum’tec, allow you to swap out picks when they break, or in the case of the Black Diamond Venom, when you want a classic curve pick. “Modular” ice axes like these are heavier, but can be extremely useful in situations where a pick might break, or when a climber wants one axe for a wide range of mountaineering conditions. If you plan on taking on tougher, mixed alpine terrain and want a versatile, do-it-all ice axe, a modular hybrid ice axe like the Black Diamond Venom, Petzl Sum’tec or CAMP X-Light is an excellent choice
For any terrain featuring steep, technical ice or hard snow (60 degrees or more), or any steep mixed alpine climbing, a pair of technical ice tools are necessary. These tools feature molded rubber and plastic grips, a notable shaft curve, and aggressive steel reverse curve picks. Technical ice tools for primarily climbing steep water ice have essentially evolved into a category separate from ice axes for classic mountaineering or ski mountaineering. However, some technical ice tools, such as the Petzl Quark, the Black Diamond Viper and the Camp X-All Mountain are great choices for technical mountaineering because they feature a relatively moderate shaft bend and can be used with a spike.