Head into your local outdoor shop and you’ll realise that choosing a mountaineering ice axe can be very tricky. You’ll be faced with different lengths and varied materials. There will be curved and shaped options and different angled picks. It can seem daunting. In this guide we are focussing solely on choosing a general purpose mountaineering axe. We hope you find it useful
The right tool for the job
The first thing to mention is that there isn’t one ice axe that will excel at every job. A super light ice axe may make a good emergency tool for ski tourers. It won’t be efficient when climbing steep ice. The trick is to choose the best tool for the activities you take part in. If you dip into various winter activities you are likely to need various tools. The following information focuses solely on choosing a mountaineering ice axe.
Whilst forged one piece axe heads are the bee’s knees, they are becoming harder to find. The new trend is for axe heads made from stamped metal. These will do their job just fine but make sure the head is durable enough. It also needs enough weight for an effective swing. For general mountain use you should also ensure it’s made of steel rather than alloy. Alloy heads are designed for specialist things like ultra lightweight ski touring.
The axe pick should be gently curved to allow it to grip in snow but not too curved or it will snatch in fall arrest situations. Some axe picks have teeth that are just placed in the first few inches of the underside of the pick whilst some go all the way up to where the pick meets the top of the shaft. My experience of using a variety of axes has shown me it is better not to have teeth all the way up as this doesn’t greatly improve its holding power and can also make the axe uncomfortable to hold. Those teeth can really chew up your gloves too.
The curve from the pick should then continue smoothly over the head of the axe which will make it comfortable to grip. When you go into the shops its worth taking some gloves and trying holding lots of models. On big mountain days you’ll be carrying your axe for a long time in this position. If its shape starts hurting your hand you’ll be more likely to put it away and not have it available when you really need it.
The adze just needs to be of a good cutting size, slightly scooped and not too steeply angled. The pick and adze don’t need to be too sharp for what you want this axe to do. Either let them blunt up a bit with use or smooth the sharp bits a little with a hand file. Remember that Gore-Tex and sharp don’t mix too well.
If you Google ice axe length you’ll be faced with lots of opinions on the best length for your tool. Old school thinking always said that your axe should be 2 inches off the floor when you held the head in your hand and stood with your arm down by your side. The trouble with this is that it makes your axe hard to use for anything other than as a walking stick.
In my opinion it’s best to choose an axe of about 55cm regardless of your height. This length will allow efficient ice axe braking and step cutting. It will also perform well for axe belays and provide good support on steep ground. This length also swings efficiently when climbing and stores easily on you sack.
Shaft style is a crucial factor in choosing a mountaineering ice axe. In yesteryear wood ruled for axe shaft construction. The trouble is that wood is unpredictable and has been known to fail without warning. Remember that Cliffhanger was only made up (I know that’s hard to believe!). Alloy is the modern way to go.
Oval alloy tubing is strong, provides a good shape for your hand to grip and is dependable in use. A simple but solid spike at the bottom of the shaft will allow you to plunge the axe easily into snow. Some form of rubber grip on the lower part of the shaft will aid hold-on-ability and insulate your pinkies. Try to avoid axes where the grip material is too raised from the shaft though. It will wear quickly and get in the way when you are plunging your shaft into snow.
Some models come without any shaft grip. You can make your own using some climbing finger tape but it does soak up water and might freeze. Even better, use some purpose made strips of the super grippy adhesive sandpaper material sold by Grivel or Petzl, DMM and Edlerid all produce purpose made grip tape.
Axe shafts and picks are rated by the criteria of UIAA standard 152 (which in turn are based on EN standard 13089). It’s worth noting that the UIAA standard 152 has additional requirements to the EN standard on which it is based. That all sounds pretty heavy and you have probably dozed off. If you do like that type of techno babble all the technical testing standards can be found on the UIAA website.
Really the essential facts you need to know are that axes and picks are given either a B (basic) or T (technical) rating. B rated axes are lower strength and are designed for use in general circumstances such as mountaineering, glacier travel and ski mountaineering. Components that are T rated have passed the most stringent tests and are designed to cope in all circumstances including such high stress activities as ice climbing and dry tooling. The rating will be shown by either a B or T in a circle on the shaft and pick of the axe.
Ice axes are now available that only weigh 2 nanograms and have helium filled shafts (maybe!). The problem with today’s obsession with lightness is that a general purpose axe needs some weight to allow a good swing for efficient step cutting and good penetration in hard ice. Axes also take a lot of abuse. Ultralight materials just aren’t going to be as durable for long term mountain use. Despite the desire to get your total pack weight down to 600grams this is one area where you need some clout.
Ice axe leashes are good for providing support when step cutting and preventing you dropping your axe. They are bad for zigzagging up a slope where you need to change hands regularly. The answer is a simple leash that can be detached from the axe easily when not needed. The easiest solution is a simple slider closure style tape leash that can be larks footed through the hole at the top of your axe head. Please check out our Mountaineering Ice Axe Leashes top tip to find out more about this.
Even better if it’s compact enough to carry in your jacket pocket as this will mean you always have it to hand when needed. If you do decide to have it permanently attached to your axe don’t leave it dangling down. That’s a sure fire way to snag it in crampon points just when you really don’t want to. One way to keep things neat if you leave it attached is to wrap the tape several times around the axe pick and trap it in place with your hand.
Carrying and storage
You’ve found your trusty partner. It’s a marriage made in heaven. Well now you need to treat that puppy with respect. Luckily axes don’t take too much caring for. Just make sure it’s dry before storage and don’t store it in a damp place because rust will develop quickly. If you use those little rubber pick and spike protectors make sure they are removed for storage. It is very easy to trap moisture underneath. Apart from that just periodically give your axe a once over looking for signs of metal fatigue, excessive wear and any damage to any rivets.
Many rucksacks will have ice axe holders incorporated into the front panel. These are great when on initial approaches but it can be harder to deploy your axe in a furry. A better alternative when your might need it quickly is often to stow your axe vertically down your packs side compression straps. If you need your tool to hand more quickly just slide it between your back and the back of your rucksack with the axe tip exiting above the lower strap attachment point. Of course, the very best way to really look the part is to always have your axe in your hand when you really need it.
That’s our choosing a mountaineering ice axe guide. To develop the skills of using an ice axe efficiently come and join one of our legendary winter skills courses.