If you’re an ice climber, a mountaineer, or a high altitude winter hiker, then an ice axe is a basic necessity. Yet with so many different materials, shapes, and features available, choosing one is anything but basic.
Keep reading to learn about different types of ice axes, the activities they’re best for, and how to choose one that’s right for you.
When we talk about ice axes, there are three categories to concern yourself with:
These traditionally-designed ice axes typically have a straight shaft that varies in length. While this makes them comfortable for traversing low-angle terrain, the lack of clearance between the shaft and pick render them unsuitable for steeper climbing.
Technical Ice Tools
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, an aggressive shaft curve, and equally aggressive steel reverse-curve picks. They do not come in multiple lengths, instead hovering around 50 cm.
Hybrid Ice Axes
Hybrid ice axes are more aggressive than a traditional mountaineering axe, yet less technical than an ice tool. They feature a curved shaft, a rubber grip or hand rest, and a reverse-curve pick. Axes in this category are effective for climbing steeper sections of ice and hard snow, while still remaining useful on sections of less technical terrain.
Breaking down an Ice Axe
Knowing all the parts of an ice axe is a good first step to buying one:
- The Head: Composed of the pick, a carabiner hole, and an adze (or a hammer).
- The Shaft: Made of steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber. The weight, curvature, and material of the shaft all influence what activity the ice axe is best for.
- The Pick: The pointy end. Picks are made of a steel alloy, and are categorized by their curve. A positive curve is the type seen on most mountaineering axes, like the Petzl axe pictured to the right. This curve is the most effective when used to self arrest, but is more difficult to pull out of ice. A reverse positive curve, such as the one seen on the Black Diamond axe to the right, is much easier to pull out of hard ice and is featured predominantly on technical ice tools.
- The Adze: A shovel-like implement on the opposite side of the pick. An adze is used for cutting steps, digging out snow caves, and as a comfortable grip when hiking.
- The Hammer: When climbing steep ice or mixed terrain, forego an adze and use a hammer instead. This will save weight and allow you to pound pitons and snow pickets.
- The Spike: Located at the bottom of the shaft, the spike penetrates snow and ice to assist with balance when hiking. More or less essential on a mountaineering axe, spikes are often not needed on technical ice tools and removed to save weight.
- The Carabiner Hole: Predominantly the attachment point for leashes, the carabiner hole also works in tandem with ice clippers on your harness to stow your ice axe on-the-fly.
What Length Mountaineering Axe Should I Get?
Measure by height…
Mountaineering axes are measured in centimeters, and are available in sizes ranging from 50 cm to 75 cm. In general, your height and wingspan are the deciding factors when choosing a length, with a smaller person requiring a shorter axe and vice-versa.
A common way to measure what length you need is to stand upright and hold a mountaineering axe with your arms relaxed at your side. If the spike of the axe reaches your ankle bone, it’s the absolute longest axe you can safely use. Beware of getting a mountaineering axe that is too long, as you will run the risk of the spike being caught in the snow and launching you into the air during a self-arrest.
If you’re shopping online and are unable to physically hold a mountaineering axe, this size chart will give you a good estimate for the length you need:
|5’8″ or less||50 cm to 60 cm|
|5’8 to 6’0||60 cm to 70 cm|
|Greater than 6’0″||60 cm to 75 cm|
…Or by activity
The longer a mountaineering axe is (relative to your height), the more suitable it is for low-angle terrain activities, like glacial and cross country traveling. Shorter mountaineering axes, on the other hand, fare better as your climbing gets steeper.
If you see yourself remaining on relatively low-angle terrain, measuring strictly by your height is a safe bet—you will be able to comfortably hold and use the axe as a cane for balance and stability. If you foresee steeper climbing in your future, then getting a slightly shorter axe (or a hybrid ice axe) is a better choice.
Choosing a Technical Ice Tool
Choosing a technical ice tool is slightly more complicated, and often comes down to which one swings more naturally for you. Check out this video that breaks down some of the differences between several types of ice tools on the market:
Remember, choosing a technical ice tool depends on the type of climbing you plan on doing most often, your skill level, and some degree of personal preference.
Weight and Material
All technical ice tools are heavier than their mountaineering cousins, as they’re made for swinging into and penetrating ice. There are differences in weight among them, mainly due to the materials their shafts are made from:
- Steel shafts are the heaviest, but are most forgiving to beginners as they sink into ice more readily.
- Aluminum shafts are lighter, but that may result in glancing blows from the inexperienced or out-of-practice.
- Lighter still are carbon fiber shafts, but due to their expense and technical nature they are best-suited for seasoned ice climbers.
Shaft Curvature and Pick Clearance
Just like how a hybrid mountaineering axe has a slightly curved shaft to give its pick more clearance on steeper climbs, the shafts of technical ice tools vary in curvature as well.
A technical ice tool with a less aggressive shaft curvature, like the Black Diamond Viper, has enough pick clearance to climb vertical ice and easily navigate over bulges. They don’t fare as well, however, when confronted with the overhanging rock sections and roofs that you’ll encounter on a very technical mixed climb or when dry-tooling. For that type of climbing, an ice tool with an extremely curved shaft, such as the Petzl Ergo, is the better choice. Not only does the extreme curvature of the shaft give the pick enough clearance to navigate overhangs and roofs, it also places your hand directly under the pick for optimal leverage and control.
Recessed Handles VS. Non-Recessed
Simply put, when you swing a tool with recessed handle, the tool will pivot at your pointer finger. When you swing a tool with a non-recessed handle, it pivots at your pinkie finger. Whichever feels more natural to you is the handle you want, so try and find a shop that sells ice tools so you can test some out.
Some ice tools feature simple, rubberized grips, some feature ergonomically-shaped grips with adjustable finger rests, and some even feature grip tape above the handle to choke up on the ice tool for more leverage. The right grip for you, like the right handle, should be tested in person before you make a decision.
Nearly all ice tools have customizable heads, so you can not only choose your own adventure when it comes to having a hammer or an adze on each ice tool, but you also have the ability to swap out picks depending on the type of climbing you plan to do.
Thinner, more penetrative picks can be used for strictly ice climbing, while heavier, thicker picks can be used for mixed climbing or dry-tooling.