Whether you’re getting into ice climbing, mountaineering, or backcountry skiing, your selection of the right ice axe ⛏can literally be a life or death decision💀. The right axe will be you’re most important anchor to the ice, so it’s important to pay attention to a number of factors related to this essential piece of gear. Scroll on to learn everything you need to know about ice axes, but first – here are our favorite picks.
✅ Hot-forged, carbon steel head provides durability and strength
✅ Ergonomic head fits comfortably in your hand
✅ Carbon steel spike plunges easily into hard-packed snow and ice
✅ Self Arrest curvature of the shaft gives you more power
❌ Not as heavy duty as comparable axes
Everything you need to know about Ice Axes (Ice Picks)🧗♀️
If you’re like us, your first intro to ice axes was from the iconic scene in Vertical Limit when Chris O’Donnell slips after chugging water (or a cold one?) and races down the mountain desperately pecking the snow with his axe. Or maybe you know a thing or two about mountaineering and just need a nudge in the right direction. Either way, we’ve got you covered.
😬ADRENALINE! Ok, let’s get into it!
When searching for an ice axe, you need evaluate the length of each ice pick, the overall weight, the curvature of the handle and the quality of the materials. Most importantly, it’s all about the adze, and how this critical component can crack into and modify the contour of the ice – allowing you to whip up small trenches along your route.
When getting familiar with the axe components as an aspiring mountaineer, you need to thoroughly evaluate the pick – the pointy component at the end of the adze made of durable steel (or diamonds if you can afford it). The best axes usually feature a sizable spike, and this component can significantly improve your balance when getting used to using the ice axe. Below we’ll cover the three primary types of ice axes: mountaineering, technical, and hybrid.
1. An Ice Axe Ideal for Mountaineers
Mountaineering ice axes are ideal for the avid hiker/climber. Typically, mountaineers choose an axe that has a compact adze, a straight shaft and a large pick. Some products contain durable shafts (😏) that are made of aluminum, and the product may feature an easy-to-use grip that can benefit you as an inexperienced climber. This versatile product can help you get up your average fourteener, but if your goal is to go for altitude and traverse steeper slopes, you’re going to need technical tools that have a length of at least 50 centimeters (roughly 1.6 feet).
2. A Technical Axe with a Big Pick
Technical Axes are best for ice climbing and related technical climbs. Many climbers frequently utilize axes that have curved shafts, molded grips and large picks. Each ice pick may also feature a big adze that can allow the climber to create small steps, and consequently, allows you – the athlete – to traverse cliffs of slippery ice. Once you swing that climbing axe, the curved shaft can substantially increase the force of the ice pick, and while you’re climbing a steep mountain, the curved shaft effectively works to stabilize the ice pick.
Generally, the more technical tools feature picks made of steel, which can significantly enhance the durability of the pick, improve the effectiveness of the adze and minimize slippage.
☝PRO TIP: technical axes are usually slightly heavier than mountaineering axes.
3. Best of Both Worlds – Hybrid Axes
Still unsure which one fits you adventure bill? When searching for an all around ice pick, it’s best to choose a hybrid axe that features a curved pick, a comfortable grip and a curved shaft. Hybrid axes usually contain steel picks, but you can also find lightweight axes that have aluminum picks. Generally, a hybrid axe contains a compact handle with a rubber grip, and once you master the hybrid axe, you’ll become an athlete that can safely climb cliffs featuring thick ice, dense snow and uneven rock.
Aspects of an Ice Axe
Axe Length 📏
Bad ass mountaineers frequently traverse uneven terrain that contain valleys, glaciers, crevasses, winding trails and frozen rivers. If you (the aspiring climber) regularly encounters small hills, you’ll want to select an axe with a length of more than 60 centimeters, and if you’re on the taller side, you’ll probably want to utilize an axe that has a length of at least 68 centimeters.
When you start traverse steeper terrain, you’ll want to use an axe that features a length of approximately 50 centimeters. Ideally, you’ll could also carry an axe that has a curved shaft.
When you get into the really steep cliffs, you want to be able to maneuver the compact axe, increasing your stability and improving overall safety. Most mountaineers prefer hybrid axes that have shorter handles because the compact components could substantially reduce the weight of each axe.
That said, most climbers go with a hybrid axe that has a length of more than 55 centimeters. During the last decade, most manufacturers have settled on a sweet spot for hybrid axes with a length of 59 centimeters.
Quality of the Materials and Weight
Now that you’re an expert on length, let’s talk about the weight and materials. Most climbers usually carry axes that have a weight of less than 530 grams, and multiple manufacturers have created technical axes that feature a weight of approximately 490 grams. Recently, C.A.M.P. USA designed an axe with a weight of just 250 grams, yet the axe features durable materials, a sizable pick, a curved handle and a steel adze. Climbing axes that contain high-quality materials help the manufacturer to radically reduce the weight of the axe, increase the quality, and improve the versatility of the axe.
The adze is a wide component that is connected to the pick, and the flat adze contains durable metal that can easily break into the ice. If an adze features a concave edge, the edge swiftly carves out soft snow. With a curved edge adze, the axe quickly weakens dense or melting ice, and cuts into all types of rocks.
How many times have you heard that size doesn’t matter? When talking about the Adze, it’s critical! When you’re climbing up a steep cliff, the adze is used to create small holes within the ice. This helps you to safely place your feet in these indentations or grooves, and if you’re a team player (of course you are😎) could help provide steps that are used by the other climbers in your party, improving everyone’s stability and ramping up the pace at which your herd ascends.
It’s always about the size, isn’t it? Throughout the 18th century, many climbers used axes that had flat picks, but by the 19th century, manufacturers started to create picks that had slight curves. During the 1950s, versions of the started to get longer as manufacturers also started to reduce the size of the adze. This design improved the effectiveness of the pick, reduced the weight of each axe and made climbers super stoked for their newfound control.
When are searching for a climbing axe, it’s best to go with an axe that features a curved pick, and typically, one composed if durable steel. Use that pick to penetrate dense ice, and crack into hard rock and thick snow.
When you find yourself sliding rapidly downhill like Chris O’Donnell, the pick is your go to feature to save you from the cavernous depths and certain death.
If you’re familiar with the founding story of R.E.I. or if you’ve ever opened one of their doors, you’ll be familiar with this history.
During the 19th century, most businesses manufactured axes that featured wooden handles, because this method substantially decreased the weight of the axe. Eventually, most climbers realized that moisture could quickly damage the wooden handles. So in the 1920s, some businesses developed axes that featured bamboo, which is known for it’s ability to withstand moisture. Until the 1950s, many climbers frequently replaced their axes, which wasn’t an issue, because back then axes were relatively inexpensive. Throughout the 1960s, manufacturers began to make axes that contained steel handles, and as of the 1970s, most common axes are made up of metallic/alloy shafts.
These metallic/alloy shafts are usually composed of steel, aluminum or titanium. Some, going for ultra-lightweight handles, are made with carbon fiber. This carbon fiber can considerably increase the durability of the handle, but get ready to pay up, as they’re often way more expensive than standard axes.
Many climbers frequently utilize axes that have rubber handles, which can substantially improve grip. Some axes also feature custom handles that could stabilize the pointer finger, the index finger and the palm of the hand, and when a climber swings these axes, the unique handles can augment the force of each swing, decrease slippage and reduce fatigue.
☝PRO TIP: Most climbers these days prefer axes that feature recessed handles to give you more control when you swing it. If an axe has a recessed handle, your pointer finger can easily stabilize the axe, increase the force of the swing and control the angle of the axe.
Customizing with a Spike
When you are searching for a climbing axe, you need one that features a ferrule, which is a sharp component that can improve balance. The ferrule is located underneath the handle, and the best ones contain a carabiner hole that help to stabilize a leash.
In addition to your fancy new ice pick, you should also pick up a durable leash that can secure the ice pick. Or, just grab the Grivel G1 Plus Ice Axe with Leash which comes with one.
While you’re climbing a steep cliff, it’s easy to accidentally drop your ice pick, and the melting ice may increase the risk of accidents. Dont be that guy (or gal) hanging onto the ice with one pick and looking down wishing you had taken better care of the other.
Any usable axe will also contain a carabiner hole, and before you hit your vertical limits, play it safe by connecting a leash to the carabiner hole.
Ideally, grab a leash that has a diameter of more than 7 millimeters (most mountaineers utilize leashes with a diameter of approximately 10 millimeters). Some leashes feature polyester, which can significantly increase the tensile strength of the products. Moreover, look for one that can withstand moisture. On a steep cliff, a heavy-duty leash could prevent slippage, minimize friction and keep you and your gear in a stable position.
If you want to get real fancy, check out the leashes made of nylon that contain elastic webbing. These leashes can easily stabilize you when you’re carrying heavy gear, and the elastic webbing could significantly improve the flexibility of your leash. This style usually comes with a ring that will help you control the movements of the leash.
Conclusion on Ice Axes
If you’re still with us, thanks! You now know everything there is to know about Ice Axes. Take them with you next time you hit the back-country, pack them with you on your next ski trip, or just get one to hang above your gear shed and feel cool! Whether your a novice mountaineer or a seasoned sherpa – ice axes are without doubt some of the most essential mountain gear. Climb on!