The ice axe is the most important tool in the winter mountaineers repertoire – after knowledge. These things will stop you if you slide and help you up and over any ice…. Within reason. I love my ice axe. It has shared some great adventures and is always there for me in a kind of way – and saved my arse on a few occasions. There are a few things to consider when buying an ice axe… hopefully we have covered them in this useful guide.
THE AXE HEAD
Whilst forged one piece axe heads are the best you can buy, they are expensive and getting quite rare. Most modern axes are made from stamped metal. These will do their job just fine but make sure the head is durable enough and has enough weight in it for an effective swing. For general mountain use you should also ensure it’s made of steel rather than the alloy ones which are designed for specialist things like ultra-lightweight ski touring and ascending 8000ers.
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 – and those teeth can really chew up your gloves. 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 and 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 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, so either let them blunt up a bit with use or smooth the sharp bits a little with a hand file – Gore-Tex and sharp don’t mix!
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 two 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 (about the same length as a technical climbing tool) regardless of your height. This length will allow efficient ice axe braking, cut steps, perform axe belays, provide good support on steep ground, swing efficiently when climbing and store easily on you sack.
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 fingers, but try to avoid axes where the grip material is too raised from the shaft as it will wear quickly and get in the way when you are plunging your shaft into snow.
Some models come without any shaft grip but you can make your own using some climbing finger tape or, even better, some purpose made strips of the super grippy adhesive sandpaper material sold by Grivel. It’s expensive for what it is but works brilliantly and lasts well.
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 – but 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 snow 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.
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 and 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 zig-zagging 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. 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.
CARRYING AND STORAGE
You’ve found your trusty partner. Well now you need to treat that puppy with respect – and luckily axes don’t take much caring for. Just make sure its 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 as it’s 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 the rivets that connect everything together – job done.
The best way to carry your axe is to place it vertically (axe head at the top!) down the side compression straps on your rucksack and ignore the fiddly carrying system sewn onto the sac by the manufacturers. These leave all sorts of sharp metal bits pointing up at partner gouging level and also make it likely that things will get caught on all the spiky bits. Storing your axe in the compression straps also makes it quick to deploy, but 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.
WHAT DOES STRENSA RECOMMEND?
I have tried many axes over the years, but with little difference in price (unless you are looking at climbing axes) our recommendation is to get a Technical axe like the DMM Cirque at a length of 55cm. These are the same price or cheaper than most walking axes, and buying one of these means you have the option of building belays with it if you are feeling brave. You can buy it here :