Hiking - Gear/Equipment

Ice Axe Guide: Everything to Know About the Ice Tool

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All mountaineers and climbers would agree that the ice axe is that one friend you cannot afford to leave behind on a conquest trip. In fact, it is the best friend of a climber. But if you are new to the world of hiking and climbing, and find yourself on this article after googling up Ice Axe then stay on because we shall help you understand this immensely helpful climbing ice tool and tip you on how to use it.

The thrill of conquering a summit is incredible but with great heights come great dangers too. Nothing is 100% risk-free up in the mountains. Be it the unpredictable weather or that one wrong step, no one knows the host of dangers that could arrive in a matter of seconds. Hence, before you venture into the wild or the mountains always take the attitude that you cannot eliminate danger or risk completely.

Of course, you can reduce or manage such risks by equipping yourself with the right tools and ice axe is one such tool.

Ice Axe Guide

The ice axe is a hiking and climbing tool used by mountaineers. It is a multi-purpose equipment that is used in the ascent as well as the descent of routes which are covered with snow and/or ice. It can be held and employed in various ways depending on the terrain and its simplest role is that of a walking stick in the uphill hand.

An important role of the ice axe is its usage in self-arrest in the event of a downhill slip. Now, we do not doubt your terrific climbing skills but there is always a possibility to slip or trip, and when a situation as such arises, having the appropriate tools and techniques to self-arrest is absolutely paramount!

We shall help you understand the ice tool better starting with the anatomy of the ice axe to useful tips on how to use.

Anatomy of an Ice Axe

Ice Axes are of two types- basic and technical. Basic ice axes are fashioned for general mountaineering in snow conditions. They provide adequate support and self-arrest. On the other hand, technical ice axes have curved shafts and are strong to be used in steep or vertical ice climbing and belaying.

Typically, an ice axe consists of five components. The head comprises of three parts viz. pick, adze, carabiner hole, and the body is divided into two parts called shaft and spike.

Useful tips for choosing ice axe
Anatomy of an ice axe
  • Head

The ice axe’s head has three parts- pick, adze and the carabiner hole, and is made of a steel alloy. In technical axes specially designed for steep ice and mixed rock-and-ice climbing, the adze is replaced with a hammer.

  • Pick

The sharp beak of the ice axe is called the pick. This part is used for hooking and swinging into snow or ice. It is also used for self-arrest during a slip. The pick is described by its curvature angle and its clearance. Curvature angle is the angle of the pick in relation to the shaft of the ice axe. Mountaineering axes typically have a 65° to 70° angle whereas technical axes have a more acute angle of 55° to 60°.

Whereas, clearance of a pick can be either positive or negative. It is determined by comparing the pick tip angle to the shaft of the ice axe. Nowadays, most picks are positive clearance, and both positive and negative angle picks will penetrate snow.

  • Adze

To cut steps or seats in snow or ice, the broad, shovel-like part of the ice axe is used. This part is called adze. While hiking in a self-belay grasp, the adze serves a comfortable grip platform. A self-belay grasp is a position with the pick facing forward. It is reverse to the self-arrest grasp where the adze is facing forward.

  • Carabiner hole

The ice axe head has a hole through which an ice-axe leash is affixed. At times, it is also used to clip a carabiner.

  • Shaft

Basically, the body of the ice axe is called shaft. It is usually made of aluminum, carbon fiber or steel. Each of the raw materials offers a tradeoff in terms of weight and strength. To acquire extra grip, you can cover the shaft with rubber or athletic tape. Heavier shafts are known to be stronger however, certain shafts made of lightweight materials like carbon fiber are also strong but they expensive as well. Ice axes come in two shaft shapes, straight shaft and curved shaft.

For plunging, self-belaying or for use in an anchor, the straight-shafted ice axes are better. They are good for general mountaineering. And for swinging into ice, the curved-shafted ice axe is an excellent choice due to its arc-shaped body. Climbers used curved shafts for technical mountaineering and ice climbing.

  • Spike:

The bottom of the ice axe is a sharp metal tip that useful while walking with the support of the ice axe. It can easily penetrate snow or ice and assist in maintaining balance, something like a trekking pole.

Whereas, clearance of a pick can be either positive or negative. It is determined by comparing the pick tip angle to the shaft of the ice axe. Nowadays, most picks are positive clearance, and both positive and negative angle picks will penetrate

Choosing the Right Ice Axe: Length and Weight

The correct ice axe for you depends on your size and the type of activity. Generally, the length of ice axes ranges from 5cm up to 75cm. For instance, a person with 5’8” height or less can use a 65cm axe for general mountaineering. On the contrary, for someone of 6’2”, a 75cm ice axe would be the ideal length. But this is just a reference for you to have a fair idea. Instead of making the measurements amateurly, consult an expert to guide you in buying an ice axe accordingly in the right length.

ice tools for walkers and climbers
Select the correct axe

Additionally, the intended activity also plays a vital role in choosing the right ice axe. Ice axes that are less than 60cm are appropriate for technical ice-climbing while those which are over 70cm are excellent for building snow anchors or probing for cornices and crevasses, scrambling, and cross-country travel.

Livingit Tip :
– Do not go for too-long ice axes as they make self-arrest difficult.
– Remember slightly longer ice axes for the lower-angle terrain (e.g., glacier travel, scrambling), and relatively shorter ice axes for the steeper terrain (e.g., couloirs, technical mountaineering.)

Now, about the weight of the ice tool. We understand that climbing with heavy weights will impede your speed but it would be prudent to buy a slightly heavier axe, especially for general mountaineering, couloir climbing, ice and mixed climbing, and mountain rescue. Ice axes made of alloys and stainless-steel are heavier and have better durability. They easily penetrate snow and ice.

Conversely, ice axes made of lightweight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber help you saved weight and add to your speed, of course. But they are less durable and cannot penetrate the terrain easily.

Verdict: Compromise on your speed and opt for slightly heavier ice axes instead.

Understanding CEN Ratings

CEN (Comité Européen de Normalisation) is a European association that designs and maintains equipment standards.

  • A reliable ice axe will have a circular CEN stamp with either a capital B (basic) or T (technical) on it.
  • As a standard, a general mountaineering axe, which is light, less costly, and less durable, will have a B stamp.
  • A technical axe that is comparatively heavier, costlier, and rather durable, will be designated with a T stamp.

Ice Axe Comparison Chart

Below is a standard axe compression chart that should guide you while selecting the best one according to its purpose i.e. for general mountaineering or technical climbing. Check out!

Ice Axe Comparison Chart

Ice Axe Leashes

Many a time, climbers have lost their ice axes when crossing crevasses or climbing long, steep routes and in climbing activities, losing the ice axe would mean losing the basic safety tool. Therefore, to avoid such mishaps secure your axe with a leash tied to your wrist or harness.

Anatomy of an Ice Axe
Ice Axe Leashes

Now, to carry an ice axe leash is a more preference than a rule. Certain climbers feel that it is dangerous to wear an ice axe leash as it might tether to a sharp tool during a fall. In addition to that, it could affect your efficiency as you will take comparatively longer pauses at each switchback to change wrists.

Ice Axe Self-Arrest 101

Here’s a basic lesson on how to self-arrest with an ice axe.

Regardless of which way or how you slip/fall, you would want to end up in a position facing the ground. Slide and roll over to either side. Keeping the ice axe diagonally across the chest, tuck the head of the ice axe underneath the collar bone with one hand and cover the spike of the axe with the other hand. While sliding, keep your knees apart and feet up, look down so that you could apply maximum pressure on the axe. Push the head of the ice axe as deeply into the snow as possible to gradually bring yourself to a hold.

Aside from that, it is a basic ice tool that not only provides support and balance but can also be used as a weapon. You never know what breathes in the wild and in the absence of a knife or a pistol, maybe, the sharp spike end and the bulky weight could be deployed to your defense.

Like we said, no sport or activity is risk-free, and although you might take pride in your mountaineering expertise, ice tools for walkers and climbers are indispensable. With their sharpness and considerable weight, these tools can be used for a lot of purposes than you think.

So, the next time you resolve to conquer the Alpines or the Everest, or maybe just go for a hike, we would recommend you to pack at least the ice axe if not every ice tool.

Now that you know all about ice axe, read Must Have Gear for Trekking

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