If there are two items of gear we get asked for advise on all the time, its Ice axes and crampons. We have given these two bits of essential winter kit a gear guide each, but we would always advocate using them in conjunction with each other. For the crampons gear guide please click here.
There are a lot of myths about choosing the right ice axe. The most common myths are about sizing. Many people still advocate long axes and that you need a longer axe the taller you are.
We would suggest that a shorter axe is generally better (50-60cm). Even if you are very tall you shouldn’t need a longer axe than this. This is because an axe is in essence a security tool and when traversing steep ground a long axe is cumbersome and can even unbalance you. A shorter axe should allow you to walk normally with your hand at a comfortable height.
In a self arrest, which is a ice axes most important function, a short axe is easier to get your body weight over and drive into the snow. A longer axe may protrude from under you, making it more difficult to affect an arrest, or worse, the protruding point may bite into the snow and cause you to cartwheel.
An axe isn’t intended to be a used as a walking stick, so it doesn’t need to be 70 or 80cm long. In fact a long ice axe will be more a hindrance rather than a help. In days gone by longer axes were recommended to walkers as they made cutting steps easier. These days the vast majority of winter walkers use crampons as a matter of course, which makes cutting steps for long periods a thing of the past. A short axe will still cut steps and pigeon holes if required anyway.
Also a shorter axe is far better suited to climbing duties. Even if winter climbing isn’t on your agenda, you may encounter short, steep snow filled ramps and gullies on any winter walk. These are climbed far easier with a short ice axe, as its more compact size and lower weight makes them easier and less tiring to place.
The use of a leash is very much down to personal choice. Many people find leashes make swopping hands when changing direction very awkward. Others believe that if you inadvertently drop and lose your axe in the mountains then you’re stuffed. Both are true, so its very much down to you whether you use a leash or not. If you do have a leash attached to your axe and alternate between using it and not, it is important to keep it wrapped away and not hanging loose when not being used. A dangling leash can easily get snagged on crampons and be a hazard.
Ice Axe types
Essentially Ice axes can be categorised into 3 types, although all perform the basic function of providing security on steep, ice or snow covered ground and there is a lot of ‘crossover’ between the categories.
Walking Axes – these are the most basic of the 3 types and are often the cheapest axes to buy. They will typically have straight metal shaft, which will be usually ‘B’ rated*. They will have a fairly flat angled pick, which will often be made with welded steel or alloy. Walking axes will also be available in quite wide range of lengths (50cm - 75cm+). Walking axes are suitable for general winter hill walking in the UK, glacier travel and easy graded or ‘facile’ alpine routes.
Mountaineering axes - These are the next step up and will happily do everything a walking axe will do, but they are also suitable to be used for general mountaineering. These axes will be stronger than walking axes and usually have a T rated metal shaft**, which allow them to be belayed from. The angle of the pick will be more sharply angled and more aggressively toothed and many mountaineering axes also have a rubber grip on the lower shaft to make climbing and cutting steps easier. The most modern designs also feature a curved shaft which is easier to ‘dagger’ into steep snow, it offers better knuckle clearance than a straight shaft and it is also more comfortable to stash the axe behind your pack. Mountaineering axes will typically have forged steel or alloy heads and will be more expensive than a comparable walking axe.
If you can afford a mountaineering axe, even if you don’t plan to do any mountaineering, its a worthwhile investment. It will prove to be a better long term buy than a basic walking axe, as they will be better made and will be more capable. A well looked after, good quality mountaineering axe can potentially last you a lifetime.
Technical climbing axes - These are by far the most specialist and expensive axes you can buy. Intended to be used in pairs, these are designed purely for winter, mixed and alpine climbing. They do share many features of the mountaineering axe, but they have much more aggressively angled picks, radically curved shafts and usually have a modular construction, allowing picks etc to be interchanged. Technical axes are usually available in both Adze and Hammer versions and a pair of axes will usually have one of each. Some of the more specialist axes have completely done away with the hammer and adze now though, making the tools lighter and more precise to place. These axes are intended for elite climbers who will often climb without using leashes.
Due to the aggressive angle of the pick head and the shaped and curved shafts of Technical ice tools, they are far from ideal for any purpose where you’d normally use a single axe. In experienced hands though they are fine for walk in’s and descent routes.
*B rated (Basic) shafts are not rated for belaying. Denoted by a B in a circle on the shaft
**T rated (Technical) shafts have been tested with high loads and are strong enough to be belayed from. Denoted by a T in a circle.
The idea of a self arrest is quite simple; to stop any uncontrolled slide on a snow or ice covered slope. Slips, trips and falls in the snow covered mountains can be highly dangerous for obvious reasons. If you do find yourself slipping then it needs to be halted as soon as possible to prevent momentum being gained and you hurtling unstoppably down a steep mountain side or rock face.
The self arrest is an ice axes main safety function (excluding climbing axes of course) and anyone buying an ice axe should have an understanding of self arrest techniques. It is pointless carrying an ice axe without the knowledge of how to use it when it matters most.
At the very minimum we would recommend reading a reputable winter skills book, such as the MLTUK Winter skills handbook, and then practicing your self arrests on a benign snow slope to hone your technique. A better option would be to go on one of the many winter skills courses available, such as those run by Plas Y Brenin or Glenmore Lodge, where you can learn the practical skills that may safe your life, in action and on the hill.