Ice axe has evolved from Alpine cane, a tool that was used by the ancient pioneers of alpinism. And now, as it was then, is the ice axe used as a tool for climbing and maintaining footing on ice and snow. But today’s shapes and used materials are adapted for demanding applications in difficult terrain. It can be used for chopping of handholds and footholds, to stick him into a snow and use as a handhold, to lean on him, to use him as a brake during the fall on a snow slope, and also to probe, dig, etc. Some types can be even used to hammer in rock or ice pitons. It is a multifunctional tool which is subject to high demands. It is one of the reasons that ice axe is by many climbers perceived as something more than just an ordinary piece of equipment. Good ice axe, that served you many times in difficult situations, will grow on you and after the end of its service lifespan often ends up on the wall the same way the valuable picture would. Ice axe is also a very common emblem theme of various alpine associations and similar mountaineering organizations. This symbolic power of ice axe was not created randomly but reflects its importance. Any activity in the high mountains without ice axe is just not possible. Therefore, pay very good attention to the quality and suitability while choosing the right ice axe.
Ice axes are generally divided into two major groups:
Classic ice axes
Classic ice axe is used in easier climbs or for high altitude hiking. It has a straight shaft and is rather long to allow for the comfortable support.
The pick is used for sticking into the snow (ice), adze is used for chopping of footholds, raking, cutting into the soft snow, spike is used to plunge the shaft into the snow, leash prevents the ice axe from falling after we drop it from our hands, and the holes in the head and the shaft allows us to clip the carabiners or slings to the ice axe.
Pick – according to the profile there are three types of picks:
- Pick curved upward
- Pick bended downwards (reverse curve)
- Straight pick
The pick is curved upward and is most common amongst the classic ice axes. Its shape follows the arc of the swing when sticking; it is a natural anchor, hook, made for easier climbing on snow.
Pick of technical axe is bended downwards, which makes removal from ice easier. Thanks to this is technical axe designed for climbing in demanding and vertical icy terrains. This type of pick is rarely used on classic ice axes, especially on short ones.
Straight pick is not widely used anymore; it was more of intermediate stage of development from the classic curved ice axe to the technical ice axe with reverse curved pick. Today we can see straight pick on some simple and cheap ice axes.
Shape of pick’s tip
We recognize three types:
- positive … +
- neutral … 0
- negative … –
Positive tip of the pick is thanks to its pointed shape good for a hard icy snow, or even for easy climbing sections on ice. It is good primarily for winter hikes. But this tip dulls very quickly upon impacting of the rock.
The negative tip is dull by its nature, so it is good for summer high altitude hiking, when we use axe for pounding on the rocks and tufts of grass and when we only sometimes and occasionally overcome small snowfields, where there is no danger of longer fall on the snow, and we rather want to use the axe for support and as something to hold unto. If we wanted to use negative tip of the axe for braking on a slope with a very hard, icy surface, we need to realize, that during properly conducted braking with the axe we lift the lower part of the shaft upward, which makes the negative tip diverted from the surface and the tip then basically acts as a skate, it does not sink but slips. Therefore this kind of tip is not suitable for hard snow and ice.
Neutral tip of the pick is sort of a compromise; it is a universal tip of the pick for every season of the year. In short, this tip is without advantages or disadvantages.
On the bottom edge of a pick are several teeth in a row. Their purpose is to increase the friction of the pick while hooked onto a rock, or when it is stuck in the ice and snow. On some ice axes are the teeth relatively distinct, but it is not always necessary. The teeth with unnecessarily large rear hooks just make removing of stuck pick out of ice more difficult.
If we are planning to use the ice axe on the ice must be the pick’s tip of older and already dulled ice axes sharpened. The sharpening must be done only with fine file, there must be no scratches reducing the strength. The pick, even though it is made of hard steel, can be broken!
Its edge is either circularly convex or curved (non-convex). Convex edge is better for soft snow, non-convex for hard to icy snow.
Sometimes is adze fitted wit holes, which serve both to clip carabiners to the axe, but sometimes are made by the manufacturer to lower the weight of axe.
The axe head of the classic types of ice axes is uniform, i.e. pick and adze are welded into one piece. They are made in two ways. They are made flat, cut from rolled steel sheets, and machined by grinding. Individual edges (pick, adze) are hard, but not maximally. They can dull over the time more easily. But they are cheaper.
Second way how to make them is by forging. Forged heads are nice to look at, indeed a craft work. Forged steel is harder. And more expensive.
It’s definitely good to have one on the axe. Ice axe without a leash is money somehow wasted. One way of attaching the leash to the ice axe is connecting the leash to the metal (or plastic – but then you have to be careful, it has smaller load capacity) ring, which can slide along the top part of the shaft. This allows us to have the leash always around our wrist, whether we hold the axe by its head or by the handle, or even when we changing the grip.
The second method of attaching the leash is to have it firmly attached into one of the holes in the axe (either a hole in the head or a shaft), and have a longer leash to reach both head and the handle. With this second variant of attaching we need to have buckle on the leash, allowing the individual adjustment of the leashes’ length. In addition, each leash should be fitted with at least a simple runner, to guarantee permanent tightening of the leash around the wrist. Be aware of the load capacity of the leash! It is not manufactured to arrest the fall of man, the ones on the classic ice axes will not even hold climbers weight. Therefore, unless we know the load capacity of the leash of classic ice axe, we shouldn’t hang in it. Good manufacturer can sometimes sew a tag onto the leash with the information about the load capacity, but not very often. And it would absolutely insane and stupid to use the leash for a belay.
Holes in the ice axe
Holes in the ice axe are used for clipping of carabiners to the axe, which is widely used for protection. Sometimes there are more holes in the head of an ice axe. For protection with shaft of the ice axe stuck in the snow is best to use hole placed in the axis of the shaft, but to use this hole is not absolutely necessary. If we want to put a sling into a head of ice axe stuck in the ice and use the sling to hang on the ice axe, we’ll use the hole that is nearest to the surface of the ice (therefore we act with a force along the ice as much as possible and a tendency to pull the pick vertically out of the ice is lowest). Sometimes the hole is at the bottom of the shaft by the spike, but the use of this hole is sporadic and mostly used during a building of rappel station.
Length of ice axe
The length of the classic ice axe can be determined by standing straight with hand at your side and with a clenched fist. The vertically standing axe has to fit from the fist to the floor. 70 cm is considered to be an average length; from this length we recognize short or long ice axes.
The weight of classic ice axes is normally about 500 g, which is about the ideal weight to give a proper blow. But for summer hiking in the mountains, when person rarely gets to a snow (in other words, a person usually carries the ice axe on the backpack) are produced lightweight ice axes, which weighs only about 350 grams. These lightweight ice axes are not suitable for use during the winter and in the hard snow because they are too light and do not gains appropriate momentum upon swinging, therefore their sticking in the ice is weak.
More in e-book.
Mountaineering Methodology – Part 2 – Gear and Accessories
Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).
For example U.S. store – link
Another countries – look on the page Download
Another possibility is Google Play. This version is a simplified (as PDF).
Mountaineering Methodology – Part 2 – Gear and Accessories
Available for download from Google Play.