Tuesday 28 November 2017

Some Thoughts on Ice Axes

Descending from The Window on Creag Meagaidh

There is a bewildering choice in ice axes these days. Here's an overview for hillwalkers and backpackers - it first appeared in slightly different form in The Great Outdoors several years ago.

The essential tool for safe travel on snow-covered hills is the ice axe. Its main purpose is to prevent or stop slips that could be dangerous. For this you need to know how to use the axe and to have it in your hand anywhere a slip could be hazardous. Learning ice axe techniques can be done from books, experienced companions or, ideally, on a winter skills course. You then need to practice what you’ve learnt. Using an axe should be automatic so that if you slip you’ll react instantly. The two main skills are self-belay, which means thrusting the axe in the snow as you walk so that a slip can be halted instantly, and self-arrest, which means using the axe to halt a slide. The first is easy to learn, which is perhaps why it’s under-rated as a skill by many people. However it’s far better to prevent a fall in the first place and this is what self-belay skills can do. Self-arrest requires more practice and this should be done on a slope with a safe run-out. You need to be able to stop from any position, including head down on your back. When I took a course many years ago helmets were not used. In fact when I took a winter climbing course they weren’t used either. Now they are recommended and standard on winter skills courses.

There are many types of ice axes, including futuristic ones that look like they should be in a sci-fi or fantasy film. Amazing and fascinating though these are they’re not suitable for hillwalking, being designed for climbing vertical ice rather than wandering over the Lake District fells or the Cairngorms. For hillwalking and simple mountaineering (the two tend to merge when the hills are snowy) a rather more prosaic general mountaineering or walking axe is needed.

Designs & Materials

An ultralight alloy ice axe
Most ice axes have steel heads and spikes and aluminium alloy shafts. Steel is durable and stays sharp while aluminium is lightweight. The lightest axes have aluminium heads to keep the weight down. However aluminium isn’t as strong as steel and blunts quickly so these axes are only suitable for occasional use. They’re not as strong as heavier axes either and so unsuitable for any technical climbing.

Axe shafts have a spike at the end and are thrust into the snow for stability. The shape or sharpness of the spike doesn’t really matter. Some shafts have rubberised covers over sections of the shaft. These are warmer to hold than metal and also less slippery when wet. There is a concern that they could impede plunging the axe into snow but I can’t say I’ve ever noticed any difficulty. However as walking axes are generally held by the head such grips aren’t really needed.

The head of the axe consists of an adze and a pick. The latter should be gently curved with teeth on the underside. Steep curved picks are better for technical climbing but less good for self-arrest. Unless you intend climbing difficult graded routes a shallow curved pick is best. If the axe is strong enough this it’s suitable for easy mountaineering routes as well as hillwalking. The adze curves down slightly and has a slightly scooped end that can be used for cutting steps if you don’t have crampons or don’t want to put them on for short periods of time. Often neglected these days step cutting is a skill worth learning. In soft snow the adze can even be used for self-arrest. It also makes a rather poor shovel for digging snow holes if you haven’t got a real one. The head may be made from one piece of metal or two welded together. A single piece is stronger but for walking use welded heads are fine.
The weight of axes has dropped significantly in the last decades as materials have become lighter without loss of strength. Standard walking axes now weigh between 400 and 600 grams, ultralight ones below 300 grams. For most hillwalking I’d recommend one of the lighter standard axes. This will be durable and suitable for regular use. However for backpacking, ski touring or terrain where the axe won’t be used much an ultralight model will reduce the weight of the load. Heavier axes are stronger though and easier to use for step cutting. They can also give a feeling of greater security.


Ice axe length is a contentious issue. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong length. Knowing how to use an axe properly is far more important than how long it is. Having said that I think longer axes are better for walkers, especially those with no mountaineering experience or a desire to do any difficult winter climbing. By long I don’t mean like those alpenstocks you see in Victorian alpine mountaineering photos but rather an axe that almost reaches the ground when held at your side with your arm straight. For most people this means from 60-80cms in length. Shorter axes are fine for technical climbing and very steep terrain and some walkers may prefer them. However on much hillwalking terrain a longer axe gives more confidence as it can be in contact with the snow without you having to stoop over, which feels insecure and can throw you off balance. I prefer a longer axe in descent too as it’s easier to reach down the slope and thrust the axe into the snow for security. I have heard it said that self-arrest is easier with a short axe. I learnt with a 70cm axe and had no difficulty so I’m not sure why this should be so.

Ice Axe or Trekking Poles

Trekking poles are not a substitute for an ice axe. They won’t hold you if you fall. Anywhere that a slip could send you tumbling down a slope you need an ice axe in your hand. You can hold the axe in one hand and a pole in the other (without using the strap) and then drop the pole if you slip. Trekking poles may feel more secure, especially if you have a short ice axe, but this is an illusion. I once followed a couple up a steep slope with boulders at its base. The snow was quite hard and a slip could have been serious. I was glad of my ice axe and quite surprised to see the walkers ahead of me using poles. They stopped when the angle eased and when I caught them up I saw they had short axes strapped to their rucksacks. They hadn’t used them, they told me, because they didn’t feel secure with them as they didn’t reach the snow. They felt safer with their poles. They’d bought them from a shop where they’d been told long axes were a bad idea. I’d climbed the slope using my axe for self-belay the whole way. I left the couple thinking they’d maybe get longer axes. I hope they did.

In the Rocky Mountains on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985 with a 70cm axe

Wrist Leash

Some axes come with a webbing leash fitted. If not they are available as extras. The main purpose of a leash is to stop you losing the axe if you drop it. I usually use one. However when zigzagging up a steep slope the axe should always be in your upper hand, which means swapping it over every time you change direction. On these occasions I usually don’t use the leash. 


Virtually every pack comes with straps on the back for attaching an ice axe. These are convenient when you don't need the axe and are unlikely to do so for some time. However if you only need to put the axe away for a short period it's much easier to slide it between your back and the pack so you can retrieve it without having to take your pack off.

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