An ice axe is an invaluable tool for those haunting the heights. That obviously includes hardcore mountaineers and ice climbers, but also backcountry ski tourers, hikers or backpackers hitting mountain trails early or late in the season, and hillwalkers traversing modest but slippery snow- or ice-slathered highlands. Providing a handy “third leg” on a crusted mountainside traverse, biting into a vertical ice wall, carving out an emergency snow shelter, stopping what might otherwise be a catastrophic plummet down a severe crusted slope: It’s hard to overstate the value or the versatility of these trusty tools.
Descended from the venerable alpenstock, which helped drive many a pioneering summit climb in the Alps back in the day, the ice axe has been honed and diversified in construction and style to meet the demands of modern outdoorspeople drawn to inclined snowscapes, glacier travel, and frozen-over waterfalls. Here’s a basic guide to help you choose the right ice axe for your needs!
You can’t really effectively evaluate an ice axe without understanding its basic construction. Here’s a rundown of the tool’s fundamental parts.
All ice axes aren’t created equal, and the different styles you see on display at your favorite outdoor retailer aren’t interchangeable. Choosing the right type or style of ice axe for your needs is essential to having a tool that’ll do the job you need it to.
These are your traditional, garden-variety mountaineering ice axes. They’re typically straight-shafted, boast a fairly level and straight-edged adze, and have positive-curve pick with a 65- to 70-degree hooking angle. The axe’s teeth generally extend only partway up the pick from its tip.
Ice axes for general mountaineering are broadly useful, employed as trekking supports on moderate to steep slopes, to self-belay and self-arrest, and for hacking out steps, excavating snow shelters, and serving as belay anchors on snow slopes. They’re appropriate for everything from backcountry skiing and shoulder-season backpacking (when maybe you’re just dealing with a few snowfields or a light skim of snow) to alpine climbing.
Ice axes used in technical ice climbing have shorter, curved shafts to provide more clearance when driving the pick into ice or hard snow. The picks are recurved to make it easier to remove the tip from such substrates, and have teeth along their full length. Specialized technical ice axes or ice tools often have hammerheads rather than adzes for pounding in protection.
Technical ice axes and ice tools are used by alpine climbers dealing with very sheer or icy slopes, waterfall ice climbers, and mixed climbers. They’re the implement of choice for negotiating vertical or bulging ice walls and severely steep snow slopes.
Hybrid ice axes split the difference between general-mountaineering and technical-ice-climbing models. They tend to have a slightly curved shaft for better clearance and ergonomics, though not so extreme as that of a technical ice-climbing axe, and usually have a recurve pick. They may be attractive to climbers who want the best of both worlds: a support staff and self-arrest aid on moderate snow slopes as well as a tool ready for the more technical demands of steeper, icier sections.
Arguably the most complicated part of choosing an ice axe is deciding among shaft lengths. And that’s mainly to do with general-mountaineering axes, as technical ice-climbing axes/ice tools have less variation in this department; most are about 50 centimeters long. Ice axes for general mountaineering, by contrast, may range from 40 to 90 centimeters in length.
Factors to consider when selecting the right mountaineering ice-axe length include your height—taller folks generally go for longer axes, for obvious reasons—but also what kind of high-country recreation you intend to be pursuing. Longer ice axes on the order of 65 or 70 centimeters are often recommended for general mountaineering, but these may, realistically, be too lengthy: On lower-angle slopes, you’re often better off just using a trekking pole, switching to an ice axe when the grade steepens past 30 degrees or so. A too-long ice axe used to steady yourself on steeper slopes doesn’t give you the full support you need and can put you off-balance. That said, if you expect gentler hillsides or mountainsides you’ll be crossing to be mantled in hard-crusted snow, a longer ice axe with its punchy spike is often better than a trekking pole.
Generally speaking, choose a general-mountaineering ice axe that, when held at the head by an arm hanging by your side, extends by its tip somewhere between your lower calf and your ankle.
Many of us who enjoy getting up in the snowy highlands only need a single ice axe, choosing the best all-around models for our needs. If you’re mostly afoot on snowy slopes as an early-spring backpacker, ski tourer, or a mountaineer tackling many a standard snow-covered alpine line, one axe often does just fine. A technical ice climber, meanwhile, commonly wields two ice axes or ice tools—often one with an adze, the other with a hammerhead. On complex alpine routes, you may decide to bring two different ice axes to deal with different slope angles and conditions. Meanwhile, modular ice axes give you the option to swap out different heads/picks for different circumstances.