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Which Ice Axe Do You Need?

All About Ice Axes for Mountaineering


A climber crosses a high snowfield on Gannett Peak, the highest mountain in Wyoming.

Use a mountaineering ice axe when you're crossing steep snowfields on Gannett Peak in Wyoming.

Photograph © Spencer Swanger
Which Ice Axe Do You Need?

Gregory Bell uses two axes on Chia Direct at Frankenstein Cliff, New Hampshire.

Photograph © Eric McCallister
Climbers descend Crestone Needle in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado.

You need to carry and use a good mountaineering axe when you descend steep couloirs.

Photograph © Spencer Swanger

Ice axes are indispensible tools for climbing ice, snow, frozen waterfalls, glaciers, and mountains. Before you head up into the mountains in the winter, you need to buy an ice axe. But which ice axe should you choose?

Ice Axes for Mountaineering or Ice Climbing?

There are lots of ice tools available and a lot of them look pretty high tech with bent shafts, modular heads, and different picks, so you might think it will be hard to decide which ice axe to buy. It is, however, pretty simple to make your choice. Your first consideration should be what are you going to do: technical ice climbing or mountaineering?

Basic Ice Axes are for Mountaineering

Most climbers are mountaineering—climbing Mount Rainier or Mont Blanc or bagging a few Colorado Fourteeners in winter or spring. If you’re going to climb mountains, forget about the expensive, fancy-schmancy, technical ice tools. You aren’t going to need them. What you need is a classic mountaineering ice axe with a long straight shaft, a gently curved pick, and a one-piece head with both a pick and an adze. Besides being useful on the mountains, these axes look great above your fireplace!

Ice Axe Shaft

The shaft on a mountaineering ice axe is straight and usually long because more often than not you’ll be using the ice axe as a glorified walking stick. You’ll use it to probe for hidden crevasses on glaciers; for balance when you’re traversing across frozen scree; for poking into steep snow slopes; and for resting on when you catch your breath below the summit of Pico de Orizaba. You’ll also use the long ice axe as a belay anchor in hard snow; the adze for chopping steps in hard snow; and the pick for arresting yourself if you slip and fall on a snow slope. The pointed end of the shaft is called the spike. It’s useful for jabbing into snow.

Ice Axe Length

The length of a mountaineering ice axe is important. Long axes are for mountaineering and snow climbing, while short axes are for mixed climbing and technical ice. What the right ice axe length is for you depends on your height, length of your arms, and your climbing style. The best way to decide what is the right length ice axe for you is to stand in your mountaineering boots and hold the axe by the head with your arm straight. The spike should be an inch or two above the floor. Also if hold the ice axe in self-arrest position on your upper body, the spike and pick should clear your body on each side so you don’t impale yourself.

The Ice Axe Head

When you’re mountaineering, you don’t need a modular ice axe head. All you need is a fixed-head ice axe with a slightly curved pick and an adze blade for chopping steps. Modular tools are for technical ice climbing and mixed climbing on ice and rock. These axes have interchangeable picks and either a hammerhead or an adze. The truth is that you will rarely do more than occasionally change picks with these tools. You will probably find which picks you like and then stick with them. The head should also have a carabiner hole, which is usually used to attach a leash.

Your Ice Axe Adze Blade

Adze blades come in various designs, including straight and flat, pointed, scooped, or serrated. The basic straight flat adze is best for mountaineering and tasks like chopping steps and cutting and clearing snow. The other adze designs are used as picks in soft ice or for camming in rock cracks. They’re best for mixed climbing adventures.

Get a Classic Pick on Your Axe

Ice axes have lots of different kinds of picks but for a basic mountaineering ice axe there is really only one choice—the classic curved pick. Make sure the pick has teeth for biting into hard snow or ice and you’ll be set. All those other picks like half tube and a reverse droop or banana are for technical ice tools. Also remember that you need to keep your pick’s teeth in shape by keeping them sharp. Check them regularly and use a flat metal file to sharpen them up.

Ice Axe Leashes

Lastly, your ice axe needs a leash. Leashes attach the ice axe to your wrist so that you don’t accidently drop it or lose it in a fall or when you have to self-arrest. Most axes come with a leash. Test it out and see if it will work for you. If you’re starting out, the basic leash is fine. Later you can buy a custom leash or make one out of thin webbing to your specifications. For roped travel, attach the ice axe to the front of your body with a carabiner and a cordelette or long sling attached to the leash. This allows you to easily switch hands as you climb upward and not worry about accidently dropping the ice axe.

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