Buyers guide to choosing the perfect ice axe or tool

26 November 2018 Ice climbing adventure NEOA

Are you thinking about climbing in winter conditions? You will most likely require an ice axe. The process of choosing an ice axe can be confusing. This is because there are many different options to choose from. And furthermore, different axes are suited to different types of expeditions. Fortunately, we have put together this guide to help you choose the perfect axe needed.

Do I require a mountaineering axe or technical ice tool?

Ice axe is the term used to describe tools used for mountaineering or vertical ice mixed climbing. For technical ice climbing however, tools are referred to as ‘ice tools’ rather than axes.

At this point, you may be wondering what the difference between the two items are. The main difference is size. Mountaineering axes are larger than ice tools because they are used for navigating less steep terrain. Their larger size also makes them particularly useful for self-arrest.

Contrastingly, ice tools are shorter and have a curved shaft to enable a much more efficient swing. Which furthermore, makes placement in the ice easier.

What are the main features of an ice axe?

Inevitably, there will be variation in how an ice axe will be made up, depending on the brand. Nevertheless, they do tend to have some similarities. The main features tend to include:

Spike. A sharp point located at the end of the axe which enables the user to maintain their balance. Not all axes have this feature however.

Shaft. The shaft of mountaineering axes are generally straight. However, some are slightly curved. Ice tools also have curved shafts. The shaft is generally made from materials such as aluminium, steel or carbon.

Pick. The part of the axe that is inserted into the ice. This forms an important feature used for self-arrest.

Adze or hammer. Most axes or ice tools will feature either an adze or hammer.

Carabiner hole. This is a safety feature which ensures the tool always remains attached to the climber. This feature also allows the option of attaching a leash.

What size ice axe should I choose?

Ice tools used for technical climbing normally come in the range of 55 to 75 cm and are usually available within 5cm increments. However, the standard size appears to be 50cm.

There is a method that can be used to determine the size of axe required. By standing up straight and holding the axe by its head, if the spike falls below your ankle, the axe is too large for you. Ideally, it should fall between the bottom half of your calf to the top of your ankle.

If you are spending a lot of time climbing steeper terrain, a shorter axe should be chosen.

What type of material should I buy an ice axe in?

Ice axes are available in a range of materials however the most common appears to be steel alloy which is a durable material.

Steel axes are ideal for breaking into hard ice. Making them ideal for beginners who haven’t yet perfected their swing. However, they are heavy. Contrastingly, aluminium axes are much lighter. The gold standard appears to be carbon which is a lightweight and strong material. However, carbon axes are expensive. And as such, would appear to only be worth the expense if you need to save on weight.

Which type of pick curve should I choose?

The most common types of pick curve tend to be known as either ‘classic’ or ‘reverse’. Classic curves are good for self-arrest and climbing up steep ascents. Contrastingly, reverse curve axes tend to be easier to remove from ice whereas classic ones can be more difficult.

North East OA ice climbing activities

Should I choose an axe with an adze or a hammer?

An adze is incredibly useful for things such as step cutting, digging caves or creating a tent platform, as well as helping with self-arrest. Nevertheless, hammers tend to be more useful for technical or mixed routes where the hammering in of pitons is more frequent.

Is it necessary to use a leash with an ice axe?

A leash is useful in making sure you don’t lose your axe in case of a fall. Leashes already come as standard with some axes however they can be purchased separately if required. Leashes can be created from materials such as perlon cord and webbing as well. Leashless tools also exist which cradle the hand, providing the user with more security.

What should I do if the pick breaks?

Picks do sometimes break but thankfully many models of axe now allow them to be replaced easily. Before heading out into a long journey, it can be beneficial to carry a couple of spares just in case.

I have a better idea of what tools to choose and would like to book a winter activity. Where can I do this?

North East OA offer a range of winter mountaineering courses through their website. Why not take a look today and see which course might suit you?