The Absolute Guide to Ice Axes

Hamaish MacInnes is renowned for the production of the first technical ice axe. His innovation of the Terrordactyl, which hosts a range of similarities to the modern axes of today, has been accredited as revolutionising the discipline of winter climbing in Scotland and globally. Jump forward 40 years and the axes have become truly modernised, with a diverse range of designs suited to a variety of purposes. This guide aims to provide awareness into the features and benefits of walking, mountaineering and technical axes.

What are Ice Axes?

The primary purpose of any unspecialised ice axe is to be able to slow an individuals fall through use of a self-arrest.

Additional applications come as a supplement to this principal.

There are two main ratings for axes: Basic and Technical. B rated axes or Basic are tested to 280kg on pick and shaft; whereas T rated axes or Technical are tested to 400kg on pick and shaft.

Additionally, there is a further class of axe. These are hybrid axes and are rated a T in one category and a B in another, however the overall rating of the axe is a B.

Types of Ice Axe

Walking axes
Hill walking in the UK in winter offers a range of additional perils, it is recommended you bring full winter apparel including crampons with a single walking axe. The axe provides supplementary stability on snowy/icy terrain, the adze can be used to cut steps and excavate belay positions. However, the primary purpose of the axe is for the pick to be utilised in performing a self-arrest.

Walking axes are traditionally straight shafted, allowing them to be easily plunged into snow and improves stabilities when traversing snow slopes.

These walking axes are typically 60cm-70cm long and whilst holding the head of the axe, the spike should come down to the top of the ankle as a maximum. Whilst this may feel somewhat short it should be considered that the axe will be held in the uphill hand. Moreover, the longer the axe the more cumbersome it will be in performing a self-arrest.

Alpine/Mountaineering Axes
There is a wide-ranging spectrum of mountaineering that is between winter walking and the infamous Tower Gap on Nevis. For such diversity one requires an axe that is a jack of all traits in order to confront more difficult climbs and on their approach, that's where alpine/mountaineering axes provide the greatest versatility. The design of these axes host a straight lower shaft to enable plunging into snow, but with a slightly curved upper to increase clearance.

Their lengths tend to be between 50cm-60cm which is considered a compromise to permit an easier swing when climbing but has enough length to be used whilst hill walking.

Technical Ice Axes
From Cwm Idwal to classic alpine ice climbs in Chamonix a more technical axe is a necessity. These axes are fully curved with pronounced pick angles with protective lower hand rests. The distinct curved shaft clears obstacles whilst presenting the pick at an optimum angle for stable placements. These axes tend to be shorter 48cm-53cm in order to promote an easier swing.

The established system is to carry both an adze and hammer. The adze is the primary axe used on the approach and once on the climb it allows one to scrape away scree from cracks or other protection placements. The hammer is used to pound in pitons and micro protection picks, as well as ensuring protection measures are secure.

Additionally, there are specialised technical ice, mixed and dry climbing tools. These axes are intended to be leash-less, leaving both hand free to exploit the upper wrist rest and match up on one axe if needed. In appose to hosting a full-sized adze or hammer these top end axes rather opt for minimal hammer or no hammer set ups.

Ice Axe Leashes
Traditional wrist leashes attach from the top of the shaft to your wrist, and prevent you losing the axe during a slide.

However elastic lanyards are gaining in popularity, where a length of stretchy webbings links the spike of the axe to the harness. The distinct advantage of this set up is that it allows for a leash-less autonomy without the risk of losing a tool. Spring leashes are available for both a single axe and pair with some hosting rotating pivots to prevent tangled webbing.

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