A friend asked: If you could have only one ice axe, what would it be? There are ice tools, ice axes, piolets, hammers, glacier walkers, third tools, and oh my many more. But one axe to do it all? That’s a tough question. Still, winter is right around the corner, and I have an answer for you.
Firstly, it’s important to clarify that I am not going to include a discussion of ice tools. An ice tool is a specialized axe that is designed to climb steep to vertical ice and mixed terrain. They come in many shapes and sizes, and they are, for the most part, very specialized tools. The average ice tool is shit for walking on a glacier, self-belaying on steep snow, building anchors, etc. They still carry out these tasks in skilled hands, but they’re far from ideal.
For most climbers, a more all-around tool will be much more useful. When selecting such a tool, it is important to consider length, material, shaft style, and head:
Choosing an Ice Axe
The length of an axe dictates where it’s useful. Longer axes are easier to plunge on flatter terrain, while shorter axes are easier to use in steep terrain. Modern axes are sold in 45 cm to 75 cm lengths. A 75 cm axe is quite long, and most people will find that it touches the ground on nearly flat terrain. That’s great if you plan to spend weeks walking across a flat glacier in Alaska, but on a steeper slope, it will be challenging to plunge; the taller the axe, the higher above your head you’ll have to lift your arm for each placement. It gets tiring.
For an all-around axe, the best length is in the 55-60 cm range. Such an axe is not so short that it is challenging to place during descents, nor is it too long to use in steeper terrain. A 60 cm axe can still be swung overhead in steeper terrain, and its shaft is long enough to offer a secure self-belay in iffy snow. I clock in at just under 6 feet, and find that a 60 cm axe is great for all-around guiding applications, while I might buy a 55 cm for my own climbing. If I could have only one, it would be the 55 cm. Stoop lower and place is well, and you reap the benefits of a shorter axe without significant downsides.
Length: 55-60 cm
Material dictates both weight and durability. I want my all-around axe to be lightweight, but moreover, it has to be durable. The lightest axes available make use of both an aluminum shaft and head. An aluminum head is downright insufficient for most technical climbing, as aluminum deforms when it strikes rock or even hard ice, and can break at inopportune moments. Such axes are reserved for when weight counts most– in lightweight racing, approaches, or ski mountaineering. A much more effective combination is a steel head/pick and an aluminum shaft.
The shaft and pick of an axe is rated either B or T for Belay or Technical. The T rating is really only required in applications when significant torque might be applied to the shaft or the pick, as in mixed climbing. For an all-around axe, a B-rated shaft will more than sufficiently durable. The pick may be either B or T rated. The T-rated pick will be more durable, but heavier. I have climbed for a long time on B-picks and have never wanted for something more durable.
Material: Aluminum Shaft (B), Steel Head (B/T)
The shaft of the axe may be either straight, or bent. The straighter the shaft, the easier that it will be to place vertically in the snow, and to use as an anchor or dead man. A curved shaft provides more clearance when the axe is swung like a tool, and it provides room to grip the axe in high-dagger position without getting your fingers cold in the snow. At the extreme of curvature are technical tools which are arced throughout their length, and which might even have acute 90-degree bends to provide convenient shelves for gripping the tool on steep ice. These essentially preclude placing the shaft of the axe in firm snow.
The ideal all-arounder has a slight bend in the shaft just below the head. This provides the clearance benefits of a curved shaft while still retaining easy plunging characteristics. A curved shaft is also hard to use a hammer, but the bent style is still reasonably easy.
Shape: Bent Shaft, not curved.
The big choice in selecting the head of an axe is obvious: hammer or adze? Hammers are good for placing pickets and pitons, and are less likely to tear a hole in your face when your axe placement blows. An adze is superior for digging in snow, forming snow-bollards, and chopping steps.
My choice, in almost any application, is the hammer. But how, you ask, can you chop? Simple: the pick of the axe is almost as good, if not superior, for chopping into ice. The spike of the axe can also be used to dig in the right sort of snow. But, you say, it would be terrible to dig a dead man with a pick. True. However, most of the time that one makes a dead man, it’s for a picket. And if you have a picket in your hands, then you also have an excellent shovel for making your dead man. Put your axe away and dig with the picket. If we accept that chopping steps is rapidly becoming a lost art confined to Freedom of the Hills and that you can figure out a way to cobble a snow bollard together without an adze, then the hammer is clearly the superior choice.
A hammer is irreplaceable for placing pickets vertically. Yes, you can invert and axe and hammer on a picket with the top of the head, but both robs you of any mechanical advantage, friggs up the head of your axe, and simply wont work in stiff snow. Whip out the hammer and get to work. You’ll thank yourself when it comes time to hammer in a stiff picket or place a piton.
Head: Hammer. All the way.
All Around Champions:
So, vertical ice-climbing aside, if I could have only one tool, what would it be? To summarize the above, it’s got to be 55-60 cm, bent aluminum shaft, steel head, with a hammer. There are a few modern options that fit the bill:
Length/s: 50/57 cm
Weight: 18.6 oz (50 cm)
Shaft Rating; B
Head Rating: B
Black Diamond Venom Notes: A super-classic all-arounder at a very affordable price. Taller folks can grab the 57 cm, while shorter the 50 cm. As with any of these axes, if you have two of them, you can even imagine climbing ice to about 60 degrees. Comes with a leash, which can be useful. The rubber grip is so-so, but certainly helpful at times. Put some grip tape at the bend for excellent purchase.
Length/s: 43/52/59 cm
Weight: 17.1 oz (52 cm)
Shaft Rating; T
Head Rating: B
Petzl Sum-Tec Notes: The sliding trigrest is an interesting feature. This makes the axe more adaptable for climbing steeper terrain. it can also be a bit fiddly, and if it falls off, whoops. Also means you can’t wrap the shaft in tape. This guy still comes in at a reasonable price. I’ve climbed ice with this guy. Doable, but not ideal.
Length/s: 50 cm only
Weight: 17.6 oz
Shaft Rating; B
Head Rating: T
Grivel Quantum Light Notes: Carbon fiber? But it’s not lighter! That’s right, swing weight matters. The carbon reduced vibration and gives a nice damp feel. It’s also $50-100 more spending. But Steve House climbs Grivel. Take it for what you will.
Of these three, I’d use any one as my all-arounder. Find the one that fits your price, or just feels good to you and go with it. Don’t be afraid to scratch it up, beat it up, and just all-around abuse it. There’s a reason that they call ’em tools!
A well-abused tool that has served you for several years on many climbs becomes like an old friend. It got you through sticky spots, but unlike your climbing partner, it doesn’t tell tall tales. It’s always there for you, if you know how to use it.
Got questions? Have a different axe preference? Let’s hear it below!
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