Gear: Choosing an ice axe

I'm sure we will all remember our first ice axe.

My first winter trip to Scotland, a senior colleague lent me his Mountain Technology walking axe. It was heavy and robust but it convinced me that's what I needed. The following winter I bought a pair of Mountain Technology mountaineering axes. They were straight, short and had choke style leashes. I used the adze version for many years as my general purpose mountaineering axe.

But how did I know what to buy? In all honesty I probably didn't but back then there wasn't much choice. Nowadays there is lots of choice, which makes the decision all the harder, hopefully this blog will help you decide...

Walking, mountaineering or climbing?

This is probably the first question you should ask. Different types of axes will be appropriate for different things and in the wrong hands the wrong axe could probably be quite dangerous.

Length?

Axes are made in a variety of lengths. Once upon a time axe length was recommended on your height; I would rather think about what terrain you are likely to be walking on. If you are going to be walking on very low angled terrain (think almost flat glaciers) I might recommend a longer axe as you will soon get a sore back from leaning over. If you are on steeper ground (which would include most Scottish Munro's) you will probably want an axe in the 50/55/60cm range. For most people this is a comfortable size for plunging, for ice axe arresting and for swinging into ice or snow.

 Pro mountaineer Adele Penningto using an axe in Nepal

Pro mountaineer Adele Penningto using an axe in Nepal

Straight or curved?

This ultimately comes down to final use, a climbing axe will have a curved shaft and pick, an axe more for walking will likely have a straight(er) shaft and a flatter pick. A very curved technical tool is difficult to bury so a less curved tool is better for a buried ice axe belay likely in general mountaineering.

T or B rated?

Well, T stands for technical and B for basic. This essentially means how strong the axe is. If you intend to only use an axe for walking then a B rated axe would be suitable for this. If you intend to mountaineer or climb you will need a T rated axe as sooner or later you will be using your axe as part of a belay system.

Spike or no spike?

If you intend to plunge your axe a lot you will need a spike on the bottom of your axe. Some axes have a solid spike, others have a diagonal cut off to save weight, some have none!

Grip or no grip?

If you intend to swing your axe a lot, you will need a grippy section. Axes without grip and with snowy or icy gloves end up getting dropped!

Adze or no adze??

Lots of climbing axes have no tools on the back, some have hammers only. If you are going to be digging you'll want an adze.

Leash or not?

The revolution of climbing with axes has not been limited to the design of the axe but also the leash system. Personally if I am walking I don't use a leash the majority of the time as I am likely to swapping it frequently into my uphill hand as I move about the mountains. 15 years ago choke leashes were popular but gripping a straight shaft and having a tightening strap around your wrist means you are likely to get very pumped!

Clipper leashes which are more supportive and can more easily be clipped on and off allowing you to place and remove gear and shake out can be a bit better although you have to be careful what you do with your axe when you unclip. Lastly modern 'jug handled' tools are designed to be used leashless. In reality this is a high risk strategy as if you dropped an axe in a critical place it might leave you very vulnerable. So you can buy 'springer leashes' which attach to you (rucksack or more likely harness) and allow you to get it back. You can buy a single version, useful for glaciers or a double version useful for climbing.

 Becky Coles using springer leashes on steep ice in Scotland

Becky Coles using springer leashes on steep ice in Scotland

Specialist axes

There are several light weight axes on the market, mainly these are aimed at the ski mountaineering market. A very lightweight axe is actually quite hard to swing into hard ice!

So what should I buy??

DMM climbing for example have a range of 5 axes...

Cirque - this is their axe for winter walking. It is T rated so you can belay off it. This axe has a slight curve which I was initially a bit sceptical of this, however it feels nice in your hand and can be buried easily too. This is my first choice for walking.

Raptor - this is designed for the bridge into winter mountaineering. It has a straight shaft and you can get a matching hammer version for when you might start to want two tools.

Fly - this axe is somewhere in between climbing and mountaineering. I've always found the shape of the head hard to hold when plunging so I'm less keen on this axe if I'm doing lots walking about. Its got two triggers though so good when the going gets steep. Petzl Quarks are an old favourite in this similar box.

Apex - great shape, two triggers, light but with a good swing weight and feel. Definitely more of a climbing axe but okay for longish approaches as it has a good spike. You could consider BD Viper/Cobra too.

Switch - really only worth considering if you climb Scottish V+, WI5 or Alpine ED. This is a full on climbing axe and not appropriate for general mountaineering as it has only a token spike. Petzl Nomics and Black Diamond Fuels are in this bracket.

Whatever you choose, remember an axe is an essential tool for moving about snowy mountains. Enjoy

Simon Verspeak