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How to Choose an Ice Axe for Ski Touring and Mountaineering

by Barrabes - 0

Daniel Vega on Weeping Wall, Canada, with Álvaro Lafuente

About Ice Axes

The undeniable symbol of mountaineering, a lot of time has passed from the first ice axes to the current models.

The choice of an ice axe is something we should pay special attention to. That is why we have published this article to help you.

In the end the correct choice of an ice is as mentally as important as choosing boots; the ice axe will be in our hands in great moments, and will aid us in times of difficulty. It’s even possible that sometimes we think our lives depend on the axe, or that it has saved us.

Furthermore, ice axes last for a long time (even a lifetime), and due to this it's important to have a tool that we like and trust and not be continually wishing we had spent a little more.

The thing is each ice axe is different from another, and depending on use, it is likely we have several for different activities. As a result it is important that we don’t get similar tools, unless they complement each other.

For now, take note of some practical concepts to help with your search:

  • Technical capability
  • Weight
  • Robustness
  • Multi-purpose
  • Price

And one last piece of advice, be honest with yourself and don’t confuse what you’re going to do with what you would love to do. If you are only going to do couloirs for example, a pair of ice axes for that activity will work much better than a set of technical ice tools.

Parts of an ice axe, adze model

Parts of an Ice Axe

It is important to know the parts of an ice axe, as the different designs and construction, as we will later explain, will be what defines their use.

Head:

  • Pick
  • Head
  • Cross
  • Adze
  • Hammer or adze

Shaft:

  • Shaft
  • Leash
  • Grip
  • Rest

Spike

  • Flat
  • Conical
  • Other

Safety Standards

In the case of ice axes -and if different from our outdoor gear where the only thing that interests us is whether it complies with the norm and is safe-, it is important to know the existing safety standards, above all as the name by which they are known can cause confusion.

The thing is, the norm refers to the strength and not the type of axes, however the categories are named:

  • “Basic” less strong
  • “Technical” stronger axe

Someone who has not been warned could think the “technical” refers to the axe being for more complicate terrain, however this is not the case: a walking ice axe can be technical if its shaft complies with the necessary strength and a dry tooling or mixed axe could be classified as basic, if the shaft is less strong.

Nothing to do with its destined use, if not with its strength

So why on earth would the norms be named that way, leading to confusion?

Well, it only creates confusion now, but it didn’t when the norm was written. A few decades ago an ice axe was an ice axe -what is now considered as a classic walking axe- and the difference between them was not their shape, or type if not simply in their strength. Therefore, it was logical to the call the less strong ones basic and the stronger ones technical.

Everything was fine and logical until new designs came along to meet the demand of more technical routes arising from vertical traction techniques. The confusion began because, from that moment on as the most significant difference became the shape, use and characteristics and not the strength.

To avoid confusion, the European norm changed and moved to talk about:

  • Type 1 ice axes(The old basic)
  • Type 2 ice axes (The old technical)

However this created a new problem. When we see an ice axe, the shaft is marked with type of axe it belongs to. It soon became clear that by marking with 1 or 2 people doubted a lot, and many people when they saw them, started wondering whether type 1 was basic or technical or vise versa.

As a result a salomonic decision was taken: although the CE differentiates between type 1 and 2 in the norm, axes have to be marked on the shaft and head with the letter B or T, not with the number 1 or 2. Mnemonically it is much more difficult to confuse a T for technical and the B for basic than 1 or 2, numbers that in the majority of cases will make people doubt what they are referring to.

That is why these days most axes are denominated Basic or Technical, some are B and T and occasionally type 1 or 2.

However they are classified, the important thing to have clear that, if we hear about a T axe, it is not referring to it being suitable for technical activities if not it is referring to the strength, even though it may or may not be for technical activities.

Lastly we must state, the T-B in the shaft only refers to the shaft: the head has its own norm , that may not coincide, and will have is own indicative marking.

Type 1 ice axes (B) and type 2 (T)

As we have said, type 1 and 2 are differentiated by traction strength, and are norm EN-13089 and UIAA-152 which indicate the strength in kN which both shafts and heads have to achieve (we insist: separately) and the exact laboratory tests that they have to pass.

  • Type 1 (B): The strength requirements are less.
  • Type 2 (T): The requirements in all the tests are higher (traction on the shaft, strength of the shaft, flexion of the head).

For those interested, here is part of the norm referring to strength.

By law, both the head and the shaft should have the letter T somewhere visible, inside a circle, as an indicator of the category.

THE MARKING B IS OPTIONAL IT MAY BE THERE OR NOT. IF THE SHAFT AND THE HEAD DO NOT HAVE A MARKING THEY ARE TYPE 1

T and B on the shaft of two ice axes. It only indicates the strength of the shaft, the head will hav

As the strength and norms for the head and the shaft are different, combinations can be found. A classic ice axe with modern manufacturing techniques is less likely to have a B type head than a technical ice axe for ice climbing: T heads tend to be thicker and do not penetrate fusion ice as well, apart from being an activity that doesn’t cause torsion on the head.

In recent times T type heads have improved and ice climbing models use them more and more.

In the same way, there are classic ice axes for mountaineering for walking, glaciers, easy couloirs, etc, that are made with a type T shaft and head. Designed for a full life of hard use.

Jonathan Larrañaga in the Directa Americana, WI5, Bielsa

Types

It is easy to see that the norm that rules the manufacture of these tools, which has nothing to do with the use, if not with the strength, it’s of no use for classifying the type of ice axe.

If we did it this way, we would have some walking axes mixed with hyper technical ones in both categories.

Therefore we are going to classify the axes according to their intended use, not the norm they are assigned.. That means that from here on, when we talk about technical ice axes we are not talking about the T type, if not we are referring to axes that are designed for more technical activities in the world of mountaineering. (whether they are type T or B).

The increasing complexity of activities has led to the fact that, lately, different categories of ice axes are very different, each type specialising in a specific activity.

As a consequence of this is a classic ice axe can be used for ice climbing but it won’t do a good job. Or a dry-tooling axe will provide an unpleasant experience if used for walking over a glacier. Having said this: we will see multi-purpose axes that are breach the gap between the two worlds.

The different ice axe uses and techniques will help us to choose the one best suited to our interests.

Table of ice axe uses

1. Classic Ice Axes

  • 1.1 Mountaineering
  • 1.2 Skiing
  • 1.3 Alpinism

2. Technical and climbing ice axes

  • 2.1. With leash
  • 2.2. With a rest
  • 2.3. Ergonomic

Álvaro Lafuente on Pilsner Pillar, WI6, Canada

Classic Ice Axes

1. Classic Ice Axe for Mountaineering

In this category we group together the type of tool used for outings, crossing glaciers, climbing easy mountains via their normal route, etc.

  • More than 90% if the time the axe will be used in walking stick position, sometimes it will be used in the dagger position and very occasionally it will be used in traction position. As a result, grip comfort on the cross is very important.
  • The pick can be “negative” or neutral, normally blunt or sharpened at 90º. The negative pick aids self arrest, at the expense of relatively bad ice penetration.

Types of pick.

  • The head is always normal to aid self arrest -used in walking position, this is main mission of this type of axes. Inverted heads, destined for technical activities, penetrate ice better but are more difficult to use for self arrest.

Normal head on the left; inverted head on the right

  • The teeth tend to disappear near the cross to improve grip
  • The adze, if we have to use it, is better bigger.
  • A classic ice axe for outings has a straight shaft or slightly curved (more for aesthetics than anything)
  • They are long: when held from the cross, without bending over, they should reach our ankle more or less. Longer will be more comfortable and practical for use on gentle or moderate slopes, but are more difficult to transport (they can get caught up on branches, etc) and will penalise us during self arrest. That is why there are different sizes so we can choose our size.
  • As they are made for gentle use, their construction favours weight reduction over robustness. Many of them are type 1 (B).
  • They usually have some type of leash

Grivel Nepal, classic ice axe for mountaineering

2. Classic Ice Axe for Skiing

In ski touring, an ice axe is as basic as a helmet.

We are not talking about practising alpinism with skis -where skiing is merely a means to go climbing with our ergonomic ice axes-, if not to go skiing and resolve difficult or dangerous sections where passing with skis on is not an option. The axe’s use for specific moments during the activity.

  • A skiing ice axe must be lightweight, small and robust in equal amounts. The reason is has to be lightweight is obvious. The small size means it doesn’t stick out when carried in a backpack where it can get caught on branches; and does not become a dangerous element when we fall.
  • Despite being as light as possible, it must be strong: instead of the last category, we will only use the axe when the slope is very steep, as a stake, adze, or in traction position.

It will be used infrequently, but in some cases intensely.

Two more things:

  • The ISFM has created a norm that these ice axes must comply to if they are used in official competitions. Some manufacturers have started to send this type of axe, -or shorter models of classic axes, around 50cm- with the norm indicated, but it is still unclear what it consists of, as the federation has not made it public -expect to manufacturers- as of yet.
  • These axes, for their lightness and the head, are used for quick activities, or in expeditions, by some people. As we always say with regards to safety, if you have any doubts on how to use them, then you do not have enough knowledge or the necessary experience.

Camp Corsa Nanotech, lightweight ski touring ice axe

3. Classic Ice Axe for Climbing

If a skiing ice axe is made to be treated badly, imagine how a classic climbing axe is made, where its own definition is to be used for scrambling for long hours and days.

These ice axes work fine for non technical climbing, i.e. scrambling. And what is scrambling? We could define it as, despite being difficult, we can progress using just one ice axe. Think of, for example, the normal route to climb Mont Blanc.

  • As there is a fundamental difference in strength, now it make sense to look for type T axes. An ice axe for scrambling will be prepared for more aggressive use, on steep terrain, with ice and rock; and has to be able to do more things: for anchors, carving ice mushrooms or whatever is required.
  • We no longer see sheet metal heads or crosses -which can be found in mountaineering axes- and start to see axes forged from one piece that is securely attached to the shaft. The same happens with the spikes.
  • The pick will be neutral or positive, allowing it still to be used for self arrest, but also penetrates ice better, being sharpened at 90º or higher.
  • Full or partially rubber grips are often used with a bend in the shaft. This curve is functional as it separates our hand from the surface of hard snow when using it in a dagger position. This is very useful on long and cold steep slopes.

The best classic ice axe for climbing: Air Tech de Grivel

Technical Mountaineering and Ice Tools

It’s difficult to define the border between mountaineering and scrambling. Nor is it easy to find an exact line between technical scrambling axe and full blown ice climbing ice axe. There are intermediate areas that can be denominated in either category.

For this very reason, as technical climbing can be anything from scaling couloirs to extreme ice or mixed climbing or dry tooling, there are various types of ice axes inside this category: from the first which are similar to classic axes, to ergonomic axes which are very specific tools.

1. Ice Axes for Technical Mountaineering

Technical mountaineering could be considered any activity where we require two ice axes to do comfortably, as opposed to scrambling, which we have previously defined, where it is possible to overcome obstacles with just one ice axe.

In this section, we can find three types of ice axe, from less to more technical:

    • With a leash
    • With a rest
    • Ergonomic

The closest ones to classic ice axes often come in different sizes and alternative a normal head with the inverted head.

Ice Climbing, Terrain for Technical Ice Tools

1. With a Leash for the Wrist

This type of ice axe is still valid when we have to use the spike often and where it isn’t necessary to let go of the tool much, for example in couloirs where we are not tied in.

They are also a good starting point to create a “minimum kit that does everything”:

  • First an axe of this type, it is possible for it to be light for when we take it skiing
  • To do couloirs or north faces it can be combined with a climbing hammer axe, in which case you will have a free hand to place and remove protection and such like.
  • In this way, when it’s time to climb something vertical you only need to get an adze axe to complement your hammer axe.

Stubai Hornet, technical ice axe with a wrist leash

2. With a Rest

In reality, very few models with leashes are sold any more.

For more freedom of movement we have the REST.

Despite how it might seem, climbing without wrist leashes is much more fluid, natural and relaxed. So as not to lose axes or to improvise a temporary rest or self belay, all we have to do is harness leashes. (the famous rubbers)

Grivel Double Spring, harness leashes for two ice axes

This type of tool is for climbing complicated and difficult lines, the shaft can be embedded into snow despite the rest, being the best option when overcoming snow, or for exposed flanks in such a delicate medium (although, if we are not going to do vertical technical activities, classic ice axes are still the best option in the majority of cases).

Many of them have a upper and lower rest, but some of them only have a lower one. If this is the case usually manufacturers sell higher adjustable rest as an accessory.

The rests can be:

  • Fixed rests
  • Adjustable rests requiring a tool
  • Adjustable rest without requiring a tool

Edelrid Riot Hammer, multi purpose ice axe for technical mountaineering, hammer version

The ice axes with a fixed lower rest penalise when used in walking stick position (although they will do the job at a pinch reasonably well). In axes with an upper rest, if we raise it to the to of the shaft we achieve a rest for use in high dagger position. If the rest is only adjustable with a tool, we will be able to adjust it at home according to the activity we plan to do, but we will not be able to adjust on the fly during the activity.

DMM Fly, ice axe with upper and lower rests adjusted with tools

We can also find ice axes that are in essence are basic axes but in adding the rest, they become technical:
  • In raising the rest, the shaft can but embedded without the rest hindering, and we have the benefit of a rest when using in high dagger position.
  • In lowering the rest, we convert the axe to technical with a rest.
 They are excellent for multi purpose scrambling, couloirs, some ice climbing, etc. And finally some models take it one step further, such as the Quark by Petzl, where the adjustment of both the upper and lower rest can be adjusted without tools. In this way we can change from technical ice axe to walking ice axe in seconds on site.

Petzl Quark ice tool. Lower rest adjustment without tools on site

We invite you to watch this video-test of these ice axes, where you can see how the system works, with both the upper and lower rests.https://www.barrabes.com/blog/test-material/2-10492/video-nueva-version-piolets-quark

Petzl Quark Adze

Some models also come with an index finger rest, which improves aim.

Rest for the index finger

The HEADS  are a very important element. They will always be inverted with a sharp positive pick. The first tooth is very important as it defines the type of head: 
  • Flat and long for ice.
  • More pronounced and concave for mixed.
 But this should not worry us: these ice axes are modular, we can interchange the head. Each head indicates the recommended use both in the head that comes with the axe, as well as the replacement heads we can purchase. Furthermore, they are all multi purpose. Each one tends to give an edge in specific situations, but that doesn’t mean to say that they can’t be used in all situations. 
  • These ice axes have small sharp teeth in the cross. This is a handicap when holding them in walking stick position as they will devour our gloves, but they are a huge help when hooking large objects
  • The bevelled top is essential, when vertical climbing the extraction is just as important as the embedment of the tool.

Grivel MIX head, interchangeable. Great for mixed and scrambling

The  SHAFTS have to be notably curved, to gain amplitude between the pick and the shaft, something that is very practical to hook snow mushrooms, holes, stalactites and ice columns. 
  • The head has an angle that allows the ice axe, despite the curvature, to achieve a perpendicular strike on the surface for better penetration.
  • In some multi purpose models, the current tendency is to curve the shaft in the middle of the shaft, leaving the bottom half straight. In doing so, the axe works better in walking stick position, without losing the advantages of the curved shaft. You can see what we are referring to in el video del Piolet Quark.
 

Petzl Sum’Tec Hammer

 

3. Ergonomic

As we go further up the difficulty scale, some elements become more important while other lose their importance. This is the case with ergonomic ice tools for climbing, where embedding the shaft in snow is sacrificed to achieve more traction and find our limits.

Cassin X-Dreams, ergonomic ice tool for climbing

  • Everything written about heads in the previous section is valid here, although in the cross the adze or hammer often disappear. Thee are more “sporty” models without them and more multi purpose models that include them.
  • The curved handle always comes with the bottom half covered in rubber from the factory (this type of ice axe is usually covered entirely with "grip")
  • The most striking element is the grip.
 Certainly what these handles achieves is a more effective strike when we are stretched out (climbing more seriously, alternating strikes and alike) and upward extractions
Tags:
ice axe alpinism mountaineering skiing outdoor equipment Advice

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