Two components are essential for an object to qualify as an ice axe: - a pick, to strike into the ice
- a shaft, to swing the pick.
Other components add versatility to ice axes:
- a spike at the end of the shaft to use as a walking stick
- a grip to facilitate hold
- a hammer at the opposite end of the pick to drive in pitons
- an adze to cut steps into the snow or sometimes simply to add weight.
There are several types of ice axes. Norms EN 13089 and UIAA 152 define the classifications:
- B (basic): can withstand a load of 2.5kn over a length 50cm
- T (technical): all strength tests must reach minimum values greater than 30-40% of B axes.
Ice axe shafts were traditionally made of wood. As minimum standards were set for ice axes used as progression tools and their shaft as a belay tool, manufacturers favoured tubular profiles in aluminium alloy over wood.
The most common materials used for shafts are:
- Aluminium (Al): Simond, Petzl
- Composite carbon fibre (C): BD Cobra
- Aluminium composite carbon hybrid (Al C): Grivel Quantum Tech, Quantum Race - Chromoly steel – chrome and molybdenum alloy (CrMo): Grivel X-Monster
This component was initially a single block, hot-forged by hand. Subsequently, to reduce production costs, manufacturers offered ice axe heads made from the assembly of several parts, which also meant the picks could be removed.
The shape of the pick (and of its teeth) is critical. For ice climbing, a good pick is one slim enough to penetrate easily without shattering the ice. The teeth are bevelled to facilitate removal from the ice. Newly bought picks are not always optimal. It is up to you to adapt them to your use (see paragraph on preparation). Dry tooling picks often have teeth on the pick, close to the shaft.
There are several manufacturing processes for picks: - Hot-forging
Sharpen your pick with a soft file, never use a grindstone as it could heat and damage the pick’s heat treated finish. Never attempt to straighten a crooked pick. This can generate cracks in the metal, which will compromise its strength.
CAUTION: Certain picks are designed for use with a single model of ice axe. If you use a pick not designed to be mounted on your ice axe, the angle between the shaft and the pick could be too open or too closed giving a suboptimal performance in use, ejecting the pick from placements, for example
NOTE: To know which pick to use on ice axe models more than 5 years old, see the information on each pick - product reference (pick name) and serial number (e.g. 09963 CE).z
The adze was historically used to cut steps into the snow. This function is no longer necessary for technical ice tools, even though the adze can make it easier to clean out the ice before placing an ice screw or an Abalakov V-thread.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Difference between an Anaconda Cup pick (above) and a Naja pick (below). The two picks look identical, but once they are placed one above the other, the angles of the two models can be seen to be very different.
The hammer is used to drive in pitons. This function is no longer necessary for sport dry tooling and most waterfall ice routes. Ice screws for the ascent and Abalakov V-thread for the descent are usually sufficient as belay points. Nonetheless, it may be necessary to drive in pitons on mixed climbs or on high-altitude routes.
You can knock in the occasional piton by using the shaft of a hammer-free ice axe. It is for you to decide if you want to do this, depending on the price of the ice axe and the strength and durability of its shaft. To drive in pitons efficiently, a large hammer and straight shaft are required. Depending on the routes, a ‘third hand’ ice tool with a hammer and a straight shaft or an actual hammer may be good options.
The spike on a technical ice tool is used much less than one on a basic ice axe. Their small size, curved shaft and pick make technical ice tools unfit for more basic use. Technical ice tools therefore come with range of different extras: a real spike, a small metallic spur with a notch, or nothing at all. A spike is nonetheless useful on mountaineering routes.
How an ice axe is prepared depends on its use. Ice climbing requires sharpened picks, while mixed climbing and dry tooling require more durable picks.
Picks come in different shapes and thickness and can be manufactured differently (cutting, forging). If you regularly ice climb as well as mixed climb or dry tool, it is worth having the two different types of picks and keeping a dedicated set for each climbing style. If the manufacturer offers only one type of pick, it is still preferable to have several pairs of picks according to their use. There is nothing worse for your wallet than using a pair of new picks on rock. Be sure to sharpen your picks regularly for ice climbing.
This is a small aluminium section that can be mounted like an adze or a hammer on NAJA CARVING, ANACONDA CUP, and COYOTE LIGHT axes. It gives a significant weight gain, while ensuring the pick is solidly mounted on to the ice axe.
Weight gain in place of a hammer: 120g.
Weight gain in place of an adze: 80g
It is difficult to determine a precise lifespan for an ice axe. Its durability will depend on the maintenance of the product. An ice axe should be retired if a fault is detected upon examination, or if the slightest distortion or mechanical weakness of a component, or an unusual vibration when placing the tool is identified.The lifespan is not limited in time. However it could be no more than a single outing in the case of incorrect use, overloading, the product sustaining a substantial fall, and jamming or twisting of the pick. Corrosion will also reduce its durability. The lifespan of leashes is three years maximum.In case of intensive use for ice climbing, we advise changing the pick at the start of each season, given that ice generates only limited visible wear, but repeated use causes micro-cracks due to metal fatigue, which can result in the pick sudden breaking.
Choice of your ice axe
The choice of your ice axe will mainly depend on the type of climbing you do.
We have identified 4 categories:
If you plan to do a non-technical snow and ice route and would like to use your ice axe as a walking stick and for possibly cutting a few steps in hard snow, take a relatively lightweight straight or slightly curved axe. Its length depends on your height: holding it with your arm straight and pointed downwards, the spike should be level with your ankle.
If you want to take an ice axe on ski touring routes or ski mountaineering races, you might choose a lightweight ice axe. These are made of aluminium or lightweight alloys. They can be used as a back-up safety ice axe.
If you want to do more technical snow and ice routes, you should take an all-round ice tool that you use for all techniques, e.g. descent support (piolet-rampe), brace/cross-body (piolet- ramasse), anchor (piolet-ancre), dagger (piolet panne) or overhead/hooking (piolet-traction) positions. This is a heavier and more robust ice axe. The head has sharp teeth, a slim pick and a wide adze. Its shaft is straight and slightly rounded with a sticky and insulating grip on the lower section. It is smaller than a basic ice axe, typically 50 to 70cm for a weight of 750g.
If you are a waterfall or steep ice wall enthusiast, you need a technical ice tool. These axes have a very curved shaft for optimal swing, and immediate anchoring and removal. Picks are often removable to adapt to different ice conditions. Tools are used as a pair.
|TYPE OF ICE AXE||USE||CHARACTERISTICS|
|Straight or slightly curved||
All kinds of ice/glacial terrain: - Glacier hiking
- Ski mountaineering
- Technical mountaineering
Positive points :
Adapted to different glacial terrain, use in cane position, easy placement
Negative points :
Limited use for dry tooling or sculptured ice, difficult to swap hands, less comfortable grip.
|Heavily curved or drop handle shaft||
- Ice climbing
Positive points :
More versatility for hooking over high-volume ice formations and on overhangs, hand rest, curve prevents finger injuries
Negative points :
Difficult to impossible to use as a walking stick.