After your boots, an ice axe is possibly the single most useful piece of kit for winter walking. Use it alone, or with the addition of crampons, for a secure day out in winter. This article looks at how to choose it and then how to use it, so that you can discover some of the great places the ice axe can take you.
The Orgins of the Ice Axe
The predecessor of the ice axe was the alpenstock, a long wooden pole with an iron spike tip, used by shepherds for travel on snowfields and glaciers in the Alps, since the middle ages. This was used purely for herding purposes until the late 1700’s when Alpine climbing was becoming a sport of its own. On 8 August 1786, Jaques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard made the first ascent of Mont Blanc. They both had experience with high mountain travel, Paccard having made previous attempts to climb the peak and Balmat a Chamois hunter. Illustartions show them carrying two separate tools which would become one in later developments. They carried an alpenstock and a small axe that could be used to chop steps on icy slopes.
According to Grivel, the earliest manufacturer of ice axes, these two tools were amalgamated to create the first true ice axe around 1840. In 1860 the direction and position of the adze was changed and has remained a similar structure since.
In the late 19th century, the typical ice axe shaft measured 120–130 cm in length, more like a walking pole. Oscar Eckstein a British climber, started the trend toward shorter ice axes with a lighter model measuring 85–86 cm. Initially, this innovation was criticized by well-known climbers of the era.
Early ice axes had picks and adzes of about equal lengths. By the beginning of the 20th century, the pick lengthened to about twice the length of the adze. Improvements in Ice climbing technique and crampon design led to use of shorter, lighter ice axes appropriate to steeper ice climbs in the period between the world wars.
Anatomy of an Ice axe
Firstly, let's get on the same page by looking at all the parts of an ice axe, so you know what on earth I'm talking about later.
The head: Usually made of steel, this comprises a pick and an adze. The head may be a single piece, or come with replaceable pick and adze. The hole in the centre is an attachment point for a leash.
Pick: The pointy bit of the head, toothed for purchase in snow and ice and usually curved for holding power.
Adze: The wider end of the head is shovel-like, for clearing snow and chopping steps. On a pair of climbing axes one of the two will generally have a hammer instead of an adze, but this is unnecesary for walkers.
Shaft: The long bit. Often cut straight on a walking axe, but sometimes with a slight curve for better ergonomics.
Spike: The pointy bit at the bottom, for stabbing into the ground when using the axe as a 'walking stick'.
Grip: Most metal shafted axes have a rubberised handle down by the spike, which makes holding the axe easier when you're using the pick or adze, and helps insulate the hands.
Leash: This is optional.
Pros: it makes losing an axe less likely and takes some strain off your hands when climbing steep ground.
Cons: it's a fiddle when swapping the axe from hand to hand.
Choosing your ice axe
The best length for an ice axe has made for great debate over the years. Ice axes for climbing are generally shorter than those for walking. In the past the standard way to choose a walking axe was to hold the axe head in your hand and hang your arm by your side. It was said: An axe of the correct length should reach the top of your boot. This would give you an axe that worked as a walking aid, almost like a pole, even on a shallow gradient. However, if you are reasonably tall this could result in a long axe (70-75cm), which on very steep ground could be more of a hindrance than a help. It is an ice axe and not a walking pole, after all, and if it is too long then it becomes unwieldy in use. Cutting steps, swinging the axe in 'climbing mode' and arresting a fall are all easier with a shorter shaft. If you wish to progress to mountaineering then an axe might even be used to make a snow belay. A shorter axe (50-60 cm) is more adaptable to this wide variety of techniques, and much more effective when stopping a slide because you are not trying to hold a massive pole close to your body. The disadvantage of a shorter axe is that will be a less effective walking and balancing aid in the first instance, when stepping onto snow and mastering the basics. Have a think about this.
Most of the ice axes you find in the shops these days are made from strong metal alloys. However, you can still find axes with a wooden shaft. Though warmer to the touch and aesthetically pleasing, these are comparatively questionable in strength and durability. You will find that ice axes have a rating system of either 'T' or 'B'. This letter represents a rating of the axe’s strength. A 'T' rated axe is tested to withstand 3.5KN cross loaded across the shaft of the axe. This makes it stronger than a 'B' rated axe which is tested to withstand only 2.5KN of load across the shaft. Nearly all technical climbing axes will be 'T' rated. For purely walking purposes either rating would be sufficient for the activities you will be covering. However, if you are planning on getting into winter mountaineering then a 'T' rated axe shaft could be valuable for creating anchors and other techniques.
The axe can also be used as a tool for cutting steps or even just cutting a ledge to put your bag down on, to get your lunch out. For this reason, you don't want to choose an ultralight design, or it could be a long time before lunch.
All axe heads will have a slight curvature between the adze and pick, and sometimes a curve in the shaft too. Climbing axes often have a tighter radius curve and a bent shaft. This enables the pick to plunge into the snow/ice more effectively, however it makes it harder to control when learning to stop a slide using self-arrest techniques. Most general-purpose axes have a longer radius pick and straight shaft, making them easier to manage.
It is useful to have a hole in the head of the axe, in line with the shaft. This is important for the attachment of an axe safety loop or leash, for use when cutting snow.
How to carry the ice axe on a rucksack
Often in winter there may not be snow down to the car park, or there is an easy path to start the day. In this case you might want to stow the axe on the bag, but in a way that is convenient to reach if the conditions change.
1) Firstly, ignore the purpose made ice axe carrying loops on a mountaineering rucksack. These hold the axe in a way that often results in grumpy friends, when you spike them up the nose, as you turn around. Use the two compression straps found on both sides of most rucksacks, by simply sliding the axe down the compression straps and arranging the pick pointing backwards to avoid it snagging your jacket. It is then easy to lift the axe out when required.
2) Secondly the axe can be stowed between your back and the rucksack for even quicker access. Holding the head of the axe, position the spike between the rucksack straps and slide it down next to your back, angling it to exit by your side. Then turn the axe head to have the pick facing upwards behind you. The head of the axe should comfortably rest over one of the rucksack straps.
When should you have the axe in your hand?
If you are on the hill, on some snow, with this question in mind... then you are probably 10 steps too late. My best advice is, earlier rather than later. As a general guide the time to stop and have the axe to hand is just before you step onto a patch of snow.
Walking with the ice axe
You are here, it's the real deal, so listen closely. Firstly it is always best to wear gloves when holding the ice axe; ideally a reasonably thick pair to insulate your hands from the cold metal, and preferably not mittens so that you can use your fingers individually.
The axe should be held by the head, with the pick behind and the adze facing forward. The thumb wraps under the adze, the index finger down the shaft and the other fingers wrap under the pick. Practise this in both hands and don't forget: the pick faces behind you. This is important for self-arrest techniques. Hold the axe in the uphill hand. This is important, for support and to prevent a slip. Only when travelling directly up or down a slope, can you hold the axe in either hand. The axe can be used for support but try not to hunch over it on flat ground or you will be stiff tomorrow.
To directly ascend the slope, swing with the leg, mostly from the knee, punching into the snow with the toes to create steps that support the front half of the boot. Boots are angled into the slope so that the heel remains higher than the toes, stopping you from slipping backwards out of the step. The ice axe can be used in your strongest hand. If the slope steepens and more support is required, then the axe head can be held with both hands, and the shaft plunged vertically into the snow in front.
A zig zag ascent is the most regularly used technique. Steps are created with the edge of the sole, again swinging mostly from the knee with the edge of the boot angled into the hillside. Using a sawing motion with the side of the boot, make a platform that is slightly longer than the length of the boot. The uphill step is kicked with the outside of the boot and the downhill step with the inside edge of the boot. You are most stable when the uphill foot is above and ahead of the lower foot. At this point you can replace the axe, ahead and uphill of you. The next step is kicked with the downhill leg crossing up and in front of the upper foot before the uphill foot comes through, up and in front of the lower. And repeat: Plunge the axe, kick step, kick step, plunge the axe, kick step, kick step. And when you come to change direction, kick a larger step and turn.
It is possible to traverse a slope, though it is a little harder to balance. If the snow is not too firm or too steep then it is possible to kick two lines of steps across the slope, creating a double dotted line effect. The ice axe should follow the same pattern as with diagonal steps. Alternatively, on steeper or firmer ground it is often better to face into the slope and kick with the front of the boot as for going directly uphill. However instead of going uphill you will kick to the side, bring the feet apart and then together to traverse across. Move the axe when the supporting feet are apart, as this will be more stable.
If the snow is firm and/or steeper, face across the slope and use the edge of the boot to create steps going downhill. Otherwise in softer snow you can face directly down the slope and plunge steps with the heel. These are not kicked but made just using a stiff leg and your body weight. The step must support the whole of the heel of the boot and it is important to keep the toes raised so they are higher than the heel in the step. The axe can go in the stronger hand. If you are struggling to get purchase with the boot, don’t hesitate to get the crampons out.
And remember, if the question is: should I get my ice axe out? Turn the first two words around to get the answer: I should get my ice axe out. The ice axe is a fundamental piece of kit in winter, so get out there and enjoy using it.
It must be noted that the advice in this blog is for people walking without crampons and some techniques such as ice axe arrest have not been covered. If you want to find out more about the more advanced techniques of using an ice axe or how to use crampons, take a look at the website to find out more about courses coming up this winter.