Jason Griffith

Ice Climbing Tools Review

Ice climbing tools have gone through a dramatic phase of change in the past many years. New technology, advancing technique and evolving style have all impacted their design in a big way. In the past, people desired tools that were versatile enough to be used for both waterfall style ice climbing and for mountaineering style ice climbing. They need to be able to plunge an ice tool into snow largely dictated ice tool designs, and thus most ice tools produced were either strait shafted, or strait with a slight curve at the bottom. As roadside (waterfall) water ice climbing increased in popularity, consumers were willing to buy specialized tools made just for water ice.


The resulting design features are what dominate tools today. Once people took these excellent new tools into the mountains, they realized that the modern designs climb mountains just fine, possibly even better than their predecessors. My advice is to buy ice tools that are primarily designed for climbing ice, because just about any tool can be used to climb snow.

Classic Tools

Black Diamond X15 Charlet Pulsar

Modern Tool Features

Clearance shaft: A clearance shaft is one that has a continuous arc from the spike to the tip of the pick. The “clearance” provided from this design allows the shaft to arc over features protruding from the ice. It also makes climbing routes with lots of traffic easier, as pick holes on these “picked out” routes are easier to access with a clearance shaft.

Rubberized grip & pinky hook: Improved grip texture and a pinky hook at the bottom of the tool reduce some of the effort needed to hold on. As a bonus, pinky hooks help keep your gloves dry and protect your lower fingers from getting smashed. No guarantee on those other fingers though…

Hooking teeth: Hooking teeth are small teeth located where the pick meets the head of the tool. They give the tool purchase in placements that accepts the entire pick, such as in constrictions or mushrooms.

Various Modern Tools

Petzl Quark Black Diamond Cobra Grivel Quantum Tech DMM Rebel


The swing of a tool is its most important feature. The swing depends on many things, including the shaft shape, the angle of the grip, and the weight of the head. Most of the modern tools have a “snappy” swing that rotates about the pinky finger. Because tools have similarly shaped shafts these days, it is often the head weight and grip size that differentiate swings between modern tools. There are various theories about who should swing what. A tool that is poorly weighted for your strength will require a swing that can exhaust you on the ice. Some people like heavy headed tools because they require fewer swings (and thus less energy) to penetrate the ice.

A disadvantage of a heavy headed tool is that swinging one over your head takes more energy than swinging a lighter one. As a result of this, some people prefer lighter tools because they can swing more times without pumping out. A disadvantage to a light tool is that you’ll have to swing harder to get the pick to penetrate the ice. Again, it is best to figure out what style works best for you and your particular strengths by actually climbing on a variety of tools, and it may take time to get used to the specific swing of a tool. A very rough estimation of head weight in ascending order would be: Simond Piranha, Grivel X-Monster, Black Diamond Cobra, Grivel Quantum Tech, Petzl Quark, Black Diamond Viper, DMM Rebel.

Of note is that the newest petzl ice climbing tools (2010 Quark, Nomic and Ergo) have a removable weight located on the pick. This pick weight was originally designed for the Nomic and allowed for a lighter overall tool for very steep mixed climbing. An added benefit to this design is that you have two types of swings available (snappy with the weight, extremely light without) all in a single tool.

Grip Size

Even with the relatively consistent shape of modern shafts, not all shafts are created equal. Some shafts are larger in diameter, and some are smaller. What you should look for is a shaft with a grip that fits your hand appropriately. If the shaft is too large, you will pump out faster. Think about trying to hold on to a large diameter pipe versus a smaller one that you can really get your hand around. Alternatively, if the shaft is too small it can be uncomfortable to hold on to. Think about hanging from a chopstick. Ouch. Some modern tools, in roughly ascending hand grip size, are: Simond Piranha, CAMP Awax, Black Diamond Cobra, Black Diamond Viper, Petzl Quark, Petzl Nomic/Ergo, Grivel Quantum Tech, Grivel X-Monster. As you can see in any gear shop, there are many different tools with distinctly sized and shaped grips. It truly is best to actually climb on a variety of tools to see what feels the best for you.

Trigger Fingers & Upper Grips

Trigger fingers and upper tool grips are gaining popularity with the increase in leashless climbing. A trigger finger is a hook, like a pinky rest, that separates the index finger from the others. The idea of the trigger finger is to give more precise control and further support for the hand. Something important to note about trigger fingers is that they need to be adjusted to fit your hand or else you can risk injury. If too much weight is applied to the index finger alone, it is possible to damage a tendon. Properly sizing the trigger finger can be somewhat tricky if you use a variety of glove thicknesses while climbing.

Upper grips are small rests that resemble the early designs of pinky hooks. They provide a small ledge above the regular grip for bumping a hand higher up the shaft or for matching both hands on one tool while leashless climbing. A solid grip higher on the tool allows you to gain more height per tool placement. This allows you to reach better ice that is higher up, or just cover more ground with fewer swings. All “Z-Handled” tools have upper grips for this reason, and now many tool manufacturers are providing upper grip add-ons for their modern ice tool lines (e.g. Black Diamond Cobra & Viper, Petzl Quark).


A trigger finger An upper grip A pinky hook

Z-handled Tools (aka Leashless tools)

A Z-handled tool is any tool with a specialized grip that has a different angle from the shaft. In addition, the Z-handled tools often have an upper match. Z-Handled tools were originally designed for difficult overhanging rock and ice climbing and were the first leashless tools. However, as these tools have gained in popularity, their design has improved for better swing in all-around application. While these are generally referred to as “leashless” tools (they are rarely used with leashes), regular modern tools with pinky hooks are also commonly used for climbing leashless.

The important features to look for in Z-handled tools depend on the desired application. If the tool is primarily going to be used for ice, your first priority will be that it swings like a normal ice tool. For any new tool, it is important to realize that there will be an adjustment period before the swing feels natural. That said, I found some of the original Z-handled tools (e.g. the original orange BD Fusion and the original Quark Ergo) awkward to swing as they did not rotate over the pinky as most ice tools do. Nearly all late model Z-handled tools now rotate over the pinky, providing excellent performance on ice. These include the Petzl Nomic, the Black Diamond Fusion (green), and the Grivel X-Monster.

If the tool is mostly for drytooling and occasional ice routes, hooking performance and stability should be of top importance. Other important features are: that the tool feels stable when you move from the lower grip to the upper grip, and that the pick is “quiet” (not skittery) on very small rock holds where slight movement could cause it to slip. Generally, a tool with similarly angled lower and upper grips will be more stable when you change grips. The design of the pick and it’s angle to the shaft will also play a large role in the stability of a tool (more on this later). The Black Diamond Fusion, Petzl Nomic, and Petzl Ergo are all extremely well suited for drytooling. Of note is the extreme clearance and three grip positions of the newest Petzl Ergo.

With Z-Handled tools it is important to consider the grip diameter and length. We’ve already discussed grip diameter, and most tools fall into one of two categories with regard to grip length: either adjustable, or so big it doesn’t matter. Tools like the Black Diamond Fusion and Petzl Nomic/Ergo allow the user to adjust the handle to fit their hand specifically. This can be a very nice feature, but with these ”fit like a glove” grips, it is important to be sure that the gloves you’ll want to wear (thin or thick) will fit comfortably into the adjusted grip.

The heads of Z-handled tools vary more than any kind on the market. Some have full sized hammers, some have mini hammers, and others have no hammer at all. The benefit of having no hammer is that the head of the tool is streamlined and narrow and will thus fit into small constrictions. Not having a hammer can also be advantageous if you hit yourself in the face with your tool. The drawback is that a tool with no hammer (or a very small hammer) cannot generally be used on a traditionally protected mixed route where loads of pitoning will be required (as is often the case in the Canadian Rockies). In these cases, you can carry an extra piton hammer as a 3rd tool for pounding pitons. Many manufacturers provide a mino-hammer as an intermediate option. The Black Diamond Fusion comes with such a mini-hammer built right into the head design. The Petzl Quark/Nomic/Ergo series allows for all three options: mini-hammer, adze or neither.

Various Z Handled/Leashless Tools

Black Diamond Fusion Petzl Nomic Grivel X-Monster
Petzl Quark Ergo Simond Coyote

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