Jason Griffith

Ice Axe Review – How to buy an ice axe by Jim Nelson

WHAT SIZE or LENGTH or ICE AXE?

The proper length ice axe will primarily depend on the user’s height. When ascending it will be more effort to plunge the shaft of a longer axe above, than with a shorter axe. When descending, the longer length will allow you to reach below providing support and balance. The classic method for sizing strikes a nice balance for a wide variety of slope angles, as well as for both ascending and descending.

Holding the ice axe loosely in your hand, the ice axe should be 1’-2’ inches above the ground. This is a traditional classic formula, but by no means a rigid rule. Good arguments can be made for both shorter and longer lengths.

Longer length ice axes.

Because it is easier to loose your balance when descending, than when ascending, a good argument can easily be made for a slightly longer axe. A longer ice axe may also be the preference for gentle snow slopes, and for climbs with more glacier walking than steep climbing.

Shorter length ice axes. The shorter axe crowd will argue that for descending steep slopes, they will crouch low to plunge the axe below. They will also rely more on their feet and balance, keeping the axe at the ready to plunge or arrest. They can also choose to face into the slope, and back down for steep slopes, or when extra security is required.

A shorter ice axe will carry more out of the way on the pack, a real plus for alpine rock climbs. A short axe that carries well and out of the way is also popular with ski mountaineers who may require use of the ice axe only occasionally.

In summary, the traditional length or slightly longer makes good sense for basic glacier climbs and snow walks. For steeper climbing and a wider variety of climbing terrain, choosing an ice axe a bit shorter than the traditional classic length is usually my recommendation.

WHAT TYPE OF ICE AXE LEASH?

A leash can serve a couple of functions. 1) To keep from losing the axe on steep terrain, or around crevasses. 2) To improve your grip of the axe during self-arrest, or when chopping hard ice. 3) Providing a full strength connection to the climber.

1) To keep from losing the axe on steep terrain, or around crevasses, moats, etc. While this may seem like an obvious reason to have a wrist leash, there are good reasons some climbers choose not to use a leash. For most of us there will be times where we do want a leash, and other situations where a leash is not worth the bother. Changing directions: when making ascending traverses back a forth up or down a slope it’s necessary to move the axe from one hand to the other quickly and easily. A wrist leash can make this slow, and potentially interrupt rhythm and pace.

2) To improve your grip of the axe during self arrest, self-belay, or when chopping hard ice. Securing your grip to the head of the axe for self-arrest, the opposite end of the axe (near the spike) for chopping, or somewhere in between for self-belay still awaits a practical design. Combined with the need to move from one grip position to another in an instant; and it’s easy to see why no leash is considered a legitimate option. The ability to adapt to changing situations instantly, and maintain a sold grip on the axe is a desirable skill without a doubt. Keeping a solid grip on the axe is critical for terrain where self-arrest and self-belay are relied on for safety. Most leash systems are poor substitutes for a firm grip when performing self-arrest or self-belay.

3) Providing a full belay strength connection between axe and the climber. Many commercial leashes are intended only for not losing a dropped axe. While a leash can be built to be full strength, keep in mind there are many ways to make a solid connection to the axe other than the leash when using the axe for an anchor, including the climbing rope, slings, etc.

Different types of ice axe leashes.

a)     Wrist Leash connected to the head of the axe, and reaching the full length of the axe. Can be wrapped around the axe shaft for shortening the length. Good method for chopping. Must be moved from one hand to the other when changing direction. Can be wrapped around the shaft and head multiple times for improving self-arrest grip, but this must be done in advance of anticipated self-arrest, and would make it impractical for any self belay position other than the head of the axe (ie. anytime the axe shaft could not be plunged to full depth). Could be full strength or not, commercial or improvised.

b)     Spring Leash connected from harness to axe head. Because there is no wrist leash this is a good method for changing direction. Most are intended for preventing loss of a dropped axe only. Pictured BD Slinger Leash. Grivel Easy Slider Leash

c) Pro Mtn. Sports Wrist Leash. Easily adjustable for different sized hands, gloves, or grips with the simple and elegant overhand knot. Easy to release and change hands, and also quick to enhance self-arrest grip. Can be full belay strength. Include 2 pictures (pms wrist leash).

d) Pro Mtn. Sports Self-Belay Leash. Improvised leash connected to harness. Full belay strength, and slides along axe shaft to accommodate required position depending on depth of plunged axe which is dependent on snow conditions. Can be used when self-belay is required, and then removed. Include 2 pictures (pms self-belay leash)

Placing a snow picket with an ice axe. An axe with a steel head is best, an axe with a hammer instead of an adze is even better. For technical terrain where snow pickets are anticipated it may be best to have two axes for security on steep snow or ice, and ideally one would have a hammer opposite the pick. In a pinch, use your ice axe like this to place a snow picket – picture (placing picket).

Forged Steel – The most important component in a serious technical axe is the pick and the steel it’s made from. The alloy, process, and metallurgy all combine to make the difference at the business end of the best quality tools. Picks that can take repeated abuse without breaking are to die for, and products with a history of failures and cutting corners best avoided.

CLASSIC MOUNTAINEERING AXES

Black Diamond Raven Pro

Head : Head, Spike: stainless steel

Shaft : Aluminum. B Rated.
Weight Without Leash : 362 g, 15 oz. (65 cm)

The Raven Pro from Black Diamond is a simple, clean and elegant mountain axe. The friendly Ice Axe that looks good. Everybody’s favorite general purpose Ice Axe. The pick is rater thick at the business end, and for that reason doesn’t penetrate hard ice great.  Stainless steel head and spike with an aluminum B rated shaft.

Grivel Futura

Head: Carbon steel pick and Polyamide handle.
Shaft: B Rated. Aluminum
Spike: Carbon steel.
Lengths: 53, 58, 66, 74cm.
Weight: 16oz. for the 66cm. length.

Once again Grivel does something that others said couldn’t be done.  It got rid of the adze.  That means that this axe has one of the most comfortable and positive grips you will ever find.  The Futura still maintains the hot forged pick that Grivel is known for and a lightweight B rated aluminum shaft.

This has become my favored axe for Cascade snow and glacier climbs. I often choose an ultralight axe for climbs with limited snow travel, alpine rock climbs, scrambles, etc. However, for climbs where the axe is used more than occasionally, the Futura is my ice axe of choice. The insulated and comfortable plastic handle plunges like no other, and the security of the self-arrest grip is unmatched. If I need to chop an occasional step, I have found the pick (no adze) to be quite adequate and well worth giving up for the benefits of the plastic yellow handle. I love this axe.

Grivel Air Tech Carbon

Head: Hot forged in a single piece of chromolly steel.
Shaft: Carbon Composite. T Rated.
Lengths: 48, 53, 58, 66cm.
Weight: 18oz. for the 66cm length.

When you are looking for the strongest axe then look no further.  The Air Tech Carbon has carbon fiber wrapped over an aluminum shaft.  That carries the stronger T rating combined with a mild bend in the shaft and a pick with a bit more droop this axe will take you from walking to easy front pointing.

A serious ice axe for serious climbers. Maybe the highest performance in a classic mountaineering axe ever. Incorporating a number of Grivel innovations developed over 100 years of manufacturing and climbing knowledge. Including: Axe head flush with top of shaft allows extra width for holding and plunging comfort. The very best quality steel hot forged and polished allowing maximum performance, strength, durability, and dependability. Carbon fiber wrap over aluminum shaft provides dampening, insulation, and T Rated strength. Achieving the ideal balance between light weight, and technical performance. Crafted for the most abusive conditions, and for a lifetime of the most demanding climbs.

ULTRALIGHT ICE AXES – Steel head and spike, or aluminum?

An ultralight axe can be a solid choice anytime you know you will have snow and not ice. While aluminum is much softer and will not maintain a sharp edge like steel, aluminum can be very strong. For ice, a sharp edge and the extra “swing” weight will be desirable if not necessary. An ultralight axe with a steel pick may keep its sharp edge, but will not have the necessary weight to penetrate hard ice efficiently.

I spoke with one climber who duct tapes a rock under the adze to add weight for use on ice. Discarding the rock for approach and descent. An interesting and innovative idea to say the least!

Ultralight axes with aluminum heads and spikes CE rated “B” are rated for belay strength the same as steel axes with the CE “B” rating. I see them a ideal as a second axe for trips where you have snow and not ice, or situations where you are conformable being limited by an ultralight axe.

CAMP Corsa

Shaft: B Rated.
Pick: B Rated.
Weight: 205 g, 7.2 oz. for the 50cm length.
Sizes: 50, 60, 70 cm

• Ski Mountaineering, High Altitude Climbing, Adventure Racing
• Forged aluminum pick and adze
• Ideal for snow travel and self arrest
• Can be used as an anchor for glacier rescue and traversing cornices
• Nylon spike plug on 60 and 70cm lengths keeps ice out of the shaft

Maybe the lightest ice axe in the world! A clean design gives great performance considering how little it weighs. Perfect for low-angle glacier travel, ski mountaineering and adventure racing. The 7075-T6 aluminum alloy head and shaft meet all CE and UIAA requirements for strength and durability. However, the Corsa is not recommended for ice climbing, rugged mixed terrain, or for intense step chipping.

When every ounce counts the CAMP Corsa is what you want. Alloy head, fully B rated shaft and at less than 8oz. you won’t even feel it on your pack.

CAMP Corsa Nano Tech

Shaft: B Rated.
Pick: B Rated.
Spike: Sandvik Nanoflex Steel
Sizes: 50, 60, 70 cm
Weight: 250 g, 8.8 oz. for the 50cm length

Think of the Corsa with a steel tip for the pick, as well as a steel spike. The shaft has a slight bend. A true ultralight axe with some technical capability in the right hands.

TECHNICAL ICE AXES

An ice axe for difficult technical terrain gives the climber greater security on steep or hard ice. Good balance, exceptional steel, and the right weight and pick angle can make a significant difference in security and efficiency. Modern ice tools have evolved to a great deal, including improved grips that make it easier to swing and grip. Unfortunately, these modern leashless grips also reduce the effectiveness of a tools shaft to be plunged into hard snow. A good technical alpine axe should be able to handle the widest variety of terrain and conditions.

Grivel Air Tech Carbon w/slider, Camp Alp Axe Special, Petzl Aztarex, Grivel Jorasses, Petzl SumTec, BD Venom

TECHNICAL ALPINE AXES

Petzl SUM’TEC (AXE)

CE / UIAA
Pick: B Rated (interchangeable ALPIX pick included)
Shaft: T Rated.
Two sizes:
- 52 cm weight: 485 grams (18oz.) with TRIGREST
- 59 cm, weight: 505 grams with TRIGREST
3-year guarantee

Like the Air Tech Carbon the Sum’Tec has a mild bend and some droop to the pick making this another great piolet between a mountain axe and technical tool.  It carries the T rating on the shaft and the B rating on the forged pick.  But what stands out most is the ability to move the hand rest up and down.  Move it up for walking, down for when you start swinging and want the support.

Petzl SUM’TEC (HAMMER)
CE / UIAA
Pick type: B
Shaft type: T
Interchangeable ALPIX pick included

Two sizes:
- 43 cm weight: 430 grams (15oz.) with TRIGREST
- 52 cm, weight: 450 grams (16oz.) with TRIGREST
3-year guarantee

The SUM’TEC HAMMER is a very lightweight and compact hammer / ice axe that can be carried in a pack for use when needed, for hammering a piton back in, tightening an anchor, or as a second tool in an unexpected ice gulley. Its forged banana-shaped ALPIX pick and the new TRIGREST handrest (adjustable without a tool) ensure the efficiency required on technical sections.

Petzl AZRAREX

Pick: B Rated. BLUEICE pick included. Interchangeable pick
Shaft: B Rated
Weight: 500 g (17.5 oz.)
Length: 50 cm
The hand rest can removed with a screwdriver or coin and stored in shaft
3-year guarantee
CE / UIAA

A very technical axe that can be configured for both snow and ice. Very lightweight for a technical axe at only 17oz. (xx grams) for either hammer or adze version. I have found this tool to have suburb performance on water ice. I’m not exactly sure why, but here are my theories. 1) Aggressive pick angle or droop. Very similar to the most advanced specialty water ice tools. In fact the pick angle is very close to the Petzl Quark, and Nomic. 2) Thin and strong pick made from the very best steel. Again very similar to both Quark and Nomic. 3) I love the balance. This axe swings with the power of a heavier tool. Possibly because the weight is so heavily concentrated in the head, with a very simple and lightweight handle (no steel or rubber in the handle). For steep water ice, I’ve come to appreciate holding and swinging this lighter weight tool over my head. I get less pumped, and have adapted my technique to rely less on a deeply placed pick, which also means less effort when removing the pick.

The Aztarex can be configured leashless, or traditional depending on the GripSwitch position chosen. With the GripSwitch in the leashless mode, I made a small modification to my tools to attach tether leashes. I drilled a ¼” hole near the very bottom of the shaft. For less technical climbs where I want a shaft that plunges well, I configure the GripSwitch in the traditional position. For some climbs I configure one tool leashless and one tool traditional.

In summary, for alpine climbs (especially those with a approach) I love the idea of saving a few ounces. Remember 4 or 5 ounces x two tools is 8-10 ounces saved. For me the Aztarex is a lightweight tool, that doesn’t compromise technical performance.

CAMP Alp Axe Special

Shaft: T Rated
Pick: T Rated
Spike: Chromoly Steel
Weight: Adze – 556 g, 19.6 oz – 50cm (20 oz.).
Weight: Hammer – 563 g, 19.9 oz – 50cm (20 oz.).
Lengths Adze: 50, 57, 65 cm.
Lengths Hammer: 50, 57 cm.

This is a high performance lightweight technical alpine tool. Available with either adze or hammer. The hammer model comes with a slightly more technical pick (steeper pick angle), and the adze model with a slightly more classic (less aggressive pick angle). The classic pick is maybe not ideal for the steepest water ice, but the trade off is a tool better equipped to chop steps, belay ledge, or god forbid a bivy site. An ideal combo for many classic alpine climbs. The AlpAxe is also available is several lengths.

The “Special” version is a real favorite of mine. CAMP has addressed the Leashless Grip vs Traditional (easy to plunge in hard snow) dilemma with the “Special” version. One of the smoothest transitions from Leashless to Traditional, and easily changed while climbing.

Black Diamond Venom

Adze – 50cm (17.5 oz.), 57cm, 64cm.
Hammer – 50cm (18oz.), 57cm.

A simple straight forward technical axe available with adze or hammer and in a variety of lengths. The hammer model comes with the more aggressive “Tech” pick, and the Adze model comes with the “Classic” pick. This would be a great choice for almost any moderate snow and ice alpine climb. A simple elegant design and moderate price make this tool a winner.

About Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson is the owner of Pro Mountain Sports in Seattle, WA.  A rock and ice climber who pushed his boundaries in a quest for adventure in the alpine. Significant climbs include a winter ascent (1986) of Mt. Slesse’s NE Buttress with Kit Lewis, an early ascent (2nd) of the Infinite Spur on Mt. Foraker with Mark Bebie (1988), and the complete South Buttress of Mt. Tiedemann, a 40 pitch rock climb in British Columbia with Carl Diedrich and Jim Ruch (1988).

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