When it comes to choosing Ice Axes, you are not short of choice! The amount of ice axes on the wall of your local climbing shop can be both confusing and intimidating. There is no need to worry though, with this simple explanation we will guide you through your choice and ensure you can buy the perfect tool for your adventures.
Mountaineering or Climbing?
The first choice when it comes to Ice Axes comes down to what you intend to use it for. You will either need a Mountaineering Ice Axe, or a pair of Climbing Ice Axes.
If your goals in WInter are Walking and Trekking based, then a single Mountaineering Axe is for you. If your goals are graded Winter Climbs, then you will need a pair of Climbing Axes. Lets look at each in turn:
Mountaineering Ice Axe
The mountaineering axe is one of the essential tools for mountaineering. Whether you aspire to long walks in the Scottish Highlands, Beautiful Ridges in WInter or Classic Alpine Routes such as Trois Monts to Mont Blanc, then you need a mountaineering axe.
What to Look For?
What's it made of?
Although wooden ice axes are retro cool, these should be avoided. They are unlikely to be strong enough to reallytake a battering, and most wooden axes are quite old now. Also avoid the "superlight" ice axes. These rae great for Ski Touring, but are not sufficient for mountaineering.
If you read some old-school mountaineering books they will tell you that an Ice Axe should be long enough to reach your ankle when the head is held in your hand with a straight arm. After these books were written there was also a "trend" to carry very short axes. As a general rule, longer axes are much better for your back (as you have to bend less) but too long and they become cumbersome and in the way.
Mountaineering axes tend to come in 50cm, 55cm, 60cm and 65cm. Other lengths are available but these are the most common. I am 5' 11'' and carry a 55cm mountaineering axe. I would suggest that this is the most common length. If you are much taller, a 60cm is likely to be more comfortable.
Axes will come with either a "B" or "T" rating. These stand for Basic and Technical. Essentially, a "T" rated shaft is strong enough to belay from, a "B" rated shaft is not. "B" rated axes should be fine for most hillwalking and trekking. If you are planning some lofty mountaineering goals, a "T" rate axe would be better.
Mountaineering axes are either straight, or have a slight bend. Avoid the Banana shaped shafts of technical climbing axes, as these are much harder to plunge in the snow.
There are lots of other "extras" with axes. Personally, I do not use a leash with my axe as it can get caught on your crampons and see you tripping over an edge! The only exception to this is when cutting steps, as I do not want my axe to fly out of my hand. I carry a leash or sling in my bag for these occasions.
We love the DMM Raptor and DMM Cirque. These are brilliant Ice Axes with a sensible price! Other good options include the Petzl Summit and Black Diamond Venom.
Climbing Ice Axes
Climbing Ice Axes come in a huge variety of shapes and it is easy to either be completely confused, or to buy the wrong thing.
Most climbing axes are metal, but there are a few Carbon Fibre models. These are excellent, they reduce the vibration through the shaft and, crucially, are not cold to touch like metal axes. They are, however, VERY expensive!
There are a variety of shapes of Climbing Axe. These can roughly be divided into the following (hover on Image for description):
Broadly speaking, all of the above can be used for technical climbing, but are best suited to different needs.
Generally, leashes for climbing axes are considered "old hat." Climbers now tend to use axes with pommels on the bottom of the shaft; axes that are designed to be used "leashless".
However, if you are a beginner, or looking for a good deal then a straight-handled axe with leashes may be a good option. Leashes go around your wrist and are designed to take some of the weight, which means you do not need to grip the axe as tightly. Good deals can be found on popular auction sites!
Most climbers will now use leashless axes and for good reason. Not having the axe tied to your wrist allows much more freedom of movement. You can move your hands around the axes, swap hands, and shake out with ease. I would reccomend using a tether though, to ensure you dont drop them! Here is a good one: Dmm Freedom
Handle with Pommel
These axes are well suited to General Winter Climbing and Mountaineering. The big advantage over the next axe is that these axes are still a shape that can be plunged into the snow. The also usually have a substantial spike at the bottom. This means they can be used to safeguard you on the way to, and from your climb of choice. An excellent choice of axe for most climbers. I reccoment the Black Diamond Viper and Cobra, the DMM Apex and the Petzl Quarks.
These axes are very well suited to harder Mixed and Ice climbs. Although the previous axe can be used up to some very hard grades of climbing, the shape and ease of use of these axes is better suited, especially above Grade V. These do tend to be a specialist tool, however, and most do not have a hammer or an adze, which many will miss, especially in Scottish Winter. I reccomend the Petzl Nomic and DMM Switch.
So There you have it! Hopefully this has given you a better idea of what is out there. I would suggest the folowing:
If you are after a tool for General Mountaineering and Mountain Walking, then a single Mountaineering axe is for you.
Most Winter Climbers will use a Climbing axe with a Handle and Pommel. This is, realistically, the best suited axe for those operating in the lower to middle grade range (up to Grade Vish).
If you are climbing hard mixed and ice, then an axe with an ergomonic handle may well be for you.
Like a lot of climbers, I have axes from each of the categories above for various types of climbing, and select the axe I take out based on what is most appropriate for the day's objectives. Personally, I use the Petzl Sum'Tec as my mountaineering axe, the Black Diamond Cobras and the Petzl Nomics for Winter Climbing, and I love them all!!
Be safe this winter! Always think ahead.
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