Ice axes have been around since the beginning of modern mountaineering. Over the decades, however, much has changed. Even though ice axes in their current form are considered technically mature ice tools, there are still a range of technical innovations. This can be very confusing when you’re looking to buy one, and the question quickly arises, “Which is the correct ice tool for me?” Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in this field, so the perfect tool depends on your personal needs.
The original ice tool is the ice axe. Conventional ice axes fall mostly into Category B of the European Standard. These basic units are designed for universal use in light to medium terrain. They can be used as a pole replacement when walking, as a tool to create steps, as an additional support when climbing smaller ice and snow flanks and as an anchor and rescue device.
Modern ice axes generally have aluminium shafts, currently only Grivel produce a model with a wooden shaft. However, this is not a relic from the distant past, but a modern and innovative product that gives mountaineering back a little of its former charm. The picks are mainly straight to slightly rounded and the serrations are not sharp. A leash prevents you losing the pick and the tip provides support on the glacier. Depending on the terrain, hybrid picks with a slightly curved shaft and aggressive picks have been used more frequently in recent years.
Customers who find what they are looking for in this product segment tend to fit the image of the “classic mountain climber”. Their terrain is glacier touring and alpine peaks, which can usually be reached without major ice scrambling. Classic ice axes or hybrid ice axes are also generally used on alpine ski tours.
When buying an ice axe, you should also pay attention to the optimal shaft length as well as the suitable model. To determine the correct length, the following principle applies: On the hanging arm the axe held by the head should reach to just above the ground.
According to the European certification, ice tools fall into Category T (technical equipment). Products in this classification range from relatively moderate hybrid picks to ice axes for use in extreme terrain. In contrast to classic ice axes, the shafts of these ice tools are curved not straight. This means they are more energy-efficient and protect the fingers, especially when the ice is irregular. Generally speaking, the more extreme the terrain, the more angled the shaft. The picks of ice tools are considerably more curved than ice axes. The strongly downward-curved shape and the aggressive serrations and tips ensure that a good grip is achieved even in overhanging passages. Depending on the use, ice tools can also be equipped with hand straps. For extreme climbing, these are foregone in favour of loops. In this case ice tools with special, graduated grip zones are used. These are usually adjustable, so they can be adapted to fit your hand size and individual needs. Most ice tools also have a tip beneath the handle. This is designed in such a way that the climber can attach a carabiner. This means that the ice tool can also be used as a temporary intermediate protection point, for example when setting ice screws. Ice tools are generally slightly heavier than ice axes. This is because of the higher impact force.
Alpine ice climbing
Ice climbers who enjoy rambling around large ice walls and firn flanks are alpinists in their heart and mind rather than athletes. As a result, this is also the area where the most comprehensive ice tools are used. Classically, one ice tool has a hammer and the other has a shovel. This allows loose and crumbling ice to be removed quickly and effortlessly, whilst ice nails and bolts can be hammered in with the other hand. Tools in this segment usually also have hand straps. These relieve the hands during long tours and prevent you losing the ice tool. These kinds of tools can also be useful for ascents and descends.
Classic ice climbing
Classic ice climbing is a steep ascent. Vertical and overhanging ice walls are common. This type of ice climbing requires very technical equipment. The picks and shafts are strongly curved for good grip in the ice. The serrations and the tip are generally razor-sharp and the pick bites into ice as if it were pudding. Leashes are not usually used as they would hinder the grip and general freedom of movement too much. A hammer and shovel are also usually done without in favour of performance and reduced risk of injury. However, they have an adjustable grip area and finger protection for better grip. Due to their strong curvature and the construction optimised for steep ice, ice tools of this type are not really suitable as walking aids for ascending and descending.
Dry tooling and mixed tours are probably the most extreme forms of ice climbing. Tours of this type are comparatively short but sometimes extremely challenging, as you climb not just on ice but also on rock. Similar to classic ice climbing, strongly curved ice tools without leashes, hammers and shovels are used. Due to the extremely strong curvature they offer maximum performance even in overhanging passages and on thin ice. The serrations and the tip are generally less sharp than tools used in classic ice climbing. This is because of the increased rock contact. This makes the metal blunt more quickly, and also means that there is extreme force on the pick. The head of this tool is also serrated, which enables it to be wedged into the rock.
The pick is the most stressed component in ice tools. This is also where most damage occurs. When used regularly in mixed terrain, the pick is subject to heavy wear and tear and may break. This can lead to serious problems, especially on long and technically challenging routes. For classic and alpine ice climbing, it is therefore recommended to use ice tools with changeable picks and to always carry a spare pick and tools in your rucksack.
To the point
The success of a tour depends not only on physical condition and ability, but also to a large extent on your equipment. Therefore you should also adapt your ice tools and picks to the route you are taking. A vertical ice tool is just as inappropriate when crossing a glacier as a classic ice axe when dry tooling. Therefore, the old principle should be taken to heart: the more extreme the terrain, the more extreme the equipment.