An ice axe is a critical piece of mountain equipment. Not only does it need to be suited for the terrain you will be encountering on a given peak, but it also needs to be sized correctly. As with most gear, the array of choices can be overwhelming, so we are going to break down some of the options and what is best suited for different terrain.
For moderate terrain (think the Disappointment Cleaver Route on Mt. Rainier) you will want a classic, straight-shafted axe. This is what most people think of when looking for an axe. The straight shaft allows the axe to be used like a walking stick, while the pick angle and longer shaft combine for good leverage in the case of a self-arrest. In addition to use during glacial travel, an axe like Petzl’s Glacier Ice Axe provides lightweight performance with a steel pick and an adze for chopping tent platforms or building a snow anchor.
For moderate terrain, you will want to size your ice axe a little longer than you might otherwise. While grasping the head of the axe (between the pick and adze), the spike should come about to your ankle bone. This allows the spike to contact the snow while walking without having to uncomfortably bend over.
In steeper terrain (think the Kautz Glacier Route on Mt. Rainier) you will want a hybrid-style ice axe like the Petzl Sum’tec. This type of axe adds a slight bend and a hand rest to a standard axe in order to provide adaptability for fluctuating terrain and slop angles throughout a climb. Hybrid axes also generally feature a more drooped pick angle and shape (to provide a better swing into ice) and the ability to switch the adze for a hammer to fit your needs.
For steep terrain, you want your hybrid axe to be sized shorter than a classic axe. This is necessary because as you climb steeper slopes, a longer axe will start to become too long, and risk catching on the rope, rocks, and other terrain. Generally, hybrid axes are sized between 50-59cm, with a preference toward being too short rather than too long.
Steep to Vertical Terrain
When getting into very steep or vertical terrain, the route may require the use of two axes – generally one hybrid axe, and one ice tool; or potentially two ice tools for truly vertical terrain and beyond. Ice tools are even more specialized than hybrid axes: with a more drooped pick, the ability to use a hammer or adze, a bent shaft, and full hand and finger rests. The Petzl Quark is a great example of an ice tool.
Generally, for an ice tool you are going to be looking less at the length of the shaft, and more at the features of the tool. You’ll want to consider several different options depending on the route in question. Different picks for the medium you will be climbing (water ice, alpine ice, mixed, or rock). Different head accessories like an adze or hammer. Different angles of the shaft, and different handles. Ice tools are feature-rich, and provide very specific solutions to unique climbing problems.
No matter which route or mountain you are adding to your proverbial tick-list, there is an ice axe that will do the job and do it well. And of course, if you still have questions about what to get or how to size it, call or email and we’ll be happy to help.