Everything you need to know about choosing an all-round ice axe by Paul Lewis.
The Lord of the Swings – choosing one axe to rule them all - everything
you need to know about choosing a general-purpose ice axe this winter
by Winter Mountain Leader, Paul Lewis.
Adore Your Tool
I love my ice axe. I know its weird and I should just say
that I don’t mean love in the cuddle up on the sofa with it and watch a
good DVD with a bottle of chilled Chardonnay kind of way.
But I do love it in a faithful companion who’s shared some great
adventures and is always there for me kind of way – and yes, I know
that’s still weird. But hey, if you’re feeling a bit jealous
about my metal and I, don’t despair – just read these top tips and
you’ll find your perfect match too!
Whilst forged one piece axe heads are the bee’s knees, nowadays they
are unfortunately becoming harder to find than the ozone
layer! The new trend is for axe heads made from stamped
metal. These will do their job just fine but make sure the
head is durable enough and has enough weight in it for an effective
swing. For general mountain use you should also ensure it’s made of
steel rather than the alloy ones which are designed for specialist
things like ultra-lightweight ski touring and ascending 8000ers.
The axe pick should be gently curved to allow it to grip in snow but
not too curved or it will snatch in fall arrest
situations. Some axe picks have teeth that are just
placed in the first few inches of the underside of the pick whilst some
go all the way up to where the pick meets the top of the
My experience of using a variety of axes has shown me it is better not
to have teeth all the way up as this doesn’t greatly improve its
holding power and can also make the axe uncomfortable to hold - and
those teeth can really chew up your gloves.
The curve from the pick should then continue smoothly over the head of
the axe which will make it comfortable to grip. When you go
into the shops its worth taking some gloves and trying holding lots of
models – on big mountain days you’ll be carrying your axe for a long
time in this position and if its shape starts hurting your hand you’ll
be more likely to put it away and not have it available when you really
The adze just needs to be of a good cutting size, slightly scooped and
not too steeply angled. The pick and adze don’t need to be
too sharp for what you want this axe to do, so either let them blunt up
a bit with use or smooth the sharp bits a little with a hand file –
Gore-Tex and sharp don’t mix!
Size Does Matter
If you Google 'ice axe length' you’ll be faced with lots of opinions on
the best length for your tool. Old school thinking always
said that your axe should be two inches off the floor when you held the
head in your hand and stood with your arm down by your side.
The trouble with this is that it makes you axe hard to use for anything
other than as a walking stick.
In my opinion it’s best to choose an axe of about 55cm (about the same
length as a technical climbing tool) regardless of your
height. This length will allow efficient ice axe braking, cut
steps, perform axe belays, provide good support on steep ground, swing
efficiently when climbing and store easily on you sack.
Get A Grip
In ye olde alpenstock day’s wood ruled for axe shaft construction and
it’s certainly true that Sylvester Stallone managed some wicked
manoeuvres with a wooden axe in Cliffhanger. The trouble is
that wood is unpredictable and has been known to fail without warning
and Cliffhanger was only made up (I know that’s hard to believe!) –
alloy is the modern way to go.
Oval alloy tubing is strong, provides a good shape for your hand to
grip and is dependable in use. A simple but solid spike at
the bottom of the shaft will allow you to plunge the axe easily into
Some form of rubber grip on the lower part of the shaft will aid
hold-on-ability and insulate your pinkies, but try to avoid axes where
the grip material is too raised from the shaft as it will wear quickly
and get in the way when you are plunging your shaft into snow.
Some models come without any shaft grip but you can make your own using
some climbing finger tape or, even better, some purpose made strips of
the super grippy adhesive sandpaper material sold by Grivel.
It’s expensive for what it is but works brilliantly and lasts well – or
try getting some skateboard deck covering material from your local
board shop. This is essentially the same thing but a lot
Axe shafts and picks are rated by the criteria of UIAA standard 152
(which in turn are based on EN standard 13089). It’s worth noting that
the UIAA standard 152 has additional requirements to the EN standard on
which it is based. That all sounds pretty heavy and you have
probably dozed off - but if you do like that type of techno babble all
the technical testing standards can be found on the UIAA website.
Really the essential facts you need to know are that axes and picks are
given either a B (basic) or T (technical) rating. B rated axes are
lower strength and are designed for use in general circumstances such
as snow mountaineering, glacier travel and ski
Components that are T rated have passed the most stringent tests and
are designed to cope in all circumstances including such high stress
activities as ice climbing and dry tooling. The rating will
be shown by either a B or T in a circle on the shaft and pick of the
Colour is very important. At all costs make sure your axe
colour matches the colour of your Gore-Tex. Its such bad form
to clash in the couloir ... only joking on this one of course! [You
might be... ed.]
Ice axes are now available that only weigh 2 nanograms and have helium
filled shafts (maybe!). The problem with today’s obsession
with lightness is that a general-purpose axe needs some weight to allow
a good swing for efficient step cutting and good penetration in hard
Axes also take a lot of abuse and ultralight materials just aren’t
going to be as durable for long term mountain use. Despite
the desire to get your total pack weight down to 600grams this is one
area where you need some clout.
Ice axe leashes are good for providing support when step cutting and
preventing you dropping your axe. They are bad for
zig-zagging up a slope where you need to change hands
regularly. The answer is a simple leash that can be detached
from the axe easily when not needed.
The easiest solution is a simple slider closure style tape leash that
can be larks footed through the hole at the top of your axe
head. Even better if it’s compact enough to carry in your
jacket pocket as this will mean you always have it to hand when
If you do decide to have it permanently attached to your axe don’t
leave it dangling down as that’s a sure fire way to snag it in crampon
points just when you really don’t want to. One way to keep
things neat if you leave it attached is to wrap the tape several times
around the axe pick and trap it in place with your hand.
Carrying And Storage
You’ve found your trusty partner. It’s a marriage made in
heaven. Well now you need to treat that puppy with respect –
and luckily axes don’t take much caring for. Just make sure
its dry before storage and don’t store it in a damp place because rust
will develop quickly.
If you use those little rubber pick and spike protectors make sure they
are removed for storage as it’s easy to trap moisture underneath. Apart
from that just periodically give your axe a once over looking for signs
of metal fatigue, excessive wear and any damage to the rivets that
connect everything together – job done.
The best way to carry your axe is to place it vertically (axe head at
the top!) down the side compression straps on your rucksack and ignore
the fiddly carrying system sewn onto the sac by the
manufacturers. These leave all sorts of sharp metal bits
pointing up at partner gouging level and also make it likely that
things will get caught on all the spiky bits.
I witnessed a very messy ice axe spike meets face incident on the
Aiguille de Midi Telepherique a couple of years ago which certainly
showed the damage that can be done. Storing your axe in the compression
straps also makes it quick to deploy, but if you need your tool to hand
more quickly just slide it between your back and the back of your
rucksack with the axe tip exiting above the lower strap attachment
point in a Robin Hoods arrows stylee.
Of course, the very best way to really look the part is to always have
your axe in your hand when you really need it.
Take Your Pick
So you know what to look for but which axe do you choose?
Fortunately, like most modern kit, there are very few bad axes out
there if you select one from a reputable manufacturer. The
important thing to decide is what you are going to be using the axe for
and whether you are in the ‘light is right’ brigade or whether you want
something so well constructed you can pass it on to your
grandchildren. It also obviously depends how much you want to
Here are few of my current favourites to point you in the right
The Petzl Cosmique
is a very sturdy T-rated forged head axe with a well-shaped adze and
durable rubber shaft grip. At around 650 grams (depending on
length) its not particularly light, but it feels beautifully weighted
and will power easily into even the hardest snow and ice. At
about £90 it isn’t particularly cheap but it's so well made
it will probably be the only one you will ever buy.
do a lighter version of the Petzl Cosmique called, you guessed it, the Petzl Cosmique Light
This is about 100 grams lighter, about £15 cheaper but is
B-rated and has no shaft grip. Another excellent axe.
I haven’t used the Grivel
but it has a good feel in the hand and has all the
features you would want. It has apparently been designed with
the Scottish mountaineer in mind and has a slight curve to the shaft to
aid self-arrest. It is t-rated, has a forged head and weighs around 480
grams (without the leash that comes with it). The Brenva
costs around £80 and in my experience you won’t go far wrong
with anything made by Grivel.
The Grivel Munro
is a real bargain at about £40. A simple stripped down design
and fairly light at around 470 grams (including leash) for the 55cm
model. The Munro is B-rated, has no shaft grip and the head
is drop forged steel.
Black Diamond’s Raven
is a great axe that looks very cool and well made – typical BD
really. Fortunately, its performance matches its
looks! The head is made from investment cast stainless steel
and it sits very comfortably in the hand. There are four
versions available but the Raven and Raven Grip are the best general
The Raven weighs in at about 485 grams but has no shaft grip whereas
the Raven Grip is the same tool with a smart grip and weighing about
570 grams. They cost about £65 and £70 respectively
and both come with a slider leash.
Try Them Out...
So there are a few options out of the many models available.
The best thing to do is call into your local gear shop and try some out
for yourself. By swinging them and seeing how they feel in
your hand you will soon get an idea which feels best for you.
Just remember not to rush into a decision – in the words of Phil
Collins…. you can’t hurry
Please bear in mind that this article is written for mountaineers
choosing a general purpose axe for hillwalking and easy gully
climbing. Obviously this information is only my opinion and
if you choose to follow it you do so entirely at your own
risk. If you are in any doubt of the techniques or issues
described please check before you do anything dangerous.
About the author:
Paul Lewis is is the owner of Peak Mountaineering
and a Winter Mountain Leader. Peak Mountaineering offers a full range
of winter courses and full details can be found at
Here's his comprehensive take on crampon
selection, use, maintenance and more.