A guide to ice tools for walkers and climbers

Posted by Daniel Middleton on 18/12/2013
A typical technical axe

The winter hills are demanding, but those who persevere can reap great rewards. Whether you’re traversing majestic snow-clad ridges or mastering the techniques of mixed climbing - to make the most of the winter playground you need the right tools for the job.

There are many different flavours of winter mountaineering, and the range of different types of ice tool reflects this. Walkers will carry a single ice axe, but as the ground blurs between mountaineering and technical climbing, a pair of tools comprising an axe and a hammer becomes the norm.

Walking axes

Typical walking axe. Photo: Black Diamond

An important function of a walking axe is to provide extra stability when walking on snow and ice, to help prevent slips and trips. Logic suggests a long shaft is best for this. This may be so, but the other main function of the axe is to provide a means of self arresting in the event of a slip or slide. A shorter shaft makes this easier, so a compromise has to be made. Depending on their height, most people opt for a walking axe 55-65cm in length. The ideal pick shape is gently curved for a smooth self arrest. Make sure that the axe fits comfortably in the hand when held with the pick facing backwards. A good sized adze will help when chopping bollards, or digging ledges and bucket seats.

Mountaineering axes

A mountaineering axe. Photo: DMM

Expanding your horizons onto easy climbing ground means an upgrade in your axe. A more durable forged pick will stand up better to the rigors of climbing, where rock and turf may be encountered. A more steeply curved pick with more teeth will dig deeper into the ice when pulled on. Whilst better for climbing, this makes self arrest quite tricky so take care.  For climbing, a good, grippy shaft and simple leash will be useful additions. A slight reduction in length compared to a walking axe will make the axe easier to wield when climbing, without reducing its performance as a walking stick too much.

Technical tools

Typical technical ice tool. Photo: Petzl

As the ground steepens further, a pair of tools becomes necessary. An axe with an adze is paired with a hammer for placing beaks, warthogs and pegs. Reverse curve or “banana” picks come into their own for climbing steep ice and mixed ground, but self arresting becomes even more difficult. The modern trend is to go leash-less.  Radically curved shafts and hand rests combined with spring leashes have revolutionised climbing at the top end of the sport, and the benefits hold true even on most middle grades routes around IV and V. Many modern tools are modular, meaning picks and sometimes adzes and hammers can be replaced. Head weights can be fitted to some tools to improve penetration in hard alpine ice.

Standards and ratings

The CEN standard for ice tools is EN13089:2011, with the UIAA 152 safety label being broadly similar with a few additional requirements. The CEN standard has two categories, based on the strength of the shaft and pick. The category should be clearly marked on the shaft of the tool.

B: Basic. These are basic tools with the minimum necessary strengths for pick and shaft. Tools are suitable for glacier travel, ski mountaineering and winter walking where reduced weight is important.

T: Technical. Technical tools have a higher strength pick and shaft, important for technical ice and mixed climbing but also for mountaineering where tools may need to form part of a belay.

PPE Cat2: Not tested to the CEN standard. Radical tools only suitable for dry tooling and competitions.

A PPE Cat2 tool. Photo: Grivel

Choice of pick

To make things slightly confusing, some manufacturers offer CEN-T rated technical tools with CEN-B rated picks. This allows a thinner pick which is better for pure ice climbing. For mountaineering and mixed climbing, a CEN-T rated pick will be much more durable and less likely to break when contact with rock is made.

Checking your tools

Don't let this happen to you. Photo: BMC

Winter is a harsh environment - tools can and will break. If your tools are modular, carry a spare pick as these are most at risk of damage or failure. It is important to check critical areas at the start of the winter season. If you are particularly active, you may want to check more regularly, because a tool breaking can be extremely serious midway through a bold winter climb.

Thin fatigue cracks can start to form on picks, initiating from a tooth, and may need a magnifying glass to spot. Check for impact damage to the shaft, especially near the join with the head of the tool. Cracks may grow which may result in the shaft failing when loaded. Sharp picks make a big difference on ice, less so on mixed routes. Use a medium flat file and don’t use power tools, which will ruin the heat treatment.

And finally....

As with any tool, know how to use it. Learn how to self arrest with your axe. Always pick somewhere safe to practice, and don’t forget to learn the other useful skills such as building bollards and belaying off of your axes.

Watch our winter walking and climbing skills series on BMC TV:


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