In winter the British mountains take on an alpine character, becoming both more beautiful and potentially more dangerous. When there’s snow on the hills and ice clogging the gullys it is essential to take the right ice axe(s) for your chosen route. Choosing the right axe isn’t always straightforward though – there’s a huge variety of shapes and sizes of pickes, adzes and hammers available, and each is designed for a slightly different purpose. This buying guide highlights the features and benefits of walking, alpine and technical axes, plus some of the different leash systems and accessories available.
Hill walking in winter can be more akin to full on mountaineering than summer hill walking. You need the full kit including crampons and at least a single walking axe. Your axe offers stability on snowy terrain, with a pick for security when embedded in névé or in ice axe arrest mode, and a shovel (adze) to cut steps and dig belay positions.
The simplest walking axes are straight shafted. This makes the axe spike easy to plunge into snow and lends stability when zig-zagging up moderate snow slopes. This shape is also easy to manoeuvre in self-arrest mode.
Walking axes are typically 50 to 70cm long. Broadly speaking, the taller you are the longer your ice axe should be. However beware of going too long as it may become unwieldy, particularly when self arresting. Also consider that you should always be holding your walking axe in the uphill hand. The greater the slope angle the harder it becomes to plunge a long shafted axe in the slope above you.
For Munro bagging, Welsh or Lake District fell walking, alpine glacier crossings and non-technical snow ascents the simple straight shafted walking axe is likely to be a good choice.
Both the classic Grivel Brenva and the Black Diamond Raven with Grip offer fantastic value and include a leash to keep your axe securely by your side.
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There is a broad spectrum of mountaineering that lies between snowy walking and full on technical climbing; think Scottish winter mountaineering up to grade II or III or alpine routes to around AD. These routes may be snowed up scrambles like Ledge Route or steepening gullys like Number 2 gully on Ben Nevis. If you expect to encounter some steep ground like this, a semi-technical ‘alpine’ axe (or pair of axes) will be much more appropriate than a walking axe.
The design combines a straight lower shaft (to facilitate plunging) and a slightly curved upper shaft (giving an easier swing with better clearance). These axes tend to be 50 to 60cm long. The slightly shorter length allows for a more comfortable and accurate swing when used in ‘climbing’ mode. However they are still comfortable to carry and use in ‘walking’ mode.
For extra adaptability across a range of walking, mountaineering and low to mid-grade climbing routes, it is possible to get both adze and hammer versions of the axe. Perhaps one day you do the CMD arête on Ben Nevis and take a single axe on this grade I route. Then next day you tackle Number 2 Gully which at grade II merits taking an adze/hammer pair. Semi-technical alpine axes come into their own when you need this versatility.
One of the best models in this category is the Black Diamond Venom which is beautifully engineered with a modular head that allows different picks to be used. Another option is the the DMM Fly, which sits at the top end of this sector as a great entry level climbing tool.
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Fully curved with steep pick angles and protective lower hand rests, the modern technical axe will make any winter climb easier. The curved shaft clears obstacles and presents the pick to the ice at an ideal angle for stable placements.
The standard approach is to carry one adze and one hammer. The adze allows you to scrape rime away from cracks or other potential protection placements, or excavate an ice axe belay or bollard. The hammer is there to bash pitons into thin cracks, or to ensure that hex and nut placements are as stable as they can be. With this combination you will be prepared for pretty much any Scottish winter climb of any grade, though they will really be in their element in the mid to high grades (say III to VII).
The current Petzl Quark is superb; highly adaptable across different styles of climbing, it can be stripped down as a minimal alpine axe or maxed out with Griprest and Trigrest for leashless climbing on technical routes. The Black Diamond Viper is the other established king in this category, while the DMM Apex is the new kid on the block with an excellent, aggressive feel.
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Dedicated to the art of steep and highly technical ice, mixed and dry-tooling climbs, the latest generation of top end tools has settled around the use of offset handles. The handle is designed to be more ergonomic with a more comfortable wrist position and increased stability on skittish pick placements and shallow hooks. These axes are specifically intended to be used ‘leashless’, leaving hands free to exploit the upper handrest and match up on one axe if needed.
These top end axes are always used as a pair, usually with minimal hammer set ups rather than with a full size adze and hammer. The adze is unnecessary on really steep ground, but might be dangerous if a tool popped out close to your face! Also beware of the walk in as the complex shafts won’t plunge.
The original (and for many still the best) is the Petzl Nomic, which is great on steep continental ice falls as well as mixed routes. Others that have followed suit using similar designs include the Black Diamond Fusion, while their Fuel tools offer leashless performance at a superb price.
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Losing a tool is a nightmare scenario for the winter climber. Drop an axe and you could be in a lot of bother, which is why leashes are a great addition to your axe set up.
Traditional leashes attach your wrist direct to the top of the shaft. Along with preventing the axe from being lost, the leash can take some of the weight which can make gripping the axe less strenuous. There are variations on the theme with some leashes giving a very simple (and hard to escape!) attachment while others slide open to release the hand. The best option for technical climbing is probably the clipper leash which stays attached to your wrist but unclips easily from the shaft (for instance when placing ice screws). A classic example here is Black Diamond's Cobra/Viper Android Leash.
Elastic lanyards are an increasingly popular alternative to normal leashes. A length of stretchy webbing links the bottom of each axe to your harness. The result is full manoeuvrability and ‘leashless’ freedom without the worry that you might lose a tool. Spring leashes are available for one axe or a pair, and some come with rotating axles that help prevent tangled webbing – check out the Black Diamond Spinner Leash.
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Technical tools come with modular picks, allowing you to replace worn or damaged picks and avoid having to replace the whole axe. You may also want to keep two different pick styles handy; a pair of thinner B rated ice-specific picks and a pair of chunkier T rated picks for mixed climbing. This way you can suit the picks to the climb on a daily basis.
Replacement adze and hammer units are available for most technical models, along with pick weights (which change the balance and force of axe swings) and moveable hand/trigger rests to improve comfort.
Lastly whichever axes you choose, they will be capable of inflicting some serious damage on your GORE-TEX clothing unless you stash them carefully! You can prevent torn gear by covering the sharp bits with point protectors and axe guards.
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