person using ice axe and crampons to climb icy gullyperson using ice axe and crampons to climb icy gully

How To Choose An Ice Axe

Ice Axe Terminology


diagram of an ice axediagram of an ice axe


In winter, the British mountains take on an alpine character becoming more beautiful yet 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 wide variety of shapes and sizes of picks, 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.

Walking Ice Axes

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.

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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.

Alpine Ice Axes

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.

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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.

Technical Ice Axes

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).

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Offset Handle Axes

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.

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Ice Axe Leashes

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. These are mainly seen on walking axes. For climbing, the most popular leash is an elastic lanyard style which is attached from the harness to the bottom spike of your axe(s). 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.

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Ice Axe Accessories

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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Two men walking on iceTwo men walking on ice