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Ice Tool Buying Guide
For Mountaineers and Climbers

I also like to climb ice. I like swinging the tools and the feel of a blade as it carves into a hunk of hard ice.

Ice tools come in a quagmire of shapes and options. As much as you'd like to take each for a test spin, you just don't have the time nor the funds. Depressing until you consider this: You can throw out half the tools simply by deciding if you are a mountaineer, or a technical ice climber.

Mountaineering tools, like the sort you'd use to cruise Mount Rainier, bag all the 14ers in Colorado, trudge up the cattle path on Mont Blanc, or mount on the wall to impress the ladies, all have straight and longish shafts, gently-curved "classic" picks, and most have one-piece non-modular heads.

Technical ice tools, like the type you'd use to tackle vertical pillars, ravage the North Face of the Eiger, and dry-tool up Jeff Lowe's latest M8, are vastly different. These have short, usually bent shafts, modular heads, and a variety of gruesome-looking picks. We'll cover each and every juicy detail in good time, but first let's grab the shafts.

The shaft on a mountaineering tool is straight because this design best serves the mountaineer's most basic needs: those for a walking stick and snow anchor. I'll catch heat from the mountain farts for calling their tool a "walking stick," but that's really how you often use it. In loose scree you use your straight-shafted tool for balance. On snowed-up glaciers you use it as a poker to root out hidden crevasses. And on snow or ice slopes you sag over the tool to catch your breath and make the spots go away. When your mountaineering tool isn't propping you up, you often stab or stomp it into the snow and use it as an anchor.

Bent shafts are for steep, technical climbing, although you do see some folks using them to bag peaks. Maybe they know something I don't.

The bend in a shaft is supposed to do three things. 1) Keep your knuckles from smashing into the ice. 2) Provide an ergonomic swing. 3) Give the shaft the clearance necessary for swinging over bulges.

Most bent tools succeed at some or all of the above, but this really depends as much on your technique as it does on the tool's design - unless you have good form you are going to pulverize your knuckles, bent shaft or no. When you're checking out a bent shaft keep in mind that it will only feel natural if it complements your swing - just because your buddy is in love with Tool X doesn't mean it will work for you.

There are lots of shaft designs out there, some have two bends, others one, some are curved like a banana, others like an S. Who is to say which is best - demo them until you find a bend that swings like it grew out of your arm. If you can't get a bent shaft that suits you, go straight. Numerous technical tools are available with straight shafts, which are a smart choice for those alpinists who want a tool that will do well on the flows and seeps, and get them by in the mountains.

Shaft material
They make beer cans out of aluminum for a couple good reasons. Aluminum is cheap and strong. The majority of ice and mountaineering tools have aluminum shafts. These are strong, too. A couple are even inexpensive.

A few tools deviate from the norm and incorporate exotic materials, such as carbon fiber and fiberglass, into the shaft. While such tools are strong and lightweight, they also cost a small fortune. Millionaires and sponsored climbers should consider a pair of these hopped-up tools. The rest of us, however, are wasting time dwelling on the foibles of materials. What really counts is how a tool feels. Cheap, poorly balanced tools feel "tinny" or bouncy when you bash them against hard things like ice. This is, however, not a problem if you only scamper up a peak or hit the pillars once a year. In fact, for occasional use, I recommend going cheap. Save your money for hot grub and a soft bed.

For those of you who take your ice and snow seriously, spend the extra bucks and get a real tool. A quick in-shop check is to bang the head of your prospective tool against something solid. If it feels flimsy or vibrates it might be good for tuning pianos, but not ice. A satisfying klonk is more like it.

Consider how a tool hefts and whacks, then examine the grip. The tool should feel comfortable in hand. If you have small hands, a fat-shafted tool will be hard to grip, and you'll tire quickly when you swing that pup overhead, which is most every time when you're on ice. How a tool grips, however, also depends on the type of handwear you'll be using. Bulky mitts make gripping thick shafts even more tiresome for small hands. The lesson: Wear your gloves and mitts when you are tool shopping.

To help you keep hold of your tool, most technical numbers have rubber-covered shafts. A sticky shaft, however, is hardly ideal for mountaineering. For snow climbing, a svelte, slick shaft will punch a cleaner hole in hard crust, and is less likely to ice up. If you like the insulation of a rubber-covered shaft, wrap the grip with friction tape, or get one of those models that only has rubber over the area just above the spike.

Easy: long tools for snow, short for technical ice and mixed. The exact length depends on your height, arm length, and climbing style. I'm five-ten with a plus four ape index. For me, a 70 or 75-cm axe is a comfortable length for snow slogging, and 50cm tools give me the right reach for steep ice, yet aren't so long they get in the way in chimneys and other nooks. These lengths seem about right for most everyone I've ever climbed with, but don't take anything as law - adjust up or down to accommodate your physique, mood, and quirks.

Modular or no?
Mountaineers who only punch up snowfields have no reason to get a modular tool. Modular tools are expensive, complicated, and heavy. For strict mountaineering, a fixed-head axe with a classic, moderately curved pick (the best sort to self-arrest with) will do the job, and save you big bucks 2E

Think you might venture onto the steeper stuff? Then consider a semi-modular tool that has interchangeable picks, but comes with either a fixed adze (or axe) or hammerhead. Such a tool will let you insert the classic pick and play Walter Bonatti kicking steps up neve. When that fun has worn off, you can yank out the pick, insert the reversed-curved one, and go lay waste to vertical ice pillars.

Fully modular tools, the ones meant for hard-core ice and mixed climbing, have interchangeable picks and interchangeable hammerheads and adzes. The idea behind all this adjustability seems great: You can fine tune the components (climb with two hammers, for example) to suit any climbing condition or style. The reality, though, is that almost no one ever swaps out the adzes and hammerheads. I've had modular tools for 15 years and have never changed anything but the picks. Unfortunately, everyone seems to believe that they need fully modular tools, hence almost all good ice tools meet this demand.

You're stuck with modular tools, so make the most of it. The best you can do is get a tool (or tools, since you need two for anything technical) that lets you change its components with a single wrench, or better, no wrench at all (some spikes and adzes are designed to fit the tool's head bolt). Steer clear of fancy designs that require numerous head bolts or roll pins to keep the picks in place. All that complexity makes the components more likely to rattle loose, plus it's easy to lose the nuts and bolts in the snow.

Hammer or axe?
Mountaineering axes have adze blades, which are useful for cutting the occasional step or belay stance. Modular, technical tools give you a choice between an adze blade or hammerhead. Most ice climbers do their work with one of each. They use the hammer to drive pitons, hammer-ins, and hooks, and use the adze to chop away rotten, surface ice. A few climbers use two hammers enabling them to place pro with either hand, but most find that the versatile combo of one hammer and one adze is more practical.

Adze blades and hammerheads are usually simple things, but even here you sometimes have to choose between several designs. Adzes can be flat and straight, or pointed, or serrated, or scooped. The basic flat adze is the best for cutting and clearing snow, making it the choice for mountaineering. Other adzes are designed to be used as picks in soft ice or hard snow, or for camming in rock cracks -- check them out if you intend to get serious about your mixed climbing.

Hammerheads are either round, square, or hex shaped. All seem to work fine for beating things, but the hexagonal versions also work as "nuts," an advantage for rocky mixed routes.

Your choices are many. Classic, reverse droop (banana), Alaskan, and tube (half tube, actually). Mountaineering axes have fixed heads and always come with classic picks, so there's little to decide on. Get a pick with a jaw of aggressive teeth and you can't go wrong. Choosing a pick for your technical tool is tricky, and what you get depends on your climbing style. Reverse droop picks are the most popular, and come as standard on many tools. The "hooking" action of this pick makes it ideal for all sorts of ice, from plate steel to chandeliered nightmare. The reverse-curve is also a solid performer for dry-tooling on rock. If in doubt, get reverse-curve picks. Alaskan picks are a cross between the classic and reverse-curve. These are better for mountaineering and self-arresting than the reverse curve, and better for steep ice than the classic. Some climbers prefer this utilitarian design for all-around ice and mixed climbing largely because the straighter pick has a more natural swing, or so they say. A tube pick is the most specialized of the lot. Its scooped design works sorta like a shovel, giving it great holding power in slushy ice. The tube shape also lets you pivot the tool without snapping the pick, but then the thin-walled pick dulls easily and can break when you pump the tool up and down to clean it.

Whichever pick you get, it won't be worth a flip unless you keep it sharp. For general touch- ups, get a flat, metal file for the edges. If your picks have rounded teeth, also get a round file. Whatever you do, don't use an electric bench grinder, which removes metal at an uncontrollable rate and ruins the temper. Other pointers: sharpen the top side of the pick and it will slide into brittle ice with less fracturing (many picks already come modified this way). Bevel the underside of the teeth and the pick will be easier to remove from deep "sticks." Deepen the front two to four teeth and the pick will bite better in thin ice and hook on rock edges.

Most people don't give much thought to their leashes. Big mistake. Leashes may seem inconsequential, but, for steep ice and mixed, the leash is as critical to performance as the pick or shaft. Usually, the leashes that come with tools are junk. Spend an extra $20 and get nice, custom rigs that'll do you right.

Get a leash that:

  • clamps down tight
  • doesn't loosen on its own
  • you can operate with your teeth

Avoid leashes that:

  • have huge metal buckles
  • are for body-weight only
  • are bulky
Contributed By: Jeff Achey

Climbing's Editor at Large.

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