by Kevin

October 14, 2021

How to Use an Ice Axe

For people who intend to climb and tackle the tall peaks in winter or capture the high, early-season mountaineering, you will need to pack an ice ax to their gear arsenal. 

It’s a wicked-looking powerful tool that carves steps, or offers anchor support, or arrests your fall if gravity takes charge. 

The ice ax is an effective multi-purpose climbing and hiking tool mountaineers use to both descent and ascending routes that involve frozen, ice, or snowy conditions. 

Using an ice ax will depend on the terrain you are pursuing: in short, the tool is like a walking stick; the climbers hold its head using the center of their uphill hand. 

In this comprehensive review, let’s dive in on how to use an ice axe for mountaineering and also how to hold the ice ax.

When to Use an Ice Axe

Structure of the Ice Axe

This equipment is made of two major components: the shaft and the head. The head, which is usually made of steel, is the shorter part of your ice ax. 

It consists of the adze on one side and a pick on the opposite end that helps to pierce ice and snow. The adze is the more comprehensive, flat end, while the pick is the sharper side of the head.

Then there is the shaft, the more extended section of your ice ax with a triangular spike on its button, and it is typically made using lightweight material. The spike has a grip that offers extra traction when holding your ice ax while walking. 

Though not found in all ice axes, some will come with a leash. The devices that lack the leash have an opening on the shaft to attach it if need be.

Types of Ice Axes

There are different kinds of ice axes and you can learn how to choose an ice ax here:

1) Basic ice ax

They are straighter, more extended, and come with a design used to self-arrest when on mountaineering routes. The axes provide safety and balance while descending the steep slopes. 

The self-arrest tool stops an unexpected fall down the steep slope, especially if you don’t have the help of other climbers or a rope. Therefore, it offers a brake as you slide downhill while on your behind – an act that mountaineers should be ready for.

It also acts as a retrievable anchor if you are rappelling down the pitch, but you lack a natural feature to tie yourself onto. 

How to Use an Ice Ax

2) Technical axes 

They come with a curved shaft and appear shorter than the essential kind. The picks tend to be oriented at a much more acute angle and have a leash attached to them. 

A mountaineer will mostly use it when tackling vertical climbing routes; in short, the high-angle ice. 

Why Use an Ice Axe?

As earlier mentioned, the ice ax is critically essential as a safety tool for ice climbing and hiking. With the correct instruction, you can quickly learn and understand the basics and how it serves as the foundation for every subsequent winter mountaineering and hiking skill. 

Here is why you need one:

  • It performs self-rescue or self-arrest.
  • It offers balance and support while you walk over the ice or snow.
  • An ice ax creates a T-Slot Anchor that helps in rappelling or belaying.
  • The device will chop steps into hard ice or snow as you descend a gentle slope.
  • It’s an anchor tool that is most preferred when climbing or scrambling a steep slope.

When to Use an Ice Axe

It’s time to learn when to carry your ice ax to a hike. Primarily, it depends on the kind of trail, the season, and the conditions of the tracks during that season. The most important thing that one should do is thorough research on specific pathways you are looking to tackle.

You can also consult with other climbers, find out what the hikers did in a specific season, check on the authority sites, and evaluate the trails using the videos, photos, or descriptions are given. While at it, you should check if the route has steep snowy or icy slopes.

Additionally, you could wait until it’s time to pack your gear and go hiking. At this point, you will be sure whether to carry your ice ax or not. At times, the trail conditions might drastically drift after the snowstorm. 

Structure of the Ice Axe

However, in areas where you could miss a step or slip and not support yourself, the supreme rule is to pack an ice ax for the occasion. So, ensure you are aware of any steep, snowy, or icy slopes on the trail. 

Note that you can bring an ice ax, but you barely know how to use it; that doesn’t make any sense. It’s safer if you don’t carry one. So practice as much as you can; you never know; it saves one’s life. 

How to Use an Ice Axe for Mountaineering

Practice makes perfect; that is the only way you can learn and master using an ice ax. When you follow the instructions correctly during the lessons, you can steadily improve. 

As you descend and ascend, you should hold the ice ax with its shaft pointing to the ground as you spear it into the ice with each step. 

Hold it using the palm, and it should be directly across your head while the thumb is below the adze. You can use a leash to secure your ax to your wrist or harness; it prevents one from losing the ice ax and supposes it drops. 

While holding the ax in the right way, the climber should follow two major rules:

  • Use the uphill hand to hold the tool, and ensure to exchange hands anytime the terrain changes. As you climb, the uphill route might reverse due to the topographical changes. Note that how you position the body as you climb determines which hand is uphill at any particular time. 
  • The adze should always face forward while the pick faces backward whenever you carry the tool. It ensures your ice ax is well-positioned in case of self-arrest.

Here are Skills to Master to Make the Ice Axe Lifesaving and Effective Tool:

Types of Ice Axes

Self-arrest grip 

The ax head should be on the uphill hand, as the adze face forward. Your thumb should be under your adze, as the fingers and palm are around the pick. 

So, if you start to slip, you can hold the lower shaft using the freehand; you raise your ax using adze slightly above the shoulder. Then, plunge your pick into the ice as you put your weight on it. 

Snow anchor

You should pierce your ice ax on the ground and ensure the angle of the shaft is at the steepness of that slope. 

If the incline is shallow, you can angle your ax some degrees away from the pulling direction. But on a steep slope, lean your shaft back to 45 degrees of the snow.

Ice ax leashes

Whether one should use a leash or not is still a subject under debate. Some people dislike it since the uphill hand often changes. It means you have to keep switching hands every time; it is very inconvenient, especially where the leash is connected. 

However, others claim that the leash is safe and convenient. When you drop the ice ax, if it has a leash attached to it, then it drops, it will not fall far away, which is a good advantage. 

How to Stop a Fall

Why Use an Ice Axe

Suppose you start to slip, or in the event of a fall, you should secure your shaft with the free hand, then pull your ice ax up and into the shoulder area. At this point, drive your ice ax pick into the snow with your entire body-weight force. 

With a properly positioned ax, the mountaineer can easily pierce it on the snow forcefully to safely and quickly halt the fall. While you self-arrest, lift the feet a bit off the snow to prevent inadvertently catching the crampons in the snow.

Suppose you fall, follow these main steps to get yourself into a self-arrest position finally:

  • Arrest immediately; it is tough to do it while you increase the speed downhill.
  • Hold your ice ax to ensure the pick points forward above the uphill hand shoulder. The shaft should be diagonal across the body with the handheld below the shaft near the hip. 
  • Drive the ax pick into the ground and pull out the shaft off the snow.
  • Get the body away from the snow and kick the toes into the slope; it prevents falling. Then look down at the shaft with the face in the ice.

Final Thoughts on How to Use an Ice Axe

With that, keep in mind that an ice ax is among the most indispensable devices for people tackling alpine climbing or winter climbs. 

So, before you go out shopping, you should first know its different types and uses depending on the trails you intend to go mountaineering or hiking. 

Also, learn how to hold and use the tool. All these will put you in a position to make the right decision on the kind of ax that will meet all your climbing needs. 

Now that you have all the required skills of using the ice ax, it’s time to go out and learn a course on the proper techniques of using the tool and practice in actual conditions on glaciers or snow.

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About the author 

Kevin

Kevin loves bouldering. Mainly because he can practice it alone without considering other people. Although he rediscovered this hobby in the last three years, the boulders turned out to be his most visited landmarks.

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