Ice axe

For similar but smaller tools used typically in pairs for ice climbing, see Ice tool.
Ice axe
1  pick
2  head
3  adze
4  leash
5  leash stop
6  shaft with rubber grip
7  spike

An ice axe is a multi-purpose hiking and climbing tool used by mountaineers both in the ascent and descent of routes that involve frozen conditions with snow and/or ice. An ice axe can be held and employed in a number of different ways, depending on the terrain encountered. In its simplest role, the ice axe is used like a walking stick in the uphill hand, the mountaineer holding the head in the center, with the pick pointing to the rear. It can also be buried pick down, the rope tied around the shaft to form a secure anchor on which to bring up a second climber, or buried vertically to form a stomp belay. The adze is used to cut footsteps (sometimes known as pigeon holes), as well as scoop seats in the hillside and trenches to bury an ice axe belay.[1] The long-handled alpenstock was a predecessor to the modern ice axe. The ice axe bears similarity in design to a medieval war hammer.

An ice axe is not only used as an aid to climbing, but also as a means of self-arrest in the event of a downhill slip.

Most ice axes meet design and manufacturing standards of organizations such as the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (UIAA) or European Committee for Standardization. There are two classifications of ice axe, Basic and Technical. Basic ice axes are designed for use in snow conditions for general mountaineering, and are adequate for basic support and self-arrest. Technical ice axes, which may have curved shafts, are strong enough to be used for steep or vertical ice climbing and belaying.


An ice axe consists of at least five components:


A removable snow basket accessory installed on an ice axe.
A leather pick & adze guard installed on an ice axe.

Common ice axe accessories include:


Ice-axe spike-to-head lengths used to generally range from 60 to 90 cm (or about 24 to 36 in.). This is too short to be used as a walking stick on level ground (the way its forebearer, the 5-foot (1.5 m) 19th century alpenstock, was), but is ergonomic when ascending steep slopes. Modern mountaineers often carry shorter ice axes (50–60 cm) for general use with any thing over 60 cm being generally regarded as too large and unwieldy for chopping steps or climbing steep snow. Ice axes are designed to save falls by self-arrest and it is increasingly realised that an ice axe should not be treated as a substitute for a walking pole (i.e. a third point of contact). If this is required then the user needs to improve their footwork technique or carry a walking pole (in which case, an axe is unlikely to be required).[2][3] [4]

A common way to approximate the correct length of an ice axe is for the climber to hold the axe (spike facing the ground) at his/her side while standing relaxed. The spike of the ice axe should barely touch the ground when the climber stands fully upright holding the axe in this manner.[5]


Main article: Alpenstock
An 1872 diagram of ice axe design.
Jacques Balmat carrying an axe and an alpenstock.

The antecedent of the ice axe was the alpenstock, a long wooden pole with an iron spike tip, used by shepherds for travel on snowfields and glaciers in the Alps since the Middle Ages. On August 8, 1786, Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard made the first ascent of Mont Blanc. Balmat, a chamois hunter and crystal collector, had experience with high mountain travel, and Paccard had made previous attempts to climb the peak. Illustrations show Balmat carrying two separate tools that would later be merged into the ice axe – an alpenstock (or baton) and a small axe that could be used to chop steps on icy slopes.

According to the earliest manufacturer of ice axes, Grivel, these two tools were merged to create the first true ice axe around 1840. Early ice axes had a vertical adze, with the cutting edge aligned with the direction of the shaft, as in a conventional axe. This design lasted until at least 1860, but eventually the adze was rotated to the current position, perpendicular to the direction of the shaft. The Italian Alpine Club published a book in 1889 entitled Fiorio e Ratti – The dangers of mountaineering and rules to avoid them, which recommended ice axes as among "the inseparable companions of the mountaineer".[6]

In the late 19th century, the typical ice axe shaft measured 120–130 cm in length. British climber Oscar Eckenstein started the trend toward shorter ice axes with a lighter model measuring 85–86 cm. Initially, this innovation was criticized by well-known climbers of the era, including Martin Conway, a prominent member of the Alpine Club, who was the leader of an early expedition to the Baltoro region near K2 in 1892 of which Eckenstein was a member.[7]

Early ice axes had picks and adzes of about equal lengths. By the beginning of the 20th century, the pick lengthened to about twice the length of the adze. Improvements in crampon design (pioneered by Eckenstein in 1908) and ice climbing technique led to use of shorter, lighter ice axes appropriate to steeper ice climbs in the period between the world wars.[6]

A famous rescue involving an ice axe took place during the Third American Karakoram Expedition to K2 in 1953. One of the climbers, Art Gilkey, was incapacitated by thrombophlebitis.[8] The other climbers attempted to rescue him by lowering him down the mountain by rope, wrapped in a sleeping bag. While crossing a steep ice sheet, a slip caused Gilkey and five other climbers to begin falling down a steep slope. Climber Pete Schoening wedged his ice axe alongside a boulder, and managed to belay the roped climbers, saving their lives. However, Gilkey was later swept away by an avalanche and was killed.[9] Schoening's ice axe is now on display at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado.[10]

In 1966, Yvon Chouinard led a significant redesign of ice axes, working with initially reluctant manufacturer Charlet to develop a 55-cm ice axe with a dramatically curved pick. Chouinard believed that "a curve compatible with the arc of the axe's swing would allow the pick to stay put better in the ice. I had noticed that a standard pick would often pop out when I placed my weight on it." Chouinard's idea worked and began a period of innovation in ice axe design.[11]

In 1978, the Safety Commission of the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (UIAA) established formal standards for ice axe safety and performance. This led to the replacement of the traditional wooden shaft by metal alloy shafts. Ergonomically curved handles became widespread in 1986.[6] Use of modern aluminum alloys have led to a dramatic reduction in the weight of some ice axes. One model now on the market, the C.A.M.P. Corsa, weighs only 205 grams with a 50 cm long shaft. One expert rated this lightweight ice axe as "ideal for low angle glacier travel" but said he "craved the solid and secure heft of a true steel mountain ax" in more demanding steep alpine conditions.[12]

Use as a weapon

A mountaineering ice axe, often referred to as an "ice pick",[13] was used in the assassination of Leon Trotsky by Ramón Mercader in Mexico City in 1940.[14] An ice axe was also used in the 2005 murder of Anthony Walker in the United Kingdom.[15]

Ice axes 1970s–2000s

Attachment to rucksacks

The four attachment points on a rucksack with loops for two axes (55 cm ice axe, 50 cm ice hammer and 25l sack)

On the frequently long approach to the snowline, or when the terrain does not warrant the use of an axe, it is common for ice axe(s) to be carried on a rucksack. Many rucksack models come with one ice axe loop (on the outside of the rucksack at its foot and generally in the middle), together with a device (a strap or a bungee cord) to attach it to the main body of the sack. Rucksacks with attachment points for two ice axes are also available, and these are popular for use with ice tools.


  1. Cox, Steven M.; Kris Fulsaas, ed., eds. (2003–09). Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (7 ed.). Seattle: The Mountaineers. ISBN 0-89886-828-9. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. "Ice Axes: How to Choose". REI. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  6. 1 2 3 "History: The Ice-Axe". Grivel Mont Blanc - Since 1818. Archived from the original on May 8, 2008. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
  7. Rowell, Galen (1977). In The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp. 36–40. ISBN 0-87156-184-0.
  8. Viesturs, Ed. No Shortcuts to the Top.
  9. Rowell, Galen (1977). In The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp. 226–234. ISBN 0-87156-184-0.
  10. "Artifacts". Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum. Retrieved 27 November 2009.
  11. Chouinard, Yvon (1978). Climbing Ice. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books with American Alpine Club. p. 27. ISBN 0-87156-208-1.
  12. Goldie, Larry (September 25, 2008). "C.A.M.P. Corsa Ice Axe: Too Light for a Real Challenge". Alpinist 28: The Alpinist Mountain Standards. Retrieved 27 November 2009.
  13. "Leon Trotsky murder weapon resurfaces in Mexico". USA Today. 11 July 2005. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  14. See Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, Oxford University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-19-507132-8, p.418 for a detailed account
  15. "Youth guilty of racist axe murder". BBC News. 2005-11-30. Retrieved 2007-01-21. |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
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