Input for this review has come from Jon Griffith, Viv Scott, Jack Geldard, Jonny Baker, Charlie Boscoe and Nikolaus Bacht. With additional feedback and information from sponsored climbers / mountain guides Andy Turner (Petzl), Tim Emmett (Black Diamond), Stu McAleese (DMM), Greg Boswell (Grivel), James Thacker (Edelrid).
Ice axes are not a new tool, in fact they have been around for hundreds of years. There have been a few seasons of change in ice axe development, starting in the mid 1800s with the traditional Alpenstock (a long pole with a metal spike on the end that has been in use since the 1750s) being adapted to feature a forward facing pick. The next major advance came at the turn of the 20th century from British climber Oscar Eckenstein, who developed axes much shorter than previously used, and combined them with improved crampons to create a climbing system not hugely dissimilar to the one we have today.
Of course axes have come on in leaps and bounds since then, and whilst the general principle of the ice axe may still be the same, it's fair to say that the level of technicality in axes has really shot forward in the last few years, with increasingly aggressive tools becoming the norm.
In this review we are focusing on a selection of high level axes that are in use right now, aimed at difficult technical climbing, but also at long routes. Whilst there are some even more radical axes out there on the market, the ones in this review are top end 'go anywhere' axes, seen frequently both on single-pitch drytool routes as well as the north face of the Eiger.
These are axes for top-level professional climbers, weekend warriors and ambitious beginners.
Our choices of axe: In this review we have the Petzl Nomic 2, the Black Diamond Fusion 2, the Grivel Master Alloy, The Edelrid Rage and the DMM Apex. Whilst some may think the DMM Apex would be more suited to a comparison with say the less technical Petzl axe of the Quark, we have reviewed the Apex here as it is actually a more aggressive tool than the Quark, a sort of 'half-way house' between the very technical DMM Switch and the classic DMM Fly.
Likewise of course Petzl do an even more aggressive tool than the Nomic: The Petzl Ergo is not reviewed here as it is super aggressive (and a great axe) but we have tried to choose 1 top level performer from several brands. In each section of the review, we do mention additional axes from these brands, such as the Cobra from Black Diamond and the Riot from Edelrid.
The pick, adze and hammer: We looked at each pick for both shape/design and durability as well as the design of the adze and hammer if applicable. Is it possible to whack in a peg? Does the pick wear down after one mixed route? We found out.
The swing: This is integral to all axes, we checked how the tools swing, and how they hook, how they are weighted - it's a 'feel' thing.
The shaft: We looked at the durability of the shaft and its attachments, as well as the shape of the shaft for clearance and of course how the axe performed when being gripped above the bottom handle - was it twitchy?
The handle: The handle is an extremely important part of any ice tool. You are holding on to it all day. Was it comfortable, durable and well positioned? And does it wreck your gloves?
Attachment points: Where and how can you clip you axe to your harness, lanyard or leash?
Rating: Is the axe itself 'T' Rated or 'B' rated? And the picks are they 'T' rated or 'B' rated? B stands for basic, and T stands for technical. Essentially the axes that are rated 'T' are much stronger. Pick ratings are slightly more complex, in that T is again stronger, and is suited to mixed climbing (but can be used for ice) whereas for pure ice many climbers prefer a thinner B rated pick.
Misc: Anything else we picked up on that isn't in the above list.
The standard pick on the Nomic 2 is well designed, robust and bites well on rock and ice. The Nomic 2 also has a hammer and an adze option, which can be bought separately and added if required. Like all technical curved tools, whilst it is possible to use the hammer, it isn't amazing, but you can seat a peg if required.
This is where the Nomic 2 really shines. Without the removable pick weights, the lightweight axe feels fast and easily maneuverable on rock. When the Masselottes pick weights are added the axe swings beautifully on ice, with perfect balance and really good penetration.
The basic tubular shaft is well made, with a strong but not excessive curve and seemed robust and well put together with minimal flexing, giving a sense of strength and confidence. The design and shape of the shaft gives good stability even when using the upper grip rest.
A really ergonomic handle is one of the Nomic 2's best features. The most adjustable handle in this test, the ample hand rest can be set to small medium and large, which means when swapping sizes of gloves (different temperatures and styles of climbing) you can maintain a snug handle fit. Excellent handle, tough and comfortable. See the video below for Ueli Steck's thoughts on the handle and more.
There is a small clip in point part way up the handle, but a carabiner doesn't fit through and would also be in the way of the grip, so a piece of cord needs to be threaded and tied in. There is a standard round hole in the head of the axe. There is no spike on the base of the ice, so upright plunging is not an option with the Nomic 2.
The shaft is T rated, and the axe comes with T rated picks.
A quick one about weights, just to make a fair comparison - if you add the adze option, add 69gm to the overall weight.
Also worth considering are the slightly less technical but hugely popular Petzl Quarks, and for those wanting one of the most aggressive tools on the market Petzl do the Ergo.
A beautiful, sleek and much loved tool. At home in the mountains and on the drytool crags, lightweight and strong, a very popular tool and justifiably so. This ice axe could literally get you up any technical route in the world, but they are not suited for snow plodding or easy classic alpine routes.
Petzl Nomics are the best tools I've ever used. Perfectly balanced, great precision and yet still tough enough to take Scottish winter beatings! Looking forward to making full use of them over the next few months, some ice fall climbing in Norway first and then fingers crossed for some primo UK winter conditions.
Andy Turner on the Petzl Nomic 2 axes
VIDEO: Petzl Ice Tools - Quark, Nomic, Ergo - with Ueli Steck
The Fusion 2s come with an integral (small) hammer at the back of the head. There is no adze option. The picks are excellent on mixed and good on ice. Because the hammer is small and the axes are aggressively angled, then hammering pegs is tricky, but not impossible.
A rugged tool needs a rugged swing, and these tools feel solid in the swing, but need a bit of 'oomf' to get the best out of them. They are not a dainty little tool, but an aggressive mixed weapon, and should be thought of as such.
One of the Fusion 2s strong points (forgive the pun) is its exceptionally strong single piece hydroformed shaft. This manipulated alloy shaft is a single length, is very stiff and strong and is superb for mixed climbing. Snapping one of these babies is pretty tricky. See the video below for more details. What this stiff shaft means is less pick shift when on mixed ground, but less 'feedback' and flex when on ice. The 'twitch' of the axe when using the upper grip position was minimal - a really solid feeling tool.
A simple looking handle, but actually exceptionally comfortable and easy on the hand and glove. The handle is adjustable, and fitted the hands of all the testers.
There is a spike in the base of the axe, which is an easy to use and clip with a carabiner or a leash. There is also a standard round hole in the head of the axe.
The shaft is T rated and the axe comes with T rated picks.
The Fusion 2 is an amazing and super-strong mixed climbing axe that operates well on ice too. If you like a heavier tool, and the extra strength that affords, and if you do a lot of hanging upside down, then this is the tool for you. Of course you can tic-tac your way up delicate ice with a Fusion 2, but you may feel like you are taking a Rottweiler to Crufts...
Fusions are the best mixed climbing axe I have ever used. The picks are perfectly angled and finished straight out the box, and I have never broken one, yet ;-)
When Klem and I climbed Spray On Top they were the only axes we could rely on through a diverse range ice and mixed climbing. My only regret was I threw one into the hole! (Good job we took a spare ;-)
Tim Emmett sprays on about the Black Diamond Fusion 2 axes
The Master Alloy tools can not fit either a hammer or an adze. The picks were well designed and bit well in to ice, and felt secure on mixed.
The tools are light and have a light swing action, but the flexibility of the tool made the swing feel quite sprightly and the aggressive head angle worked well. A positive feel when being swung at delicate ice.
The shaft of the Master Alloy is like no other axe in this review. In fact they are very unique tools. The alloy shaft is a single piece of metal, with very specific shapes for the handle and head. The lightest tool in this review, the Master Alloys were very flexible, giving good feedback in ice, but sometimes feeling slightly unnerving when being torqued hard on the mixed stuff. The super clearance afforded by the radical curve at the top of the axe was superb at reaching round ice bulges on steep ground.
A very specific and non adjustable handle shape, the Master Alloys will either fit your hands or not - some of our reviewers didn't fit the knuckle-duster like upper hand grip, but others liked it. A definite 'try before you buy' tool. The 'sprayed on' type rubber coating on the lower handle didn't last too long, but did afford high grip on the palms of your gloves when new.
The tools we had on test look to differ slightly from the tools shown in product photos and had a great clip in point at the base of the axe, and a usable but not huge square hole at the head (see photo).
The Grivel Master Alloy axes are not B or T rated, however they are CE rated. The standard Master picks are B rated, however a T rated pick is available, and to fit this you need to remove the shim in the head of the axe to allow the wider pick to fit.
Apart from anything else - these tools just look cool!
A good and unique ice tool that we found better suited to ice than mixed, but clearly capable on all terrain. Try the handles out in the shop before you buy.
Grivel have a full range of amazing looking axes in their 'Reparto Corse' range. These tools are really like nothing else on the market, and if you like the look of the Master Alloys, it's well worth checking out the website for a look at the others.
These tools are a really good all rounder. They operate exceptionally on all angles of water ice, but also when equipped with the mixed pick they are unstoppable on mixed ground both in Scotland and Continental mixed. I have used them for both steep cascade routes and techy thin ice smears, all of which they worked well for. It is truly a 5 star tool for all occasions.
Greg Boswell talks about the Grivel Master Alloy tools
The Rage comes with a T rated pick that worked well on both mixed and ice. There is no adze or hammer on the axe as standard, however you can add them as extras.
The swing of the Rage was good on ice with the addition of the head weights. Without the weights, this light tool felt quick and secure on mixed ground, however this does change the pick angle slightly, and we also found that the top of the pick no longer sat perfectly flush with the head of the axe, a small detail. The thin head did mean that it felt easy to manoeuvre and also reached inside quite narrow cracks and slots. We found that it was best to leave the weights (or accelerator as Edelrid call it) in place.
A basic but reasonably solid tubular shaft that is curved and quite aggressive. Using the upper hand position was secure. There was some shaft flex when torquing the axe hard in cracks.
The handle on the Rage is quite small, and the hand rest at the base of the handle is also quite small. The rubber is hardwearing and the grip position is comfortable, as is the upper position. Best suited to those with small hands or climbers who prefer to wear thin gloves. There is no adjustment on the handle.
The Rage has a good sized spike at the base of the handle which easily accepts a carabiner or lanyard. The head has a hole, which without weights is quite large, and with weights is still usable as an attachment point.
The shaft of the Rage is T Rated and it comes with T rated picks as standard.
As this is Edlerid's first foray in to the world of ice tools, we were very impressed with the Rage.
A good choice for the budget conscious climber. Try the handle out for size before you buy. Best to leave the head weights in place.
If you are looking for a slightly less radical tool, then Edlerid also do the Riot, a technical tool, but perhaps more mountain orientated, coming with an adze and hammer.
The Rage is a great performance climbing tool, it's aggressive shape resulting in good holding power and stable hooks. The thin shaft and head make reaching tricky hooks deep in cracks much easier, and the head set torques well in it's own right. The tool swings well and packs a good punch in hard ice even without the head weights - which can be easily removed.
James Thacker gives the lowdown on the Edelrid Rage
The Apex comes with both adze and hammer. The adze/hammer is integral to the pick (they are one piece). The adze is small, but usable and is a feature that makes the Apex a very mountain friendly technical tool. The hammer unit is also small, and due to the aggressive shaft curve is quite tricky to use when hammering in pegs, but is certainly better than no hammer. Many top level mixed climbers in Canada and the US are carrying an additional peg hammer on hard routes, and there is no need for this with the Apex unless you are planning on hammering 20+ pegs. The pick shape, quality and durability seem good. Ice specific picks and a larger 'mountain' adze are available as extras.
The tool is very well balanced and pick weights come as standard. The Apex has a unique swing due to the straight handle and aggressive shaft curve, which we liked, but took some getting used to. Feedback on ice was very positive, and we found the tool to be slightly better suited to steeper ground.
An aggressively curved tubular shaft of high quality construction. Simple and bomb-proof, the handle/head unit are double riveted to increase longevity and avoid creaking.
The handle on the Apex is perhaps the most traditional in style of all the axes in review here, but saying that it is one of the most comfortable. The straight handle, good grippy rubber and ample lower hand rest gives a natural hand position and can work with a variety of hand sizes. We added grip tape to the upper shaft on ours above the upper hand rest. Neither hand rest is adjustable, but both are strong and comfortable.
The Apex has a good clip in point at the base in the spike and also a fairly standard large hole in the head of the axe.
The axe is T Rated, and is supplied with T Rated picks as standard.
We found that the aggressive shape of the shaft kept hands well clear of snow/neve when daggering on easy terrain (see opening photo of this article of Stu McAleese in Wales). Perhaps some additional serrations on the shaft-spike would help it grip more on neve when using the tool upright on easy ground.
This is a fantastic ice axe, a real progression for DMM and is a super technical tool that is suited for hard mixed and big mountains too. A real 'go anywhere' tool. Perhaps not quite as technical as some other tools in this review (although just as, if not more aggressive), but of course DMM do a more radical tool called the Switch (check it out on the DMM website) with a more ergonomic handle. If sport dry tooling is your only thing, then go for something more radical. If you climb traditional mixed, hard ice, classic routes and big mountains, and want a tool that won't slow you down no mater how hard the terrain, then you won't go far wrong with the Apex.
More information on the DMM Apex can be found on the DMM Website
Just the right thing for the job, excellent work DMM. It's light, stylish, and works perfectly on ice, snow, and mixed terrain. Especially like the hammer and adze on the axes. An excellent modern multi-purpose tool, looking forward to using it in Patagonia and in the UK this coming winter.
Stu McAleese takes the new Apex Axes from DMM for a spin
VIDEO: Dave Noddings Introduces the DMM Ice Axe Range
All the axes we tested in this review are more than fit for purpose. In the hands of the right climber they will literally get you up any route in the world. From the Himalayas to cutting edge Scottish routes, these axes have helped propel some of today's best climbers in to some outrageous positions.
However everyone likes a winner, so - which was the best? Well, they say a bad workman blames his tools, and to be honest, you'd have to be a bad workman to blame any of these tools for not finishing a pitch. They all have different characteristics and different strengths, but compared to axes from 10 years ago, these beauties are the stuff of dreams.
If you think ice is nice, then the Petzl Nomic 2 swings like a dream and is so positive that steep ice becomes a joy to climb. And it's a tough cookie too, so mixed terrain won't slow it down.
If you have biceps like Tim Emmett then for mixed terrain the Black Diamond Fusion 2 is the mixed monster. The heaviest tool in the review (in many circumstances no bad thing), the Fusion is solid, reliable and utterly bomb-proof, this green goblin feels like the 4x4 of ice axes.
If you have cash to splash, like ice more than mixed and value a unique and interesting tool, then the head-turning orange sexiness of the Grivel Master Alloy will give you that Italian look and cruise you up some continental icefalls.
For the budget conscious, or those with smaller hands, the Edelrid Rage is the one of the two lowest priced tools in the review and will take you anywhere you want to go, with its slim head slotting in to cracks nicely.
And for climbers wanting to take their tools in to the big mountains or Scottish winter more than the drytool sport crags, then the DMM Apex is a brilliant choice. This aggressive tool blends technicality with mountain functionality and is a real all terrain vehicle.