/ One Axe vs Two?

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martinturner - on 10 Mar 2018

Had a decent day along Striding Edge the other day. Weather was not the best and we were in cloud most of the day. 

But it was the step up to Helvellyn that got me wondering. When should you be using a walking axe, and when would it be best to take two more ‘technical’* axes? 

When we were on the last step, I would of 100% been glad of two axes, but for 90% of the route, the one axes was more than enough. 

I understand this is completely subjective, but do you plan for that one moment, or do you plan for the majority? Personally? 


**maybe a slightly curved axe, not full on climbing 

Babika - on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner:

Pretty subjective, but I take one if Im planning a grade 1 solo and two if I'm planning grade 2 or more. 

d_b on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to Babika:

I find as a general rule of thumb that anything I can climb with 2 axes, a rope and full rack of gear has been done solo by someone cutting steps with a wooden axe and one hand behind their back...


petegunn on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner:

For me it would depend on the days objective, if I was going for a ridge walk (without any intention of doing an easy gully) I would just take one axe, if I found a fairly steep section I would cut steps to make it safer. An art many are maybe neglecting.

Two axes would open up more options on the day, if you fancied taking a different, slightly steeper line.

Post edited at 09:53
wercat on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner:

ethically on a route like that you should use long shafted wooden axes, definitely if you intend to use two!  ;-)

And wear Ventile!

Post edited at 10:45
MFB - on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner:

Always take 2, only weigh 500g, shove it in your pack you don't need it

Failed on routes due only one ax

Post edited at 10:50
leon 1 on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to MFB: I agree entirely with that. For those into the easier routes and one axe I REALLY recommend the new book Scotland in Winter with One Axe . 30 great route choices with some good pictures to inspire .


Post edited at 10:57
neuromancer - on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner:

Anyone ever take one tech axe, one normal axe?

Patrick Roman - on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner


I don't think it's wise to have a general rule but to treat each and every route/outing on it's own merit. To be safe you're probably as well to take two axes if you think there's even a small chance you'll need them, but that's assuming you fully understand the route and/or the conditions you'll encounter - not always the case.


Tools like DMM Fly's have a really good range of usefulness, from walking to technical mixed. I've been using Fly's for 15 years now (the same pair) and they're ideal for mountaineering days.


If you do take a second axe, you might find it easier on some routes to have it attached to a harness (it can be clipped to a caritool or holstered in a gear loop). This works well if there are harder sections or steep snow slopes requiring two axes interspersed with easier walking sections or sections where using one axe and one hand works best. Think something like Ledge Route on Ben Nevis (especially in descent) or the Aonach Eagach. I'll often do harder routes in this way as sometimes you need the second axe while mid-crux so it's convenient to have it easily to hand. If I need the axe to be really easily retrieved I'll holster it rather than clip it - and I'll make sure it's the axe with the adze so that it won't slip through the loop!


A recent example of mine this winter that illustrates how crucial these decisions can be was when I did the Cruachan Horseshoe in early February. I chose to go without crampons and an axe as there was still a lot of powder snow in the mountains. It was a gorgeous, windless day and everything went fine until nearing the Cruachan summit. There's a section of slabby ground here, which turned out to be fairly icy, and with long icy snow slopes immediately below. I had to very carefully pick my way across the slabs, kicking out little toe and finger ledges as I went, something I would have just strode across with crampons on my feet. In my case, I had made a compromise with my footwear that day in order to avoid wearing stiffer boots and crampons (I didn't want to aggravate a foot injury I currently have). But that section, which probably comprises just 1% of the horseshoe, could result in a serious accident as a result of not having the right gear. So even for such a tiny portion of the route it would be worth carrying crampons around for the other 99% of the time.


I guess it's a case of just being aware of what you're packing beforehand (or more crucially not packing) and asking yourself if you're compromising safety? Experience helps but if you have any niggling doubts then err on the side of caution - you'll enjoy your day a lot more.


And as mentioned above, well worth getting a hold of Garry Smith's new book on one axe days in Scotland. It's excellent!

wercat on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to neuromancer:

I climb sometimes with a straight shaft technical axe (pulsar) and an old style intermediate length alpine semi technical (ie not reverse curve but a much sharper curve and sharp pick than a walking axe (the old stubai Sierra Extreme was a good example) .  I find that sometimes gives me a bit of extra reach on mountaineering routes as well as being much better for glissading.

One thing is that if you have good enough boots buy a pair of 12 point mountaineering crampons, not overpriced walking crampons that might not be good enough for some situations you find yourself in (I found this out on a works club trip on a 1000 ft gully on Beinn Alligin back in the 80s! - Thanks John Tunnah!)

It's a ploy to make you spend more on upgrading.    General mountaineering crampons are good for experts and beginners alike and will not let you down like flimsier walking things.  No need for top of the range either.

Post edited at 12:33
wercat on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to Patrick Roman:

good policy to carry crampons always in winter even if you don't wear them as

1) as you say you have them if you need them.

2) when you do carry them it is not sudden extra weight as you have become accustomed to the heavier load

3) you don't have to think "will I take them" as they are already in your sack.

4) you are less likely to forget them if they are already there

TobyA on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to neuromancer:

Yeah, loads. I suspect not many people have two different pairs of tools, i.e. two technical tools then a walking axe and a non-technical hammer also. I just use a mountaineering axe with my Viper hammer for easy days where I reckon I might want two tools but aren't sure.

rif on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to neuromancer: Anyone ever take one tech axe, one normal axe?

Once upon a time (early 1970s) an un-matched pair was the norm for all grades on snow/ice in Scotland & Alps. You used an alpine axe (60-70 cm, downcurved pick) along with a Chouinard or Salewa alpine hammer (30-35 cm, no spike, curved pick). Looking back, a pair of modern curved-shaft tools with reverse-curve picks would have been nicer for the IV/V climbs and alpine north faces I did back then, but  the one long + one short combo worked very well on most Scottish I/II/III where the short hammer could be holstered until you needed it. As far as I know nobody makes an equivalent short tool these days.

Going back to the OP's question: as others have said, it depends on the expected conditions. Hard neve above a drop (e.g. the bit of Ledge Route that's directly above the Curtain) can be scary with a single axe unless there are old steps in the snow. I now carry two tools if expecting those conditions, and make sure that the second one isn't still on the back of my rucksack when I feel the need for it.

TobyA on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to rif:

> As far as I know nobody makes an equivalent short tool these days.

Here you go: not even stupid expensive!

Post edited at 15:57
MFB - on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to TobyA:

what about an ice dagger? there must be one out there

Post edited at 16:29
Caroll - on 10 Mar 2018

I'm still afraid to use two

Rick Graham on 10 Mar 2018
In reply to TobyA:

Even cheaper.

Hacksaw the spike off an old straight shafted technical tool.

purplemonkeyelephant - on 11 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner:

I think generally the human body just climbs better with two axes. Obviously not on walks, or very rocky terrain where having a free hand is useful, but the answer for me is if your free hand would be more useful with a tool in it then why not? 

On neve, snice, super iced up rock slabs - what's your other hand doing? Sliding around. With an extra tool you climb more efficiently and it's just safer. As others have said you may only need one alpenstock, or be able to do it Johnny Dawes style no handed. Doesn't mean that's how I want to do it.

wercat on 11 Mar 2018
In reply to purplemonkeyelephant:


> On neve, snice, super iced up rock slabs - what's your other hand doing?


grow some claws!

rif on 11 Mar 2018
In reply to wercat:

or wear Dachstein mitts!

Mike-W-99 on 12 Mar 2018
In reply to wercat:

We bumped into someone on the ben with hand crampons the other day...

Billhook - on 12 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner:

If you can safely climb it with only one axe, take one. Its not going to make any difference what kind of axe you're taking really.

If you can't manage with one, then take two.

For many, the final slope off striding edge to the top would really only need one axe.  

martinturner - on 12 Mar 2018
In reply to Billhook:

> For many, the final slope off striding edge to the top would really only need one axe.  

I agree with you, however, this was on a day we passed the Fell Top Assessor, who turned back just before the final step, as even he felt it wasn’t worth it that day.

We felt we were ok to tackle it, and turns out we were right. (We had gear and rope with us ‘just incase’). But doesn’t deter from the fact, a second axe would have been nice to have.


Thanks for all the advice above everyone. I think moving forward I’ll take a second more technical axe, for that just incase moment. Like someone said above, it’s only 500g extra. 

L.A. on 12 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner: As Toby suggested earlier

My mate has been using one of these as a second tool when needed on grade 1s and 2s for the last couple of years. Its light and cheap and does the biz


The Ex-Engineer - on 13 Mar 2018
In reply to martinturner:

Had experiences both ways this year (and other years):

We took two technical tools on the Cuillin ridge where they were admittedly useful for very, very short sections but we would have been perfectly OK with one axe.

Conversely on the North East Ridge of Aonach Beag, I got stupidly far off route and ended up soloing a grade IV chimney with one axe and would really, really have liked a second one!

Sometimes you get it right, but it's not an exact science, so other times you don't. Although if push comes to shove, most stuff up to grade III is climbable with modern crampons and one axe.

I almost never use a walking or mountaineering axe any more. Even on really easy routes I'll just tend to take a Petzl Quark plus my walking poles. 

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