Paul Lewis is a mountaineering instructor with a fetish for walking axes. Here he guides us through the do's and don'ts of buying a walking axe just in time for the first winter snows. Thinking of going winter walking and mountaineering? Listen to what Paul has to say...
The Lord of the swings – choosing one axe to rule them all...
Adore your tool
I love my ice axe. I know it's weird and I should just say that I don't mean love in the 'cuddle up on the sofa with it and watch a good DVD with a bottle of chilled Chardonnay' kind of way. But I do love it in a 'faithful companion who's shared some great adventures and is always there for me' kind of way – and yes, I know that's still weird. But hey, if you're feeling a bit jealous about me and my metal, don't despair – just read these top tips and you'll find your perfect match too!
Though forged one-piece axe heads are the bee's knees, nowadays they are unfortunately becoming harder to find than the ozone layer! The new trend is for axe heads made from stamped metal. These will do the job just fine but make sure the head is durable enough and has enough weight in it for an effective swing. For general mountain use you should also ensure that it is made of steel rather than the alloy ones which are designed for specialist things like ultra lightweight ski touring and ascending 8000ers.
The axe pick should be gently curved to allow it to grip in snow but not too curved or it will snatch in fall arrest situations. Some axe picks have teeth that are just placed in the first few inches of the underside of the pick whilst some go all the way up to where the pick meets the top of the shaft. My experience of using a variety of axes has shown me it is better not to have teeth all the way up as this doesn't greatly improve the holding power and can also make the axe uncomfortable to grip - and those teeth can really chew up your gloves.
The curve from the pick should then continue smoothly over the head of the axe which will make it comfortable to grip. When you go into the shops it's worth taking some gloves and holding lots of models – on big mountain days you'll be carrying your axe for a long time in this position and if its shape starts hurting your hand you'll be more likely to put it away and not have it available when you really need it.
The adze just needs to be of a good cutting size, slightly scooped and not too steeply angled. The pick and adze don't need to be too sharp for what you want this axe to do, so either let them blunt up a bit with use or smooth the sharp bits a little with a hand file – Water-proof shells and sharp objects don't mix!
Size does matter
If you Google 'ice axe length' you'll be faced with lots of opinions on the best length for your tool. Old school thinking always said that your axe should be 2 inches off the floor when you hold the head in your hand and stand with your arm down by your side. The trouble with this is that it makes your axe hard to use as anything other than a walking stick.
In my opinion it's best to choose an axe of about 55cm (about the same length as a technical climbing tool) regardless of your height. This length will allow efficient ice axe braking, step cutting, allow you to build axe belays, provide good support on steep ground, swing efficiently when climbing and store easily on you sack.
In ye olde alpenstock days wood ruled for axe shaft construction and it's certainly true that Sylvester Stallone managed some wicked manoeuvres with a wooden axe in Cliffhanger. The trouble is that wood is unpredictable and has been known to fail without warning and Cliffhanger was actually fictional! (I know that's hard to believe!) Alloy is the modern way to go. Oval alloy tubing is strong, provides a good shape for your hand to grip and is dependable in use. A simple but solid spike at the bottom of the shaft will allow you to plunge the axe easily into snow.
Some form of rubber grip on the lower part of the shaft will aid hold-on-ability and insulate your pinkies, but try to avoid axes where the grip material is too raised from the shaft as it will wear quickly and get in the way when you are plunging your shaft into snow.
Some models come without any shaft grip but you can make your own using some climbing finger-tape or even better, some purpose made strips of the super-grippy adhesive sandpaper material sold by Grivel. It's expensive for what it is but works brilliantly and lasts well – or try getting some skateboard deck covering material from your local board shop. This is essentially the same thing but a lot cheaper.
Axe shafts and picks are rated by the criteria of UIAA standard 152 (which in turn are based on EN standard 13089). It's worth noting that the UIAA standard 152 has additional requirements to the EN standard on which it is based. That all sounds pretty heavy and you have probably dozed off - but if you do like that type of techno babble all the technical testing standards can be found on the UIAA website.
Really the essential facts you need to know are that axes and picks are given either a B (basic) or T (technical) rating. B rated axes are lower strength and are designed for use in general circumstances such as snow mountaineering, glacier travel and ski mountaineering. Components that are T rated have passed the most stringent tests and are designed to cope in all circumstances including such high stress activities as ice climbing and dry tooling. The rating will be shown by either a B or T in a circle on the shaft and pick of the axe.
Colour is very important. At all costs make sure your axe colour matches the colour of your jacket. It's very bad form to clash in the couloir... only joking on this one of course!
Ice axes are now available with a weight of 2 nanograms, utilising helium filled shafts (maybe!). The problem with today's obsession with lightness is that a general purpose axe needs some weight to allow a good swing for efficient step cutting and good penetration in hard ice. Axes also take a lot of abuse and ultralight materials just aren't going to be as durable for long term mountain use. Despite the desire to get your total pack weight down to 600grams this is one area where you need some clout.
Ice axe leashes are good for providing support when step cutting and preventing you dropping your axe. They are bad for zigzagging up a slope where you need to change hands regularly. The answer is a simple leash that can be detached from the axe easily when not needed. The easiest solution is a simple slider-closure style tape-leash that can be larks-footed through the hole at the top of your axe head. Even better if it's compact enough to carry in your jacket pocket as this will mean you always have it to hand when needed. If you do decide to have it permanently attached to your axe don't leave it dangling down as that's a sure fire way to snag it in crampon points just when you really don't want to. One way to keep things neat if you leave it attached is to wrap the tape several times around the axe pick and trap it in place with your hand.
Carrying & Storage
You've found your trusty partner. It's a marriage made in heaven. Well now you need to treat that puppy with respect – and luckily axes don't take much caring for. Just make sure it is dry before storage and don't store it in a damp place because rust will develop quickly. If you use those little rubber pick and spike protectors make sure they are removed for storage as it's easy to trap moisture underneath. Apart from that just periodically give your axe a once-over, looking for signs of metal fatigue, excessive wear and any damage to the rivets that connect everything together – job done.
The best way to carry your axe is to place it vertically (axe head at the top!) down the side compression straps on your rucksack and ignore the fiddly carrying system sewn onto the sac by the manufacturers. These leave all sorts of sharp metal bits pointing up at partner gouging level and also make it likely that things will get caught on all the spiky bits. I witnessed a very messy ice-axe-spike-meets-face incident on the Aiguille de Midi Telephrique a couple of years ago which certainly showed the damage that can be done. Storing your axe in the compression straps also makes it quick to deploy, but if you need your tool to hand more quickly just slide it between your back and the back of your rucksack with the axe tip exiting above the lower strap attachment point in a very fashionable Robin Hood's arrow quiver style.
Of course, the very best way to really look the part is to always have your axe in your hand when you really need it. Happy swinging!
So you know what to look for but which axe do you choose? Fortunately, like most modern kit, there are very few bad axes out there if you select one from a reputable manufacturer. The important thing to decide is what you are going to be using the axe for and whether you are in the 'light is right' brigade or whether you want something so well constructed you can pass it on to your grandchildren. It also obviously depends how much you want to spend!
Here's a few of my current favourites to point you in the right direction.
DMM's excellent offering is the Cirque Axe, a light and very strong T tested axe with a curved shaft for easier plunging uphill, a positive pick end for increased ice performance and a good quality leash and shaft grip. Made in Wales by a trusted manufacturer, this axe retails at around £65.
The Petzl Cosmique is a very sturdy T-rated forged head axe with a well-shaped adze and durable rubber shaft grip. At around 650 grams (depending on length) its not particularly light, but it feels beautifully weighted and will power easily into even the hardest snow and ice. At about £90 it isn't particularly cheap but its so well made it will probably be the only one you will ever buy.
Petzl also do a lighter version of the Petzl Cosmique called, you guessed it, the Petzl Cosmique Light! This is about 100 grams lighter, about £15 cheaper but is B-rated and has no shaft grip. Another excellent axe.
I haven't used the Grivel Brenva but it has a good feel in the hand and has all the features you would want. It has apparently been designed with the Scottish mountaineer in mind and has a slight curve to the shaft to aid self-arrest. It is t-rated, has a forged head and weighs around 480 grams (without the leash that comes with it). The Brenva costs around £80 and in my experience you won't go far wrong with anything made by Grivel.
The Grivel Munro is a real bargain at about £40. A simple stripped down design and fairly light at around 470 grams (including leash) for the 55cm model. The Munro is B-rated, has no shaft grip and the head is drop forged steel.
CAMP have a range of super light axes too, which being so light are really designed for ski touring, but if you're looking for a spare axe, or really need to shave off those grams it's worth seeking out the CAMP Corsa Nanotech or the more general Corsa. Prices ranging from £59.99 up to £84.99 depending on model.
So there are a few options out of the many models available. The best thing to do is call into your local gear shop and try some out for yourself. By swinging them and seeing how they feel in your hand you will soon get an idea which feels best for you. Just remember not to rush into a decision – in the words of Phil Collins.... you can't hurry love!
Paul Lewis is a mountaineering instructor and owner of mountain adventure and training specialists Peak Mountaineering. Paul offers a 15% discount on all courses for UKC users. Find out more at peakmountaineering.com or contact Paul on 0161 440 7065.
See this product at the Cold Mountain Kit shop