The History of Ice Axes & Choosing The Right Ice Axe
Firstly, this is intended as a guide to choosing the right ice axe; it is not exhaustive and good judgement should always be used to choose the correct ice axe for whatever task is at hand. Broadly speaking, you could break ice axes down into three categories – some people will break them down into more, but for the sake of this blog we will say there are three categories … we won’t worry about the subcategories within them either!
It is important that you choose the correct kit for your adventure. The three most important pieces of kit for winter walking are boots, crampons and an ice axe.
Ice axes have come a long way since they were first developed. The earliest evidence we have of any axes at all is around 2.5 million years ago when the first stone tools were being created. The first definitive hand-axe was created around 1.6 million years ago. As such, the use of axes has been passed down from generation to generation, with adaptations to specific tasks.
The first evidence we have for any ice axe usage is difficult to put a date on. It is highly likely that the predecessor to the modern ice-axe (the Alpenstock) was used by Neolithic people, travelling or hunting in the winter environments. We do know that the Romans used them to cross mountain ranges. And that they were commonly used by shepherds and hill farmers in the Middle Ages.
People often refer to the Alpenstock as the first ice axe; that isn’t technically correct as the Alpenstock was actually just a length of wood with a point on the end. This then evolved to having a pick on the end, and hence into the first ice axe! To put it in perspective, the modern adaptation of the Alpenstock would be a walking pole.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the precursor of the modern ice axe was emerging – it was made of wood, and in fact, you still see a few people using wooden ice axes out on the hills.
Following several unfortunate incidents where wooden axes snapped, the first all metal ice axe was produced in the early the 1960’s by the Scottish Mountaineer, Hamish MacInnes, who designed and made the Massey axe. The metal axes were much stronger, and with them, for the first time, people began to climb frozen waterfalls. From there the following three main categories have separated out their usage.
General mountaineering ice axes:
- Are normally a bit heavier
- Normally a bit longer – 50-75cm depending on a person’s height. When holding it at your side in a relaxed manner (hand wrapped around on the top with the adze forward and the pick back) it should reach down to around your ankle height
- The shaft is often straight, or sometimes has a small curve to it in case you are doing steeper routes and don’t want your hand getting cold touching the snow all the time
- The adze is a normal size to make cutting steps easy
- Often come with a wrist strap – although you may choose to take this off which makes swapping hands a lot easier – just don’t drop it!
- Normally have quite an obvious spike on the bottom – to make balancing easy and to allow for plunging it into the snow when ascending or descending if required
- Often have a grip that is made of rubber to make holding it a bit easier
- A long and straight axe also means that if you must use it for an anchor (buried axe or T axe) then it is probably going to be stronger due to more contact with the snow.
Technical climbing ice axes:
- Normally have a very definitive grip that is sometimes offset from the shaft
- Have a strong curvature to the shaft and often the pick as well
- Normally quite heavy so that you can effectively swing them into ice or névé
- Often have attachment points for leashes on the bottom so you can attach leashes to your harness and the axe so you can’t drop them mid climb
- Often have a technical rated pick as well as shaft – meaning it is rated to 400Kg
- When technical climbing, often one has one axe with an adze and another with a hammer – or if very technical then neither axe will have adze nor hammer
Ski touring ice axes:
- Are normally lightweight – this saves energy if you are not using them … but it does make it really hard to cut steps for a prolonged period of time
- Generally, have a smaller adze – again saving weight but with the same drawbacks as above
- Often the pick can be a little bit smaller as well which can make an ice axe arrest take a bit longer than you might like if you are trying to stop yourself
- Often come without a strap when you buy them
- Often just have grooves for a grip to keep them lighter
- Tend to be a bit shorter – even down to 45 cm as you are not intending to use them – but it is better to be safe than sorry and still carry one …
- But having a shorter ice axe can be an issue if the spike of the axe is in line with your stomach during an ice axe arrest – you would not want to get accidentally impaled on the axe.
So it is reasonably straightforward: the ice axe that you choose to use depends on the type of activity you are doing. Naturally different ice axes are more suited to exactly what they have been made for, so choosing the correct one will make you life more comfortable and the day easier for you if you do have to use them deliberately or inadvertently.
If you want to get into winter walking and ski touring it is best to buy a general mountaineering axe. If you are climbing then obvious a pair of technical climbing axes is more appropriate. The ski touring axe is more for being super lightweight on long trips and ski touring/mountaineering where the use of an axe is not planned at all.
We highly recommend booking onto a winter skills course to learn how to use walking axes correctly, or a winter climbing course to learn how to use climbing axes correctly. If you are looking at buying an ice axe we can highly recommend Tiso.
We hope that you have gained something out of this blog, and should you have any questions on choosing the right ice axe, you are welcome to drop us a comment below and someone will get back to you.