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Ice Axe

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Contents

Uses

An ice axe is a versatile winter mountaineering tool. Its uses include:

  • Providing extra stability when used as a walking stick
  • Self belay in the event of a slip occurring
  • Self-arrest - providing a brake in the event that a slip turns into a slide
  • Cutting steps in hard snow
  • Digging snow holes or seats
  • Providing security by constructing belays in conjunction with a rope
  • Climbing on ice or hard snow - the axe is swung into ice or twisted ('torqued') into cracks to aid ascent

Ice Axe Types

Walking Axes

These are mainly used for self-arrest in the event of a fall or to cut steps. Walking axes are approximately 60 to 75cm long, allowing the axe to be thrust easily into snow on less steep terrain. The pick is usually straight, providing effective braking in the event of a slip

Mountaineering Axes

Used for walking, climbing and belaying (when used in conjunction with a rope). They can be used for climbs up to grade III or IV in difficulty. Mountaineering axes are slightly shorter than walking axes (50 to 65cm long) with a curved pick and a stronger, often curved, shaft.

Technical Axes

Used for climbing steep snow and ice and usually used as a pair consisting of an axe and a hammer. They are ideal for steep climbs of grade IV and above. The shaft will be curved to allow better clearance for the hands and therefore increased comfort during use. These axes have a reverse curved pick for improved ice penetration and easy removal from the ice. However, this kind of pick provides less effective braking when used for self-arrest. For this reason, technical axes are seen as less versatile than mountaineering axes.

Ice Axe Techniques

Self-Arrest

The self-arrest manoeuvre is a technique that enables climbers to use an ice axe to halt a slide down an icy slope.

The most important part of this manoeuvre is to get into self-arrest position whilst falling. In the self-arrest position the climber lies face-down with the ice axe held diagonally across the body from the shoulder to hip, gripping the shaft of the axe with one hand and the head with the other. The pick of the ice axe should be nearest the shoulder and pointing towards the slope. If wearing crampons, knees should be bent to prevent crampons snagging on rocks or ice.

The "self-arrest grip" is the preferred grip in situations where a fall is likely to take place. This involves curving the thumb under the head of the ice axe with the hand over the top. The axe should be carried in the uphill hand with the pick facing backwards. In the event of a slide the axe will be facing the right way to be used most easily for self-arrest.

Self Belay

The self-belay technique is designed to stop a fall or slip before a self-arrest is required. This involves gripping the head of the axe and thrusting it deep into the snow on the climber's uphill side. If a slip occurs, the axe will sink deeper into the snow and hold the fall.

Ratings and standards

There are 2 types of CE mark (European standard) for ice axes:

  • B-rated axes are designed for winter hillwalking and glacier walking. They have shafts strong enough to allow use as a belay and are best used on pure ice and snow rather than mixed ground.
  • T-rated axes are designed for climbing and mountaineering. They are much more heavy duty than B-rated axes. This means that they are strong enough to be used on mixed ground and torqued into iced-up rock cracks.

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