What kind of ice axe do I carry for alpine hiking and how did I go about choosing it? Plus, what do you do when you need it, for real, and it fails? Find out here...
Ice Axes and the Price of Life
Glissading: A timeless and extremely fun way to get down a mountain.
Depending on the season and the time of your arrival, there are places on both The Siskiyou Peaks and Hot Springs Trail where having an ice ax (and crampons) could be the difference between making it or not. Most of the time though, an axe is simply used to safely glissade with.
The Ice Axe:
When it comes to ice axes, there are hundreds to choose from. While some of these are specific to ice climbing, others are better suited for trekking. In this exercise, I’ve separated ice axes into 4 categories which I think any ice axe will fall into. These are the things I consider when deciding which kind of axe to bring for an alpine trip.
But before getting into my quiver of axes, here’s a few questions to ask before purchasing one:
1. Is the axe sized to my height? Meaning, can I comfortably walk on a hillside while holding the top of it, using it as a cane.
2. Does it have a strap? Also called a leash, this is a crucial feature to have on an ice axe; especially if using it while wearing gloves, are caught by-surprise (by a posthole, avalanche, snow bridge failure, etc.), or in case you drop your axe as you slip and fall.
3. Will this thing work if it’s icy and I actually need to use it? Here’s where I had skimped on my first thru-hike, a decision which ultimately lead to what happened on that hike. In hopes that the same thing doesn't happen to you, I decided to put this post together.
The 4 Categories of Ice Axes
Option 1: The Boss Hogg
Black Diamond: Classic Mountaineering Axe (Steel head & shaft)
Weight: 2.1 pounds
Best For: High-danger level usage, self or team arresting, chopping steps.
Backstory: During the years of 2002-2004, I completed a Winter Mountaineering Guide course thru NOLS where I learned the fundamentals of winter survival and shelter building, avalanche rescue and snow evaluation skills, how to travel safely with a roped team, and how to properly glissade and self-arrest. For this course, I was not concerned about the weight of the axe. I just needed something that could handle weight (my own weight plus a heavy winter pack and a bit extra in case something happens in a team situation).
Option 2: The Pretty Penny
Black Diamond Adze: Modern Trekking Axe (Steel head & Aluminum shaft)
Weight: 1.7 pounds
Best for: Medium-danger level usage, self-arresting, chopping steps.
Backstory: Although this is ultimately the ice axe that I prefer to use today, how I got it was by accident. With option 4 already waiting for me in a box at Kennedy Meadows, I had showed up to the town of Idyllwild during my first PCT hike, in 2006, to a snow-covered Fuller Ridge. In desperation to get thru this part, 4 of us teamed up and bought the only ice axes they had at the local gear shop; and being the tallest, I wound up with this one.
Option 3: The Hybrid Head
Black Diamond Raven: New Age Hiking Axe (Steel head & Aluminum shaft)
Weight: 1 pound
Best for: Low-danger level usage, self-arresting, personal defense.
Backstory: When I returned to the PCT for a second time in 2008, I had many new upgrades to my kit, including a Hybrid Ice Axe. While the shaft on this one (and option 2) are made of aluminum, shaving off a few ounces, the head is still made of steel, making it reliable for self-arresting. I don’t recommend using this kind of axe in icy conditions where chopping a lot of steps is necessary; but if you had to, this kind of axe can handle a few strategic whacks and still be sound for future usage.
Option 4: The Chinsey Chisel
CAMP CORSA: Futuristic Ultralight Axe (Aluminum head & shaft)
Weight: 10 ounces
Best for: Building confidence at home, looking cool at the trailhead, breaking on-trail.
Backstory: Option 4 is just as expensive as these others but is half the weight. I was stoked on it, until the first time I had to use it. Miles from the nearest road, and teetering above a small band of cliffs, I had gotten myself stuck. To backtrack was just as sketchy as to continue forward. All I needed to go was a few steps further and I'd be clear of the immediate danger. I swung my axe and chopped into the ice but when I lifted it back up, the adze was no longer on it! I managed to grab a small rock which I then used as a hammer to chop (more like scratch) steps and gain footing. Although crampons would have been the better tool to have in my pack that day, I still gained a new appreciation for the quality of my gear, not just the weight of it.
What good is having an Ice Axe, or any piece of gear for that matter, if you can’t use it for what it’s intended for?
How much does my ice axe weigh? A better question to ask, is how much is my life worth?
What kind of ice axe do you carry? Comment below.