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How to use an Ice Axe

Mt Washington

An ice axe is an essential safety tool for winter hiking and climbing. With proper instruction, it is easy to learn the basics and serves as a foundation for all subsequent winter hiking and mountaineering skills.

If you’re new to winter hiking and climbing, the first thing you need to understand is the difference between a regular, or basic ice axe, and a technical ice axe. Technical ice axes are used almost exclusively for climbing high angle ice. They’re much shorter than a regular ice axe, tend to have picks that are oriented at a much more acute angle, and are almost always used with leashes.

A basic ice axe is designed to be used as a balance and safety tool when walking up or descending steep slopes, as a self-arrest tool for stopping an expected fall and down slope slide, a brake when glissading (sliding downhill on your butt), and as a retrievable snow anchor when you need to rappel down a pitch but don’t have a good natural feature to tie onto.

They differ from technical ice axes in the following ways: they are longer, may or may not be used with leashes, and have a much less acute angle between the pick and the axe handle. Another big difference between a regular ice axe and a technical ice axe is its strength rating. A basic rating, denoted by a capital B with a circle around it means that the axe meets specific CE and UIAA norms for strength and durability, suitable for a buried snow anchor or self-arrest. A technical rating, denoted by a capital T with a circle around it means that the axe meets higher strength standards, suitable for use in vertical ice climbing or anything the requires hanging and holding your weight.  These rating are usually stamped into the handle or head of an axe. Avoid ice axes that do not meet CE and UIAA standards.

Learning how to properly use a ice axe, particularly for self-arrest, requires instruction and lots of practice. It’s a basic skill for all winter hiking and climbing but it is easy to learn the basics and steadily improve. I had my first lesson last weekend, and performed 4 self arrests on a major climb just 2 days later, including a head first fall.

if you’re interested in learning more about self-arrest techniques or in brushing up your existing skills, I suggest you watch this excellent instructional video from the British Mountaineering Council and encourage you to visit their web site for more information.

Remember, learning how to use an ice axe properly requires that you receive propper instruction, wear appropriate safety gear including a climbing helmet, and that you always practice with someone else to be safe.

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  1. Good video and good advice. Since it is for beginners I'd like to add some comments about practice.

    Most people have difficulty scheduling time to practice in a suitable location. So it does not get done. I don't consider crampons and an ice axe to be safety equipment when used by someone who has not practiced… on the contrary they are dangerous weapons that are more likely to hurt someone than save someone.

    Probably the best way to begin is to take a course. It will include content that was not in the video such as how to carry the axe when it is not needed, how to stow it quickly when you need hands for scrambling. And it will include practice under the watchful eye of an instructor.

    Next best is to include some practice for a novice with some experienced hikers as part of a hike. Actually this can be so much fun the problem will be getting on with the climb.

    Although it is a matter of preference, I find that lots of hikers buy an axe that is too big and heavy. The truth is that it will be carried often and used seldom. So weight (lack of) is important. Also, it will not be used as a walking stick on level ground — it is for steep snow. It means that it should not be long. When I'm holding mine at my side the spike is well above my ankle.

    The part about moving carefully and not falling is important. A self arrest is for the times when the climber has made a mistake. While I've never had to use a self arrest with the axe, the training has been very useful when I've been skiing. On skis I am often on steep slopes with ugly run-outs and I do fall. The same moves that are practiced with the axe can work with ski poles. The key is to know how to act instinctively and not have to think it out.

    It is called an 'ice axe' but it is really for snow. I don't know anyone who has used their adze to chop steps in blue ice — the adze is now mainly used as a flat place for the hand when using the self-belay grip. A self arrest on steep blue ice is, well, unlikely.

  2. Great comment and all true. Finding a good place to practice is tough when you have to drive two hours to get to the mountains. Beginners should seek out club trips that feature practice sessions or find a good place to practice self arrests with other more experienced people. I'm in the process of doing this myself, and my strategy is to find hills used by sledders. If you start sliding downhill in a glissading position (on your butt), it's easy to roll over and practice the final half of the self arrest motion.

  3. Robert is absolutely right about practice. However, I disagree slightly with his point about the weight of the axe and the adze. He's not wrong, but my experience and use of the ice axe in the NE has been a bit different.

    First on weight, I used to use a relatively short (60 cm) Grivel Nepal that was easy to carry on a pack because of its length and light weight. However, when I pulled it out to support me on the trail or a bald summit I had to bend over and could not maneuver it as well because of the light weight. (Of course, I tend to like a heavier softball bat than my teammates too.) Similarly with the adze, I do use it to chop steps and grips so it is more than a self belay handle.

    For these reasons I recently purchased a heftier general mountaineering ice axe (it's also slightly longer) and suits the Adirondacks, Greens and Whites well. Of course, when I bought my old Grivel I was just getting into winter trails in college and was still trying the emulate the legendary climbers with their short axes on steep, steep slopes… but that's not my lifestyle in the mountains.

    Well, just another perspective. But training and practice for whatever tool someone chooses is critical.

  4. All good advice, however the most important thing that is often left unsaid, or doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves – is simply this – don’t under any circumstances let go of the axe. It sounds obvious but when you practice, and in reality, the forces can be such that if not prepared for it, you will let go. And without an axe, irrespective of the weight, length etc, you won’t stop… Also in reality the most likely position you’ll find yourself in is head first on your back sliding downhill. If you don’t practice from this starting position, then you won’t realise that you really, really need to get into the gym to do all those sit ups (crunches) that you’ve always been promising yourself you’d do – especially if you’re wearing a sack at the time (which let’s face it is reasonably likely).
    In my experience, a much more important area that needs training and experience is the reading of the lie of the land, snow conditions and in particular the ability to identify cornices and the risks that they present.

  5. I’m always confused when they say to never put your feet down. During our training for a 1986 climb of Mt Rainier they emphasized to have your butt up in the air and kick feet alternating somewhat fast. The purpose was to have all you weight on the shoulders/axe. With slippery clothing the only way to accomplish that was force your torso onto the ground/axe with movement of cramponed feet digging in.
    Has this technique changed over the years or just different styles?

    • Planting your feet is an excellent way to break your legs. NOT Recommended. Roll onto your tummy and bend your knees so your feet are off the ground, while you force the pick into the ground and put your weight on it to brake. You’ll be even more confused on a backboard if you dig in your crampons instead.

  6. 1986 Mt Rainier guides said that not everyone is strong enough to hold onto the axe while your nylon clothing and gravity are pulling you down fast. Your arms tend to go above your head quickly and your body weight is not focused on the position it needs to be, at the chest directly over the axe. We all practiced from many positions before we did the climb and not one had any problems but we really stopped well digging in our feet (alternating of course). That put our body weight exactly where it needed to be and we could hold that position a long time because we were basically resting on the shoulders in an upside down “V” shape. Not so much muscles being used in that position. Coming back down one guy slipped into a crevasse and that line of people did exactly as taught and held him instantly. I would love to hear if they have changed their policy and why.

  7. I emailed Rainier Mountaineering Inc. and got a Youtube video showing the self arrest as I described:
    “Ice Axe Technique with Ed Viesturs RMI”. The Mountain Guide person said they have not changed their way and the clip shows agressive digging in of feet. Hope that information gets out there. It is very effective for a fast moving person.

  8. Ed Viesturs isn’t wearing crampons – if he was he’d be somersaulting probably. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9znmZqCyYw

  9. You dig in your your toes when you’re barebooted. You go up on your knees instead when you’re pointy. Most of us assume that by the time you’re switching from trekking poles to ice axe, that you’ll have crampons on.

    You need to learn to arrest both ways, for when a glissade goes wrong. Never, ever, glissade in crampons.

  10. All I know for sure is that I and all of us were wearing crampons during the practice that he shows in the video. And I specifically asked in the email about breaking a bone or that they have changed methods and the answer was Viesturs video. Oh well, good luck to everyone. On a really steep fall, keep it in mind when the arms do not hold and the axe goes flying above your head.

  11. I just contacted NOLS and they said “it depends” on your speed, and the condition of the snow, soft or icy. That makes the most sense. One certainly has to think fast. When we were practicing tied with 4 people on a rope and all of us sliding I turned over fast from my back to front as instructed and found another person right there ready to be stabbed with my axe. I let myself slide a bit more and luckly he moved away. Asking about what I should have done the instructor said think quickly, every situation is different.

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