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Do You Need an Ice Axe to Winter Hike in the White Mountains?

Men with Ice Axes

If you hike in the winter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, there are certain routes and trails where it can be handy to have an ice axe to arrest a fall, chop steps, for stability when walking on a steep slope, or as an anchor when there aren’t any good handholds around you. While it’s true that you don’t need an ice axe most of the time when winter hiking in the Whites, when you want one, it sure is handy to have.

There are hikers, some quite prominent ones, who will tell you that you never need an ice axe for winter hiking in the Whites Mountains. You might very well be able to get by without one if you stick to easier routes or only hike in good trail conditions. But an ice axe is a good safety tool to carry when tackling winter routes that traverse steep, icy, or sketchy terrain. An ice axe weighs next to nothing and can make the difference between a harrowing day and one that’s easily managed.

Learning how to use an axe is also a fun skill to learn if you like learning backcountry skills. You’ll be surprised how useful it can be. Learning how to self-arrest with an ice axe is also important if you ever need to use full mountaineering crampons, in the Whites or elsewhere, since an unbroken slide in crampons is a bad way to break an ankle or leg.

ice Axe BD Raven

There are three parts to a mountaineering/walking-style ice axe:

  • The pick which can be plunged into ice as an anchor point or used to arrest an uncontrolled slide when held in the ready position.
  • The shaft which can be plunged deeply into snow as a handhold or rope anchor or used as a friction brake when sliding down a slope on your butt on purpose (called glissading).
  • The back or adze, which is used to literally chop steps into a steep or vertical face so you can climb or descend it safely. The adze also makes a passible beer bottle opener if you forget to bring one.
Surveying the Osceola Chimney Bypass
Surveying the Osceola Chimney Bypass

Here are some examples of where I’ve used an ice axe in the White Mountains to give you a sense of the trails where it can come in handy in winter:

  • Chopping steps on the very icy and steep Fishing Jimmy Trail en route to North Kinsman. This means creating a flat ledge with the adze of the axe, so you can traverse or get down an icy face.
  • Self-arresting a fall on the Lionhead trail on Mt Washington.
  • For added stability on the Wildcat Range Trail when ascending Wildcat A (Mtn) from Carter Notch. This section of the trail traverses an avalanche zone where a fall or uncontrolled slide would be very bad.
  • As an anchor point for descending the very icy and steep section of the Osceola Ridge Trail from East Osceola (Mtn) down to the Greely Pond Trail.
  • For stability, and to prevent an uncontrolled slide down the west face of Mt Lafayette.
  • For stability, and to prevent an uncontrolled slide down the Pine Bend Trail returning from North Tripyramid.
  • As an anchor and dagger point for climbing the Sabbaday Trail from the Kanc to Middle Tripyramid
  • Climbing the Blueberry Ledge Trail on the way to Mt Whiteface when it’s handy to have a firm anchor to pull yourself up several slippery rock ledges that lack good handholds
  • For stability, when descending the steep Walden Trail near Mt Passaconaway
  • As an anchor and for stability when climbing the ice flows below the Lakes of the Clouds Hut on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.
  • Glissading down (sliding on your but using the axe as friction brake) on numerous higher angle slopes instead of hiking down them.
  • Using the pick as a solid anchor point when climbing Mt Jackson from the East
  • For stability, when climbing the ledges on Mt Crawford or next to the falls on the Nancy Pond Trail in winter
  • As a solid anchor, when descending or ascending the chimney bypass between East Osceola (Mtn) and Mt Osceola
  • For stability, when crossing the avalanche slide while descending the east side of East Osceola (facing Mad River Notch) in winter.
  • As a solid anchor point or for chopping steps on the Beaver Brook Trail while ascending or descending Mt Moosilauke

While I’m sure people have hiked all these routes without an ice axe, I have to tell you, I feel a hell of a lot safer and more in control when I have one with me.

That doesn’t mean you have to carry an ice axe ALL of the time. I don’t. But when you research routes with maps and guidebooks or NewEnglandTrailConditions.com (as opposed to asking about them on Facebook), you can usually figure out whether you want to bring an ice axe along.

Learn How to Use an Ice Axe

The best way to learn how to use an ice axe for winter hiking and mountaineering is to take a class with one of the mountain guiding services in North Conway (NH). I took my first mountaineering course with IME (International Mountain Equipment) a “while ago” and I’ve used it ever since. Redline Guiding is another guide service that is also very popular within the hiking community.

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 10,000 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 12 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 576 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

5 comments

  1. Good well written article. Yes an ice axe comes in handy in the Whites in winter, no question. It has saved my butt plenty of times.

    • So many other ways to save weight than leaving an ice axe behind. When you want an ice axe you want it bad.

      Not at all unusual for a trail “to go technical” with snow when the texture of the snow changes or refreezes into something similar to an icey luge run.

  2. What really makes this post stand out is the excellent list of places you might want one. That’s awesome.

  3. Thanks for a well-written article and example scenarios where an ice axe is your “ace in the hole”. Similarly, took my avalanche/crevasse rescue training at IME. Used my ice axe on several winter assents in the whites including technical assents from Huntington’s ravine. Also thought your recommendation for planning was spot on. My personal preference is to err on the side of caution so I’m more likely to grab the axe for any of the more challenging routes in the whites.

  4. Good article. When I started winter hiking years ago, no one used poles but everyone had an ice axe. It was just part of the “crampon – ice axe” system. Took classes from AMC, but Chouinard had a book on basic ice climbing that was also a great resource. He liked to teach the “ French technique “ for using crampons on less-than-vertical ice.
    Another area for your list are the steep sections off Avalon. In the right conditions, if you start sliding there without an axe, you’re not stopping until you hit something.

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