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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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Just getting into winter hiking and hope to be spending some time in the Whites this winter. Trying to determine appropriate length for an ice axe purchase. I have seen reference to the appropriate length being no longer than hand to ankle length… but have also reference to the terrain being an important factor to be considered. For hiking in the Whites, wondering what would an appropriate length would be?

  4. Another use for the long handled general ice axe is chopping steps with the adze. Seems to be a lost art today. But I’ve seen hiking groups sit down and take 20 minutes to struggle into crampons to cross a 20-foot ice patch and then sit down again to take them all off. I just cut a few steps in a couple of minutes and walk right past. then the steps are there to help everyone for a few days.

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