Remember the lucky fellow who caught a crampon and flipped over while glissading in the Gulf of Slides a decade ago? He landed squarely on his ice axe, impaling himself in the abdomen. Miraculously, he managed to hike out with the axe still firmly embedded; it had missed all his organs. The take-home lesson? An ice axe can save your life in certain situations, but it can also be very dangerous.
In the Northeast, ice axes are necessary only in limited circumstances. While you may want to add it to your winter gear list, you shouldn’t carry one until you’ve had instruction in its proper use. Get plenty of practice and follow these tips for using this helpful—and sharp—tool.
1. Many winter trips don’t require ice axes. They’re needed less than people think, says Boston Mountaineering Committee Vice Chair Richard Doucette: “It’s often overkill to use one for winter hiking.” There are three types of conditions that warrant use: relatively steep terrain; a wide open treeless landscape (if you’re in a treed area, you can grab a trunk if you lose your footing); and either ice or hard snow underfoot. Essentially, he says, bring an ice axe to any situation where you could start slipping and not stop, but “if you’re not going above treeline or to a steep trail, you’re better off leaving it home.”
2. Don’t pull double duty. An ice axe is not a walking stick with a second job as a safety tool. If you’re hunched over as you walk, leaning on your short axe like a cane, you should be using hiking poles instead. You won’t impale yourself, and they’ll allow you to stand up straight.
3. Move cautiously. While today’s nylon winter clothing will keep you warm and dry, it’s slick as grease on hard, icy surfaces. It’s also very easy to catch a crampon point in the fabric and slip. And once you start sliding, stopping is very difficult—even if you manage to stab your axe into the snow, your sheer speed might pull it right out of your hand. Try to avoid falling in the first place by taking slow, conscious steps.
4. Don’t spend too much. You don’t need the ultra lightweight climbers version, Doucette says. Look for hiking ice axes on sale for under $50. “In fact, I’ll sell you mine,” he jokes. “I’ve only used it three times in 10 years of winter mountaineering.” The longer they are, he adds, the more useful—generally, about 60–70 centimeters is appropriate for hiking. To find the right length for you, hold the axe head loosely in your hand with your arm hanging straight down. The spike should be level with your anklebone. Rule of thumb: Go longer if most of the terrain is gradual; shorter if it’s more consistently vertical.
5. Carry it correctly. When you’re hiking in treed or flat sections, slide the axe between your back and your pack or secure it by wrapping the head with the ice axe loop found on virtually every pack. When you get to steeper and more open areas, hold the axe with one hand on the head and one hand on the shaft, keeping it on the uphill side of your body.
6. Learn how to self-arrest. You can use your ice axe to stop an unexpected slide, but you’ll need training in proper technique. Take a class, and practice, practice, practice. If the time comes, you’ll only have a split second to react as you start accelerating downslope on your stomach, back, or even face first.