How to Use an Ice Ax

ShutterstockA mountaineer practices the valuable, lifesaving skill of self arrest.

The ice ax is an essential mountaineering tool— arguably the essential tool—when climbing large, glaciated peaks or when ascending steep routes on any mountain in the winter. When exploring peaks like Maine’s Katahdin or New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in winter, using an ice ax—along with crampons—is not only recommended, it’s a necessity.

Ice axes are made up of two main components: the head and the shaft. The shaft, which is typically constructed of lightweight metal, is the longer part of the ax that often has a triangular spike at the bottom. The head (usually steel) has two main parts: the pick and the adze. The adze is broad and flat, while the sharp pick on the opposite end is used to pierce snow and ice.

There are two main types of ice axes: technical climbing axes and general mountaineering axes. While technical axes are shorter, have a curved shaft, and are primarily used on vertical ice climbing routes, general axes are longer, straighter, and predominantly used as self-arrest devices on mountaineering routes. Self-arrest—the act of stopping an unexpected fall down a steep slope without the aid of ropes or other climbers—is an act that all mountaineers should be prepared for.

While ascending or descending, hold the ax with the shaft pointed at the ground, spearing it into the snow with every step. The ax is held with palm directly across the head and thumb under the adze. A leash can be used to secure the ax to either your wrist or harness, and will prevent you from losing your ax if it’s dropped. With the ax held properly, climbers must follow two main rules:

  1. Always carry the ax in the uphill hand, and switch hands whenever the terrain changes. During a climb, the uphill side of a route can often reverse simply due to topographical changes. Also, the way you position your body while climbing can dictate which hand is uphill at any time.
  2. Always carry the ax with the adze facing forward and the pick facing backward. This ensures that the ax is already well positioned for a self-arrest maneuver.

In the event of a fall, secure the shaft with your free hand, pull the ax up and in to the shoulder/chest area, and then drive the pick into the ground with full body-weight force. If the ax is positioned properly—in the uphill hand and pick facing back—when the fall occurs, the climber will be able to jam it into the ground with the force necessary to stop the fall quickly and safely. During self-arrest, it’s important to lift your feet slightly off the ground to avoid inadvertently catching your crampons in the ice.

Ice axes are not limited to one particular use. For example, axes can be used to chop steps in snow or ice using the adze. You can also use an ice ax as a stability tool akin to a single trekking pole. And axes can serve as temporary anchors on steep sections of a route; you can employ simple ice climbing techniques for short stretches by punching the pick into the ice and using the ax as a hold. The latter use can be especially helpful during the descent of a steep, icy route.

Having an ice ax in hand won’t be enough when that unexpected fall happens—you need to be familiar with its use. Seek qualified training before attempting a route that requires the use of an ice ax. Much like reading a short route description of the Presidential Traverse won’t eliminate the need to carry a map and study the route in detail beforehand, simply studying self-arrest techniques will never substitute for real, hands-on experience. My initial ice ax training sticks with me to this day. I’m glad I completed it—my life often depends on it.


About the Author…

Matt Mills

AMC Outdoors inspires people to engage in outdoor conservation and recreation through meaningful stories.

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