How Climbing Gear Works

Ice Axes

Mountain climbers rely on ice axes when traveling routes that involve ice and snow. This versatile tool can be used in several ways, depending on the conditions you encounter.

An ice axe may be used as a walking stick when the climber holds the head in the center with the pick pointing backwards. It also can be used to form a secure anchor to bring up, or belay, a second climber. An axe is also a useful tool to cut footsteps in the ice or snow or to scoop out seats or trenches.

There are two classifications of ice axes: basic and technical. Basic axes are designed for the beginner or casual climber, and they're best suited for basic support. Technical grade axes have stronger shafts, and they can be used for vertical, technical climbing or in belaying.

There are five key components of an ice axe:

  1. The head is made of steel and features a pick and adze, a tool for smoothing rough cut wood. There's a hole in the center for attaching a wrist leash or carabiner.
  2. The pick is the pointed end of the head, slightly curved to help with ergonomics.
  3. The adze is the flat, wide end of the head used for chopping steps in hard snow and ice.
  4. The shaft is straight or slightly angled. Today, shafts are usually made of aluminum or titanium or a composite.
  5. The spike, or ferrule, is a steel point at the end of the shaft used for balance when the climber is holding the axe by its handle like a walking stick.

Ice axes range in price from $75 for the most basic steel and aluminum model to more than $300 for an advanced ice tool with a carbon fiber shaft.