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Choosing the Right Ice Axe for Your Outdoor Adventures

For any mountaineer, the ice axe is an iconic and indispensable tool. It has a storied place in the history of mountaineering, whether you’re planning your first high-altitude expedition or adding to your existing gear, selecting the right ice axe is a critical decision that can impact your safety and performance in challenging environments. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the key considerations for choosing an ice axe that best fits your needs. We’ll explore the different types of activities supported by ice axes, how to determine the correct length, and the essential features to look for. Additionally, we’ll cover the basic components of an ice axe and the importance of using an ice axe leash.

If you’re selecting your first ice axe for a high-altitude expedition, it’s important to consider the type of activity it will support, how to measure the correct length, and to familiarize yourself with its parts.

Activities Supported by Ice Axes

Different outdoor activities require specific features in an ice axe. Here’s a breakdown of the main uses and the corresponding features to look for:

Classic Mountaineering

  • Purpose: Summiting snow-covered peaks with glaciers and crevasses.
  • Features:
    • Classic length (measured from the base of the thumb to the ankle).
    • Straight aluminum shaft, or a curved shaft for steep terrain.
    • Comfortable grip.
    • Steel head with a classic-curve pick.


  • Purpose: Climbing steep terrain with some snow or ice, using both hands and feet.
  • Features:
    • Classic length or up to 10cm shorter for minimal axe use.
    • Straight shaft or curved shaft for claw-like use.
    • Steel head with a classic-curve pick.


  • Purpose: Traveling trails with potential snow or ice sections, especially early or late in the hiking season.
  • Features:
    • Classic length or up to 10cm shorter for brief traverses or scrambles.
    • Either straight or curved shaft.
    • Comfortable grip.
    • Steel head with a classic-curve pick or an aluminum head for minimal use.

Ice Climbing

  • Purpose: Climbing frozen waterfalls, icefalls, or ice-covered rock slabs.
  • Features:
    • Shorter length.
    • Bent shafts.
    • Heads designed differently from classic ice axes.
    • Referred to as “ice tools” for vertical ice (>60° slopes), used in pairs.

Choosing the Right Ice-Axe Length

Ice axe sizes are measured from the tip to the top of the head, listed in centimeters. Here’s how to find the correct size:

  • Stand Properly: Stand upright and relaxed with your arm holding the axe head at your side.
  • Measure: Have someone measure the distance from the base of your thumb to your ankle.
  • Check Length: The tip of the spike should be even with or an inch above your ankle.

When to Choose a Shorter or Longer Ice Axe

Shorter Ice Axe

  • Advantages: Lighter weight.
  • Situations: Travel on steep terrain with minimal axe use.
  • Caution: Avoid axes shorter than 60cm to prevent the spike from being dangerously close during a self-arrest.

Longer Ice Axe

  • Advantages: Better for building snow anchors, probing for cornices and crevasses, and traveling on low-angle snowfields.
  • Situations: Predominantly using the axe for support on lower-angled terrain.
  • Caution: Longer axes can be unwieldy during self-arrest; avoid lengths over 70cm unless necessary.

Parts of an Ice Axe

Understanding the components of an ice axe helps in making an informed choice:

  • Head: Composed of the pick and adze, usually made of steel alloy. Aluminum heads are lighter and suitable for minimal use.
  • Pick: The pointed end for hooking and swinging into snow or ice, essential for self-arrest.
  • Adze: Used to cut steps or seats in snow or ice. Replaced by a hammer in ice-climbing axes.
  • Carabiner Hole: For attaching an ice-axe leash or clipping a carabiner.
  • Shaft: Typically aluminum for lightweight strength. Straight shafts are ideal for general mountaineering, while curved shafts are better for steep terrain.
  • Shaft Grip: Enhances comfort and security when grasping the shaft.
  • Spike: The sharp bottom point for penetrating snow and ice, used for support and belay.

Ice Axe Leashes

Leashes are sold separately and are crucial for securing the ice axe if dropped. Losing your axe can be extremely dangerous on glacier crossings and steep, snowy sections. Some climbers go leashless to avoid the risk of injury from being tethered to a sharp tool during a fall. Consider the terrain and potential risks when deciding whether to use a leash.

Final Note

Reading this guide is just the beginning. Make sure to get proper instruction and practice using an ice axe before relying on one in the field. Safe climbing!