European Directive on Personal Protective Equipment came into force,
equipment deemed to be "safety" has to bear the CE mark,
showing that the manufacturer has achieved a required standard in
production, testing and quality control. How it affects ice axes is
somewhat muddy, given that the actual standard to be adopted is still
only provisional. What is certain is that CE marked safety equipment
must come with technical instructions, and an explanation of its intended
Back in the classical days of hob-nailed mountaineering, the adze
was an important feature, used to cut steps. Crampons have taken away
much of the need for step cutting, but it's still handy to be able
to swipe lumps out of packed snow and ice, particularly when it's
all you've got to dig that emergency bivvy!
Compare a climbing axe with a walking model, and you'll see that the
climbing pick is more acutely angled. A climber wants it to bite first
time when he whacks it into the ice. But a walking pick is primarily
an emergency brake, used for self arrests after you've lost your footing.
A steeply angled pick would be more likely to snatch out of your hands,
so the walker's version is almost perpendicular to the shaft, with
just the merest curve, designed for safe progressive braking. Mountaineering
models may have a slightly more pronounced curve and teeth, handy
for steeper terrain where putting the pick into the snow can give
you a useful handle to help you up.
Axes for walking/mountaineering come with longer shafts than climbing
axes, providing a certain amount of security as a "third leg".
Held by the head, this is the way it'll spend most of its time in
The easy way to determine the length correct for you is to hold the
axe by its head, arm loose by your side. The point of the spike should
be around two to three inches above the ground. Any longer and it'll
be unwieldy - shorter isn't recommended for beginners, although you
may see more experienced mountaineers with shorter ones. Sizes range
from around 50cms, stepping up in 5cm increments to 70 or 80cms -
sometimes more, depending on the make.
Budget axes or purely walking models may not necessarily have grippers
- those that do will have a moulded rubber or plastic sheath on the
lower part of the shaft, either texturised or ergonomically shaped
to provide some grip when you're holding that end.
LOOPS OR LEASHES?
Some use loops to remain attached to their axe in the event of a momentary
slip of the hand, some use longer leashes - others prefer not to,
but there are plus and minus points for each.
Sliding wrist loop
Pros: Enables you to stay in contact with your axe whether
you're holding it by the head or shaft.
Cons: You need to change the loop over to the other wrist every
time you change hands to keep the axe on your uphill side. Some contend
that keeping the axe on a loop or leash means there's a greater chance
of being injured by the axe if you lose your grip on it when you're
sliding. (But you will anyway if you lose your axe during a slip).
Pros: With a longer webbing leash attached to the head of the
axe, you can either keep the wrist loop permanently on one wrist -
it's long enough not to need swapping over every time the axe changes
hands - or you can attach it to your rucksack waist belt.
Cons: With a bit more dangling about, you need to take a little
extra care not to get it tangled with anything, particularly if you're
Pros: Greater freedom to swap hands quickly. No chance of getting
whacked about the head by a flailing axe if it's wrested from your
grip during a tumble...
Cons: ...but hang on a second, is that the top of a crag
I'm sliding towards?