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Thread: General Mountaineering Ice Axe vs An Actual Ice Axe

  1. #16
    Senior Member sierra's Avatar
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    A "general" ice axe is typically 70cm long and used mainly for snow climbing and self-belaying on steep hard snow. When I was in CO climbing 14ers, I started very early in the season and typically climbed long snow gullies, I self belayed myself with one 70cm tool backed up by a shorter 50 cm tool designed more for ice. The only time I have used an ice axe for hiking in the Whites, is spring climbing the snowfields on the cone of Washington, the winter route on Lions head and right gully in Tuckerman ravine. The shorter Technical axes are designed for steep ice climbing and would rarely be used on the 4ks. In the two pictures you showed, a 70cm general axe would be sufficient with good traction as well.

  2. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by sierra View Post
    A "general" ice axe is typically 70cm long and used mainly for snow climbing and self-belaying on steep hard snow. When I was in CO climbing 14ers, I started very early in the season and typically climbed long snow gullies, I self belayed myself with one 70cm tool backed up by a shorter 50 cm tool designed more for ice. The only time I have used an ice axe for hiking in the Whites, is spring climbing the snowfields on the cone of Washington, the winter route on Lions head and right gully in Tuckerman ravine. The shorter Technical axes are designed for steep ice climbing and would rarely be used on the 4ks. In the two pictures you showed, a 70cm general axe would be sufficient with good traction as well.
    So in an example Like #2 you'd use a general axe to swing it into the ice and pull up on it? I thought that was not recommended considering it has no descending angle on the pick side and could slip out. I thought you were supposed to use a tool with a descending angle for such placements. I agree this is not an all-the time thing but in low snow years with a lot of ice it seems like most routes to tree line have at least a few steep nasty pitches like this and trees aren't always in the right places to grab. Looking at lower risk options for these scenarios. If a general axe would perform in this situation I suppose I'd just stay with what I am doing.

    And as an aside, I thought the length of a general mountaineering axe was a function of your height. I seem to remember when I bought mine following a sizing guide that you measured from your hand to the floor for the proper size. I'm 6'3" and I believe 75cm was what I am supposed to use. I think I have a 70cm because I couldn't find a 75cm axe and it feels a bit short to me. It's been almost 10 years since I bought it so the details are foggy.

  3. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by DayTrip View Post
    It never seems as bad going up as it does descending. I guess that is the crux of my question. You can get your feet solid with crampons but how do you keep your grip on the scramble with your hands?
    To safely descend that section you should probably down climb, which is basically the same way you went up except in reverse. It would be a good idea to learn how to do something like that with someone belaying you. It may be worthwhile to take an "Introduction to Ice Climbing" course.

    Check out this video: https://www.ime-usa.com/ime/about-us/
    Last edited by jfb; 12-08-2022 at 07:26 AM.

  4. #19
    Senior Member ChrisB's Avatar
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    As with all other forms of human activity...

    There is a pretty good YouTube video for basic ice axe use.
    Don't let your mind write a check your body canít cash

  5. #20
    Senior Member hikerbrian's Avatar
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    Very interesting thread. I've thought about this a bit too - the use case for a mountaineering axe out west is obvious (the Cascade volcanoes, glaciated terrain in N. Cascades, some of the CO 14ers in winter, etc) where you've got these big, steep, open snow fields and you need a way to self-belay and (hopefully very rarely) self-arrest. Your axe is out and in use all the time. There's MUCH less of that terrain in NE. Almost none. But you do get these short water-ice pitches in the woods that can be freaky. 6 or 8 years ago we were finishing a Pemi-loop backpack, and the section coming up from the east to Garfield shelter was full-on water ice. None of us had brought tools, and our packs were pretty heavy, so we summoned all of our crampon technique and took it very carefully. A fall would have been extremely serious - probably 50 meters slide or more with a runout into trees. Not good. That's an extreme case, and it's the worst I've run into in the Whites. The 10 meter ice bulge is all over the place though. You see that all the time. How best to deal with it?

    My ice climbing experience is limited - the AMC ice climbing course (2 weekends in NH) and a couple of the alpine multi-pitch classics in Pinkham (always following). I haven't led a single ice pitch, but I've swung tools enough on TR to at least have some idea of what feels secure and what does not. So others I'm sure could speak with more experience on what the limitations of the tools are. Anyway, here are my thoughts. Ice tools are usually heavier than a mountaineering axe (at least my BD Vipers are; maybe there are lighter tools?), probably by half a pound. So you pay a weight penalty by carrying one. Also, because of the shape of the head of the tool (again, speaking of my Vipers), some of the grips you'd use with a mountaineering axe - I forget all of the French names, but where you're holding the adze, for example, and pushing the pick into whatever surface you're climbing, mostly to get a point of balance - this feels LESS secure with an ice tool, though it may be my inexperience with the tool. Also, the grippy teeth on the tool are hard on your gloves and hands if you're using this grip. On short, moderately steep pitches, like the Hillary Step on Lion Head winter route, using that technique with a mountaineering axe is really useful. You don't need to weight the axe, you just need the pick to provide balance; your weight is over your crampons. If you had a tool for that pitch rather than an axe, I think swinging and placing the tool would feel bomber. But then you'd find yourself having to completely weight and trust your crampons anyway while you pulled the tool out to swing and make the next placement. I think that would actually feel less secure as both of those processes would require more energy and movement. The alternative would be to bring two tools. But then you're looking at a large weight penalty and a big expense, and the possibility of getting yourself into no fall territory without the experience to know if your tool placements are bomber.

    My feeling is that if you're just bringing one of them (axe or tool), an axe is actually more secure - it's more comfortable to hold at the head, it's lighter, and it takes only subtle motions to place and move. While the security of swinging and placing a tool seems desirable, you're left with a more significant challenge when you want to move. The way to deal with those ice bulges, I think, is to get very good with your crampon technique, front-pointing in particular. To feel secure with your front-pointing, you do need appropriate crampons. I don't know all the newest models, but the ones with flexible bars combined with soft boots - these will be tricky to really kick with confidence. Possible, but tricky. If water ice is a possibility, either bring stiff-soled mountaineering boots and rigid crampons (and an ice axe) and place your feet deliberately; or make peace with a risky pitch of climbing; or feel confident turning around and leaving that challenge for another day. I think those are all better options than buying and bringing along a tool or two.
    Sure. Why not.

  6. #21
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    You are all somewhat correct. Of course that means the inverse is true too. If you want a good stick in solid water ice then nothing will beat a modern tool with a curved shaft and heavily drooped pick. If you want to dry tool (hooking roots in the hiking context) then a pick meant for that will be optimal. I you want to use if for security on steep snow then a long straight shaft will be best. If you were a carpenter and could pick one hammer what would it be? Framing? Finishing?

    So what's the answer? Like many things - it depends. The traditional mountaineering ax will be the most versatile - may not be ideal for all applications but "good enough" when accompanied with the right technique (45 years ago I soloed Pinnacle Gully with 2 straight shafted axes. Today I'd want the fanciest tools I could get)..

    Actually for the OP's use case I think there is a good argument to be made for having a good modern tool - doesn't have to be top end - could buy one used at the IME consignment shop or where ever. But only deploy it when encountering (relatively) steep ice.

  7. #22
    Senior Member sierra's Avatar
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    Ice axes are designed typically for a specific purpose, it's not just the angle of the pick, but the pick itself. I have a 70cm general axe that has a serrated, but fairly dull pick. It's designed for snow climbing and self belaying up steep snow. I have a 70cm and a 50cm that both have very defined and sharp picks designed to penetrate hard ice. If climbing snow, I would take the first axe, if climbing routes like central gully in Huntington's or Tucks, I would take the latter. In all my years hiking the 4ks with over 1500 4k ascents, I have never carried an ice axe, if I encounter ice, I rely on my crampons to climb it. There are routes that require an ice axe for safety, but I don't classify them as hiking routes, to me, they are climbing routes as the skillset to climb them clearly falls into climbing. Examples, North Slide of Tripyramid, Lions Head winter route, King Ravine headwall, Great Gulf headwall, Lincolns Throat. If you want to get up ice with an ice axe, you need an ice axe designed to climb ice, it's that simple. p.s. you are correct in the length as well, for your height a 70cm would be too short for a general axe. I once bought an old Forrester that was 85 cm long, it had a monstrous pick that was thick, serrated and fairly dull, but man oh man was that axe great for climbing snow, you sank that axe in and you were as safe as a baby in her mothers arms. I soloed the Dana couloir on Mt. Dana (Yosemite 13,003ft) with it, it was perfect as any fall was certainly fatal.

  8. #23
    Senior Member nartreb's Avatar
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    I often carry a general axe in winter, but almost never use it. There are not that many hiking trails in New England where you have the risk of a fall *and* the chance to self-arrest. For the icy, rocky conditions we most often face, something with a better grip would be better. Note that adding a wrist strap (tied it to the head of the axe) makes a huge difference - I strongly recommend it. As others have mentioned, you can also tape up the shaft, but that makes it less useful in "cane" position. On the other hand, most of the icy, rocky sections we worry about are not actually steep enough (at least, not for very long) for an "ice tool" to offer a comfortable grip - you end up crawling. So, it's a debate that probably will never be settled. Carry one or the other, or both? Or a "hybrid"? Pick one depending on the trail and conditions?

    If I'm not expecting to need an ice tool, I'm pretty confident I won't really need one. But if I'm not sure whether I *might* need something, then an axe has the chance to be at least a little useful in more kinds of terrain. It's an easy call to turn around or find a detour if you find unexpected vertical ice; the axe is there for the occasional exposed slope where crampons alone might not be reassuring enough.

    One final thought: please do NOT use any kind of ice axe to hook onto roots or trunks. This kills the trees! A little patience will usually reveal a suitable crack in the rock or a firm chunk of ice.

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    Quote Originally Posted by nartreb View Post

    One final thought: please do NOT use any kind of ice axe to hook onto roots or trunks. This kills the trees! A little patience will usually reveal a suitable crack in the rock or a firm chunk of ice.
    Tough to stick to those pure ethics when you are sketching through a turf topout at the Lake...

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    Is there such a thing as a general axe with a removable head where I could carry an angled pick for that rare ice bulge but mostly use the normal type pick for the usual conditions? Is that the kind of thing that could be changed easily in the field or is that something I'd have to decide on in advance and change at home?

    Sierra - maybe my 70cm axe being short is part of my not being crazy about it. Not as long as it should be so I am hunching and reaching when I shouldn't be. Maybe I should be looking at another axe - but a longer general purpose one versus an actual tool. Wish there was a place near me that actually carried this sort of thing so I could go check them out in person versus ordering online.

  11. #26
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    Quote Originally Posted by nartreb View Post
    So, it's a debate that probably will never be settled. .
    Yah I think that is where I'm at in my hiking progression now. I've long since settled on the way I like to layer, shelters I prefer, packs, stoves, etc. but have these few lingering "issues" that stay with me season to season and never seem to get resolved in a satisfying manner. I get by OK but I don't like it so I futz over it. That's usually when I ask questions here and see if I can unearth a nugget from someone who had the same frustration and figured out a better way. More often than that I learn something new that helps.

    P.S. On the roots and trees I don't use live trees. I'm talking those dead, well worn branches sticking out of the ground from stumps, blowdowns and stuff like that. Use of an actual live tree would only be done if I felt there was a high probability of a dangerous fall and there was no other option available. I believe in LNT but I'm not plunging to my death to adhere to it.

  12. #27
    Senior Member skiguy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DayTrip View Post
    Yah I think that is where I'm at in my hiking progression now. I've long since settled on the way I like to layer, shelters I prefer, packs, stoves, etc. but have these few lingering "issues" that stay with me season to season and never seem to get resolved in a satisfying manner. I get by OK but I don't like it so I futz over it. That's usually when I ask questions here and see if I can unearth a nugget from someone who had the same frustration and figured out a better way. More often than that I learn something new that helps.

    P.S. On the roots and trees I don't use live trees. I'm talking those dead, well worn branches sticking out of the ground from stumps, blowdowns and stuff like that. Use of an actual live tree would only be done if I felt there was a high probability of a dangerous fall and there was no other option available. I believe in LNT but I'm not plunging to my death to adhere to it.
    Sounds like your comfortable hiking but not climbing with an ice axe. A basic mountaineering and ice climbing course would go a long way to bolster your self-confidence with the latter. A lot of us climbed ice before all the fancy tools came out using non-ridged crampons and a mountaineering axe. Technique is ultimate in that game and learning properly and practicing it is what it takes to feel comfortable.
    Last edited by skiguy; 12-08-2022 at 04:26 PM.
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  13. #28
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    Quote Originally Posted by DayTrip View Post
    So in an example Like #2 you'd use a general axe to swing it into the ice and pull up on it? I thought that was not recommended considering it has no descending angle on the pick side and could slip out. I thought you were supposed to use a tool with a descending angle for such placements. I agree this is not an all-the time thing but in low snow years with a lot of ice it seems like most routes to tree line have at least a few steep nasty pitches like this and trees aren't always in the right places to grab. Looking at lower risk options for these scenarios. If a general axe would perform in this situation I suppose I'd just stay with what I am doing.

    And as an aside, I thought the length of a general mountaineering axe was a function of your height. I seem to remember when I bought mine following a sizing guide that you measured from your hand to the floor for the proper size. I'm 6'3" and I believe 75cm was what I am supposed to use. I think I have a 70cm because I couldn't find a 75cm axe and it feels a bit short to me. It's been almost 10 years since I bought it so the details are foggy.

    I am 5’8” and find that my lightweight 75-cm Black Diamond mountaineering ax a good length for me. No fun being hunched over all the time, and easier to self arrest with an ax this length than with a heavy 55-cm ice tool.

  14. #29
    Senior Member sierra's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DayTrip View Post
    Is there such a thing as a general axe with a removable head where I could carry an angled pick for that rare ice bulge but mostly use the normal type pick for the usual conditions? Is that the kind of thing that could be changed easily in the field or is that something I'd have to decide on in advance and change at home?

    Sierra - maybe my 70cm axe being short is part of my not being crazy about it. Not as long as it should be so I am hunching and reaching when I shouldn't be. Maybe I should be looking at another axe - but a longer general purpose one versus an actual tool. Wish there was a place near me that actually carried this sort of thing so I could go check them out in person versus ordering online.
    Ok, here's my recommendation. A good axe for what you describe, would be the Petzel Summit. They just don't do not come in long sizes, because nobody wants a long axe, you might as well be using trekking poles. That being said, this axe will get you up icy routes, I'm just using this model as an example. If you have to bend over that much, you should be relying on your feet, not an ice axe. Ice axes are shorter, because you are typically climbing steep ice and it's in your face or close to it. The recommendation by someone before me about getting Chouinard's book "Climbing Ice" is a very good idea, I had that book and that got me started. Your real issue is a mesh of gear and technique and not using one or both the correct way. I hope that doesn't sound condescending, sure not meant to be, but your lack of skillset cannot be overcome with gear. IME has a ton of consignment gear, it's not close to you, but you could always call them and see what kind of axes they have in the basement. I bought most of my axes there and they were all used.

  15. #30
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    Quote Originally Posted by DayTrip View Post
    Is there such a thing as a general axe with a removable head where I could carry an angled pick for that rare ice bulge but mostly use the normal type pick for the usual conditions? Is that the kind of thing that could be changed easily in the field or is that something I'd have to decide on in advance and change at home?
    Chouinard used to make axes with removable picks and were called X-tools. That's the kind I have, with the classic pick: https://forums.redpointuniversity.co...on-1969-1989/9

    You would not want to change a pick while standing on front points.

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