General Mountaineering Ice Axe vs An Actual Ice Axe

vftt.org

Help Support vftt.org:

This site may earn a commission from merchant affiliate links, including eBay, Amazon, and others.

DayTrip

Well-known member
Joined
May 13, 2013
Messages
3,696
Reaction score
124
Been going through all my Winter crap the past week or two and got to wondering why I have a general mountaineering ice axe. Is that really the right tool for hiking in the Northeast with steep, icy trails in the trees for most hikes? I carry it pretty religiously and have used it on a few occasions. In only 1 case did I actually feel like I needed it - a particularly icy day on Whiteface on that "problem ledge" where I could not get up the shoulder high ledge without sticking the point in and hauling myself up (after removing my pack). If I didn't have it I would have turned around (and read in trail reports later that several people turned around there for that exact reason). It worked but I didn't feel it was ideal for what I was trying to do.

The only time I ever really think of using the axe is on steep terrain and it is rarely just a steep, snowy field. It's always flow ice and rocks and trees on a steep trail like Ammo, the Hancocks or similar terrain with high fall potential. You can't plant the spike in that stuff and you can't self arrest on it. Wouldn't an actual axe be more useful with a curved hand grip and guard so you could plant it in the ice, gaps in rocks or hook a tree root and get a secure hand hold while you're adjusting your feet? Out above tree line you could still self arrest with it if you had too.

It seems like a general mountaineering axe is the wrong tool for the job in the Whites. Anyone care to weigh in on that? I see more and more general mountaineering ice axes now on Winter hikers...almost always tied nicely to their packs and not in use. If I recall from past Winter posts it doesn't seem like many people here on VFTT carry one, wear a helmet in this type of terrain, etc.
 
Handy on the steeps as a portable handrail. Great to blow up snow bombs by flicking it so the snow doesn't end up on your head and back. Handy to hook and pull yourself up. For camping, anchor for tent. Useful to break up stream ice to melt water for stove. Lots of others.
 
"Ice axes" come in a broad range.

For most NE hiking uses, the "mountaineering axe" is, in fact the right tool. It will only be used in a few spots along the route; the rest of the time it will be on the pack. On long, open snow climbs, like in the Cascades, the axe will be used a lot more; almost continuously.

Shorter "climbing" tools are very powerful, but almost never needed when hiking in the NE, and sometimes not helpful. On long, open snow climbs, the shorter tool is not very useful at all.

Many people use ice tools well; many others carry them to "look cool."

If you can find a copy, pick up and read Chouinard's "Climbing Ice." It's old, but it's definitive in terms of how to use the mountaineering axe. You may pick up a few pointers that will make the mountaineering axe more of the right tool in some situations. (Freedom of the Hills has some of this also, but the take in "Climbing Ice" is more specific.)
 
Many people use ice tools well; many others carry them to "look cool."

I definitely fall into the "use ice tools" category. I am more than willing to utilize any tool if I feel it is necessary, regardless of what people think.

As far as tutorials, I've read and watched many (I own MFOTH), get the fundamentals, etc. I've used my general axe on firm snowfields like Monroe's steep face, that open stretch on the Crawford Path leaving the LOC head toward Washington, etc and it seemed like the right tool for the situation. Above tree line I get the use and I do use it much more than most.

I guess my "issue" if I can call it that is in the trees on steep, icy trails. The mountaineering axe just seems more problematic in that terrain. You can't plunge the spike into a solid ice flow and because there is no grip and the shaft just above the spike is smooth metal it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence getting a sure grip if you used it to hook something to pull yourself up something. The angle of the spike is also more neutral and not as good for sinking into the ice.
 
It seems like a general mountaineering axe is the wrong tool for the job in the Whites. Anyone care to weigh in on that? I see more and more general mountaineering ice axes now on Winter hikers...almost always tied nicely to their packs and not in use. If I recall from past Winter posts it doesn't seem like many people here on VFTT carry one, wear a helmet in this type of terrain, etc.

I consider a general mountaineering ice axe to be an actual ice axe. Can you provide more detail as far as what you consider the difference to be?
 
I consider a general mountaineering ice axe to be an actual ice axe. Can you provide more detail as far as what you consider the difference to be?

Sorry. I'm not sure what the distinctions/styles are other than the general straight shafted design I own (obviously). I'm talking about the type of axe with an actual grip/handle and "guards" that prevent the hand from slipping off so you can stick it in the ice and get a solid hold to drag yourself up stuff versus plunging it into the ground to prevent a slide.
 
"Ice axes" come in a broad range.

For most NE hiking uses, the "mountaineering axe" is, in fact the right tool. It will only be used in a few spots along the route; the rest of the time it will be on the pack. On long, open snow climbs, like in the Cascades, the axe will be used a lot more; almost continuously.

Shorter "climbing" tools are very powerful, but almost never needed when hiking in the NE, and sometimes not helpful. On long, open snow climbs, the shorter tool is not very useful at all.

Many people use ice tools well; many others carry them to "look cool."

If you can find a copy, pick up and read Chouinard's "Climbing Ice." It's old, but it's definitive in terms of how to use the mountaineering axe. You may pick up a few pointers that will make the mountaineering axe more of the right tool in some situations. (Freedom of the Hills has some of this also, but the take in "Climbing Ice" is more specific.)

Great summation. Especially the recommendation to read Chouinard's "Climbing Ice".
 
Sorry. I'm not sure what the distinctions/styles are other than the general straight shafted design I own (obviously). I'm talking about the type of axe with an actual grip/handle and "guards" that prevent the hand from slipping off so you can stick it in the ice and get a solid hold to drag yourself up stuff versus plunging it into the ground to prevent a slide.

The ones with grips/handles are usually called "ice tools" and are designed for climbing vertical ice. 50 years ago, all ice axes had straight shafts and the only real differences were the shape of the pick and the overall length. For general mountaineering, the common length was 70 cm and for climbing ice, the common length was 50 or 60 cm and the pick was curved downwards a bit more. What I use in the Whites is a straight shaft axe that's 50 cm long. It's too short for using as a walking stick, but good for scrambling up steep ice pitches and would be good for self-arresting.

You can tie a short leash through the eye at the top to prevent your hand from slipping off the end when you use it as a hook to grab trees and rocks.
 
The ones with grips/handles are usually called "ice tools" and are designed for climbing vertical ice.

OK. Thanks for the clarification. I guess I would be asking then about using an ice axe versus an ice tool on trails.
 
Maybe examples would help clarify what I'm wondering about:
1) Scenario 1 - Snowfields on Monroe. Very hard snow, steep angle. General mountaineering axe very useful.
2) Scenario 2 - Vey steep wall of solid ice with snow loose snow on it. General mountaineering axe seems useless.

I'm sure everyone's experiences vary but for my hiking I run into Scenario #2 far more often than Scenario #1. So from a probability point of view I'd prefer to carry gear for Scenario #2 vs Scenario #1.

Example 1.jpg
Example 2.jpg
 
Last edited:
Maybe examples would help clarify what I'm wondering about:
1) Scenario 1 - Snowfields on Monroe. Very hard snow, steep angle. General mountaineering axe very useful.
2) Scenario 2 - Vey steep wall of solid ice with snow loose snow on it. General mountaineering axe seems useless.

I'm sure everyone's experiences vary but for my hiking I run into Scenario #2 far more often than Scenario #1. So from a probability point of view I'd prefer to carry gear for Scenario #2 vs Scenario #1.

View attachment 6944
View attachment 6943

i'd feel safe using my 50 cm axe on both of those scenarios.

Another comment is that in your scenario 2 picture, all the footprints go around the ice. My footprints would go straight up because I would also be wearing 12point crampons.
 
Last edited:
Maybe examples would help clarify what I'm wondering about:
1) Scenario 1 - Snowfields on Monroe. Very hard snow, steep angle. General mountaineering axe very useful.
2) Scenario 2 - Vey steep wall of solid ice with snow loose snow on it. General mountaineering axe seems useless.

I'm sure everyone's experiences vary but for my hiking I run into Scenario #2 far more often than Scenario #1. So from a probability point of view I'd prefer to carry gear for Scenario #2 vs Scenario #1.

View attachment 6944
View attachment 6943

Looking at the photos as a climber, not a hiker, I would characterize photo 2 as "not that steep." With sharp crampons and good balance, that's "walkable" terrain. You will want to practice crampon footwork.

I recognize that crampons and balance vary a lot. I have plenty of "wobbly" moments these days, compared to decades ago. If it's too steep or slick to walk, you should climb. "Climbing" terrain like in the photo will be much akin to crawling, because of the low angle. You need front points, as jfb mentioned. The axe will be used in "Piolet Traction" ("pulling on the ice axe"). A leash helps, as jfb also mentioned. You can also tape the shaft off the axe; coat it with grippy rubber (like what's used on pliers handles); or select grippy gloves (the grip of the fingers and palms of various gloves is a constant topic of conversation among ice climbers).
 
i'd feel safe using my 50 cm axe on both of those scenarios.

Another comment is that in your scenario 2 picture, all the footprints go around the ice. My footprints would go straight up because I would also be wearing 12point crampons.

Yah I couldn't find a better picture fast. The photo makes it almost look flat but it is of a section that is quite vertical and about 15' tall. Most people, myself included, went up the left side and hung off some trees but it was really no better there than the middle except for the trees to grab. All the foot placements were angled. As you went into the woods it was ledge and steeps and had no obvious bypass. The picture makes it look easier than it really was. This was in NY so I had snowshoes on per the law. On the way down I said "#### that" I'm not killing myself for some regulation about 6 in of snow and had crampons on the whole way down. 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?
 
Maybe examples would help clarify what I'm wondering about:
1) Scenario 1 - Snowfields on Monroe. Very hard snow, steep angle. General mountaineering axe very useful.
2) Scenario 2 - Vey steep wall of solid ice with snow loose snow on it. General mountaineering axe seems useless.

I'm sure everyone's experiences vary but for my hiking I run into Scenario #2 far more often than Scenario #1. So from a probability point of view I'd prefer to carry gear for Scenario #2 vs Scenario #1.

View attachment 6944
View attachment 6943

Problem w ice tools in pic two is that you’d be bent so far over it would be awkward and probably pop crampon front points.

70cm is considered to be good all around mountain length. In pic 2 you could sink the ferrel end into top of bulge and front point up. (But trekking poles might actually be better.)

After a rain-on-snow-event and subsequent hard freeze, I’d want an axe anyplace there was a fall risk with long slide potential, not ice tools.

Central gulley in Huntington is a typical example, and its small ice bulge can be easily surmounted with a single axe.
 
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.
 
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.
 
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:
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.
 
Top