An ice axe is a multi-purpose mountaineering tool carried by practically every mountaineer. The narrow sense used here excludes ice tools for ice climbing.
An ice axe consists of at least five components:
- pick (1) — a hooked or curved end of the head that draws to a point set with teeth. The hooked design allows the axe to dig in faster when trying to self-arrest.
- head (2) — usually made of steel and includes the pick and adze. One grips the head using either a self-arrest or self belay grip. There is a hole in the centre of the head called a carabiner hole but it is mostly used for attaching a wrist leash.
- adze (3) — the flat, widest section of the head used for chopping steps in hard snow and ice. Ice climbing tools may have a hammer instead.
- shaft (6) — straight, with a uniform cross-section that is usually wider in the adze-to-pick direction than in the side-to-side direction, and is flat on the sides and smoothly rounded on the pick and adze sides. Traditionally, shafts were made of wood, but are now usually made of metal, e.g., aluminum or titanium, or a composite material including some component such as fiberglass, Kevlar or carbon filament.
- spike, or ferrule (7) — a steel point at the bottom is used to plunge the ice axe into snow for stability, balance and safety. Sometimes used on rocky trails for balance, though one must take care not to dull the spike.
Ice axes are sometimes made or used with additional parts:
- leash (4) — webbing with an adjustable loop to secure the axe to hand. The leash is often secured to the shaft by a ring, constrained to slide a limited distance on the shaft.
- leash stop (5) — simply enough, keeps the leash from slipping off of the ice axe.
- snow basket (not shown) — similar to those typical on the lower ends of ski poles, mounted temporarily with the shaft through its center, close to the spike, to keep the spike from sinking much deeper into snow when the axe is held by its head and used point-down for support or stability.
Ice-axe spike-to-head lengths range generally from 60 to 90 cm
(or about 24 to 36 in.) in length, reflecting the target of reaching from loosely-closed hand (on the head) nearly to the ground. The mid-19th century 5-foot (1.5 m) alpenstock
ancestors of modern ice axes, and shorter intermediate versions, had wooden shafts, usually of hickory
, but the lighter weight and durability of late-20th-century and newer axes eliminate all but historical considerations as sources of interest in those earlier styles.
The ice axe is not only used as an aid to climbing, but also as a self rescue
tool to stop an uncontrolled downhill slide.
Many backpacks designed with mountaineering tasks in mind will include at least one ice axe loop, mounted near the bottom of the vertical surface farthest from the wearer, each of which can secure one axe to that surface when it is not needed. These loops are effective, but their use is counter-intuitive, and often hard to grasp until experienced:
- The axe must be held with head up, and adze rather than pick pointing away from the vertical center-line of the pack, while the shaft is lowered through the loop until the pick and adze rest on the loop. This sounds illogical (and looks so, if correctly executed) since the shaft appears to be positioned to flop around against the pack wearer's legs, or the spike to stab them.
- These problems resolve when the procedure finishes with rotating the axe 180 degrees, with its head as axis: this moves the spike away from the pack to horizontal, and then upward to vertical. The center of the loop is then just above the axe's head, instead of below, and the adjacent portions of the loop wrap under the pick and adze respectively.
- Securing the shaft against the pack near the top of the pack makes the spike point fairly straight up, where any hazard it might offer is at least visible; the pick is flat against the back of the pack; and the short and relatively dull adze sticks out little if any beyond the side of the pack.
- The rating system on ice axes is determined by two groups that are shown on the axe as UIAA and/or CE certification.
Ice axes in history
An ice axe was infamously used in the assassination of Leon Trotsky
in 1940 and, more recently, the murder of Anthony Walker