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"Buying an [ice] axe should be the beginning of a long partnership." — Godfrey Francis, Mountain Climbing, 1958

The traditional ice axe boasts a rich history, evolving into two distinct configurations: the high-angle 'ice tool' and the multipurpose mountaineer's 'ice axe.' Each serves unique roles in the mountain environment. As a recreational mountaineer with no serious ice-climbing experience, I believe the traditional, old-style ice axe is the only one necessary. I collect ice axes as a hobby, but this pursuit has become quite expensive thanks to eBay, where everything is labeled an instant 'collectible' by antique dealers. A search for ice axes on eBay reveals a range of these artifacts, both new and old, with older, wood-shafted examples commanding steep prices.

Commercial retailers like Michael Chessler of 'Chessler Books' specialize in mountaineering collectibles and books. Chessler arranges for famous mountaineers like Everest's conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary, to autograph old wood-shafted European ice axes, selling them at high prices. American capitalism has exploited this niche market—buy low, sell high. I even considered selling one of my old ice axes that has a knot resembling the Virgin Mary or Ronald McDonald for no less than $200,000 on eBay.

Ice axes have an intriguing history with some notable facts. Ukrainian-born Bolshevik and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexican exile by a Stalinist agent on January 6, 1925, using a climber's ice axe. The assassin's axe was a standard, wood-shafted climbing axe shortened to about 13 inches, sparking speculation about its possible use in high-angle ice climbing on Mexican volcanoes. Trotsky, an amateur alpinist, had done some climbing while in exile in Mexico.

A dedicated mountain enthusiast can detail George Leigh Mallory's impact on climbing, including his final Everest ascent in 1924 with Andrew Irvine, where they disappeared along the Northeast Ridge Route. In 1933, Irvine's ice axe, made by the Brothers Willisch in Taesch below Zermatt, was found high up on their route, leaning against a rock. The Willisch brothers have crafted superior wooden-shafted ice axes for years under the Matterhorn's shadow. During several trips to Zermatt for skiing and climbing, I've collected several of their classic mountaineering tools. Mallory's own Willisch ice axe still lies undiscovered on Everest, waiting to be stumbled upon by a modern climber in the Death Zone that claimed Mallory and Irvine.

During World War II, all sides used the ordinary ice axe in alpine battles. German Army mountain troops used recreational climbing axes made by Stubai/Aschenbrenner in the Austrian Tirol, while the U.S. 10th Mountain Division used American-made axes by the Ames Tool Company. Each has unique features making them identifiable.

Ice axes are essential for mountaineers, providing support and stability on icy or snowy terrain. They come in various sizes and shapes, designed for different climbing types and terrain. Here’s how to use an ice axe for mountaineering and the types available today.

Using an Ice Axe for Mountaineering:

Understand the basic parts of an ice axe: the head (with a sharp point or pick and an adze for chopping steps or cutting snow), and the shaft (the handle providing support and leverage).

To use an ice axe:

  1. Grip the shaft with both hands, arms close to your body, pick facing inward, adze outward.
  2. Place the pick into the ice at a slight angle, resting the adze on the ice surface.
  3. Lean your weight onto the pick to anchor it securely.
  4. Move forward, using the axe for support and stability, chopping steps with the adze and anchoring with the pick.

For self-arrest techniques, the British Mountaineering Council provides an excellent guide: Self-Arrest Guide.

Types of Ice Axes:

  1. General Mountaineering Ice Axe: Versatile, suitable for a range of activities, usually with a straight shaft, slightly curved pick, and adze.
  2. Technical Ice Axe: For more technical climbing, like ice and mixed climbing, with a curved shaft and aggressive pick and adze.
  3. Ice Tool: Specialized for technical ice climbing, with a curved shaft and aggressive pick, but no adze.
  4. Expedition Ice Axe: Longer, for steep slopes and glacier traversing, with a straight shaft, large adze, and long pick.

Industry Standards: Ice axes must meet UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation) standards, undergoing rigorous tests for shaft and pick strength, adze strength, torsion, and endurance. Other standards include EN (European Norm) and ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials).

Inspect your ice axe regularly for wear and damage, replacing it as necessary to ensure safety.

Images and References: For visual references, check manufacturer websites (Black Diamond, Petzl, Grivel), online retailers (REI, Backcountry, Moosejaw), outdoor gear review sites (OutdoorGearLab, Switchback Travel), and mountaineering forums (SummitPost, MountainProject).

Accidents and Safety: Ice axes, if not used properly, can cause accidents. Examples include:

  • Slipping on steep terrain: In 2016, a climber died on Mount Hood after failing to self-arrest.
  • Striking another climber: In 2014, a climber on Mount Rainier was struck in the head by a partner’s ice axe.
  • Breaking components: In 2019, a Canadian Rockies climber died after their ice axe pick broke.

Proper instruction and training on using ice axes and regular equipment inspections are crucial to reducing risks.

Historical Evolution:

  • Walking Stick: Early climbers used walking sticks for stability, not designed for ice or snow.
  • Alpenstock: Mid-19th century, Swiss guides used longer, sturdier walking sticks with metal tips.
  • Piolet: Late 19th century, a specialized tool with a metal head (pick and adze) for cutting steps and self-arresting.
  • Modern Ice Axe: Early 20th century, improved with curved shafts, ergonomic grips, and lighter, more durable materials (aluminum, carbon fiber).

Despite advancements, the basic design remains largely unchanged, a testament to its enduring utility.

Famous Climbers:

  • Tenzing Norgay: Used a traditional wooden-handled piolet on his historic 1953 Everest ascent.
  • Reinhold Messner: Used a lightweight aluminum axe, designed by himself, during his solo 1980 Everest ascent.

Both climbers highlight the importance of using the right ice axe for specific conditions.

Using an Ice Axe as an Anchor:

  1. Find a suitable spot with consolidated snow or ice.
  2. Clear the area.
  3. Hold the axe vertically.
  4. Create a T-slot with the adze.
  5. Insert the shaft into the T-slot and drive it down.
  6. Tie the rope to the shaft below the T-slot.
  7. Test the anchor by tugging it.

This technique is useful for belaying, rappelling, or traversing steep terrain, but should only be done by experienced climbers.

To preserve the spike’s sharpness, strap the ice axe to your pack when not on snow or ice. Use a sliding circular metal ring with a Nylon strap or a small diameter Nylon rope looped around the wrist and through the adze eye to prevent loss.

Lastly, ice axes should never be used as murder weapons. While this might make you infamous in forensic history, it will surely displease mountaineers.