Ice axes are an essential safety tool for travelling through winter mountains. They provide stability, enable you to cut steps in hard snow or test the depth of a snow drift. If you fall, you can (hopefully) use your ice axe to stop your slide to doom. And in steeper winter mountaineering routes, they become necessary tools to get you up your route.
There are many types of ice axes for a whole spectrum of winter activities – from ski touring and glacier walking, to good old exploring UK mountains in snow. We’ve focused this guide on walking axes, with options to go a bit more technical later. If you’re primarily looking at one-axe routes in places like the Scottish Highlands, then you’re in the right place. Or if you’re not sure and just browsing for the best ice axe, then be our guest!
What To Look For When Buying an Ice Axe
Ice axes, sometimes called piolets for singles and ice tools for pairs, are a very personal purchase. We’ll take a look at fitting in the moment, to make sure you get the right size, but here are the main features to consider when you’re buying an ice axe.
Firstly, the rating will tell you how strong an ice axe is. There are two categories: basic (B) and technical (T). A T-rated ice axe means it has passed a higher strength test. That means that you can bury it in the snow and belay off it without the risk of snapping it. Although many will argue it’s perfectly possible to belay off a B-rated axe and the snow will give away first… Either way, the T-rating is probably an overkill for most winter walkers. Group leaders or winter mountaineers will probably be glad of this extra safety rating – just in case.
The next thought is how much curve there is in the ice axe. You will notice that the more technical the axe – i.e. the steeper the terrain it has been designed for, rather than the rating – the more curved the shaft and the more angled the pick. A classic walking axe has a very perpendicular form, with a long straight shaft and a pick at right angles to it. Venturing into grade 1 and 2 Scottish gullies, for instance, could benefit from a slightly curved shaft and slight incline in the pick. Anything more curved and acutely angled is for graded winter climbing routes or water ice. The adze is worth a thought too. If you could be cutting steps of digging snow holes on you adventure then look for a wide adze with a sharp edge to make your life easier.
Related: Winter Hiking Safety Advice
Finally, you might also consider the weight of the axe, how big the cut outs are and what material the axe is made from. It almost goes without saying that heavier axes will weigh down on you more if carried over long distances or for multiple days. On the flip side, a super lightweight axe probably has less momentum and may feel harder to dig with.