The Best 8 Ice Axes for Mountaineering - Expert Guide

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The Best 8 Ice Axes for Mountaineering - Expert Guide

Many mountaineers, myself included, would argue that your ice axe is the single most important piece of mountaineering gear you'll have in the alpine. It's absolutely critical for moving safely through glaciated terrain and steep snow. It also serves as an all-purpose tool for everything from building anchors to cutting steps to glissading.

In this guide, I'll highlight the 8 best ice axes that you can use for any alpine situation.

Our Review Process

I've spent years climbing in the North Cascades, the most glaciated stretch of peaks in the Lower 48. Along the way, I've tried dozens of different ice axes and encountered everything from yawning crevasses to steep snow to mixed climbing.

When considering whether an ice axe is worth carrying into the alpine, my top priorities are weight, self-belay and self-arrest capabilities, and durability. If I know I'm headed for steep snow or ice, performance on this terrain is also a factor in deciding which axe to take. 

With that in mind, let's dive into my top picks.

Petzl Summit Evo

Best all-round ice axe

My winner
Best Ice Axes - Petzl Summit Evo
Pros

Excellent all-round use

Aggressive pick design

Superb ice penetration while self-arresting

Great penetration in the firmest of snow

Easy to engage even when climbing steep snow

Wide enough to dig T-trenches

Cons

A little heavier than some to allow greater momentum and force

If you need a single tool that you can bring on every trip - from low-angle glacier traverses to mixed alpine climbs on rock and ice - I can't recommend an ice axe better than the Petzel Summit Evo.

This steel axe features an aggressive pick design and curved shaft, which work together to offer exceptional ice penetration when self-arresting. The curved shape of the tool also makes it easier to engage the pick when climbing steep snow.

The Petzl Summit Evo isn't the lightest ice axe out there, weighing in at 14.1 ounces. But that extra heft gives it that much more momentum when you're swinging it into ice or using the adze to cut steps.

In addition, the axe doesn't cut any corners. The adze is plenty wide for digging a T-trench, and the spike offers excellent penetration even in very firm snow.

Petzl Summit Evo

Petzl Glacier

Best low-budget option

My winner
Best Ice Axes - Petzl Glacier
Pros

Great value for money

Lightweight

Ultra durable

Cons

A little unwieldy on steep snow

The Glacier ice axe from Petzl is an inexpensive, lightweight, and ultra-durable tool. It's particularly well-suited for low-angle terrain and glacier travel, and could even be carried on backpacking trips when you might encounter snow. 

This axe is built with a straight steel shaft and a long, sharp spike that penetrates well in most conditions. It's very easy to carry, and I've found that the shaft design is more comfortable for resting and easy terrain. The downside is that this axe is a little bit unwieldy on steep snow, when a more aggressive shape would help the pick bite into the slope.

The Glacier weighs in at just 12.3 ounces, making it one of the lightest options available for the price. It's also worth noting that it comes with a leash, so you're getting an even better value than you might think.

Petzl Glacier

Grivel Air Tech Evolution

Best for steep snow climbing

My winner
Best Ice Axes - Grivel Air Tech Evolution
Pros

Suitable for all-round use

Exceptional performance while self-arresting

Best on this list for steep snow climbing

Can also be used for low-angle ice climbing

Cons

One of the heavier options on this list

The Grivel Air Tech Evolution, also known as the Grivel Evo, is one of the most popular ice axes among professional mountain guides. It's designed as an all-round axe similar to the Petzl Summit Evo, but it performs even better when you encounter a steep snow slope thanks to the adjustable pommel and more ergonomic shaft design.

The Air Tech Evolution weighs in at 15.3 ounces, so it's a little on the heavy side. But it performs exceptionally well when self-arresting, and it's one of the few axes I'd trust to catch a fall on firm ice. It's also capable enough for low-angle ice climbing, which is an advantage for tackling big mountain routes.

Grivel Air Tech Evolution

Camp Corsa

Best lightweight ice axe

My winner
Best Ice Axes - Camp Corsa
Pros

The lightest technical ice axe on the market

Perfect for fast mountaineering objectives

Cons

Won't grab in icy conditions

Prone to breaking if hit hard enough

The Camp Corsa is the lightest technical ice axe on the market today, weighing in at just 7.4 ounces. It's the perfect axe for light and fast mountaineering objectives where you don't expect to encounter much snow or ice. It's so light, in fact, that I've even brought it along on early season trail runs.

The Corsa isn't the right tool for every trip, though. The aluminum shaft doesn't have a true spike, so it will only get purchase in soft snow. The axe is made of aluminum instead of steel, so it won't grab in icy conditions and could even break if you hit it hard enough.

If you need something a little more burly, check out the Corsa Nanotech - it adds just over an ounce of weight, but offers a more substantial spike and a steel pick tip.

Camp Corsa

Black Diamond Swift

Best for self-arrest

My winner
Best Ice Axes - Black Diamond Swift
Pros

Much stronger than most axes

Super sharp

Easily penetrates firm ice

Cons

Weighty but this helps when combating rock solid ice

The Black Diamond Swift is one of the only axes I've used that has achieved a CEN-T rating, which means that the pick can withstand significantly more force than the average axe. The pick is wide, long, and very sharp, and it does an incredibly good job at penetrating firm ice. The axe is heavy, weighing in at a whopping 17 ounces, but that weight can be an advantage when travelling through a zone of bulletproof ice.

The Swift also excels if you need to use it as an improvised anchor. The oversized spike allows for deep penetration if you want to use the axe for a standing belay. The adze is plenty wide for digging a T-trench, and the hole in the pick accepts two carabiners instead of the usual one. I've found that's helpful if you want to run two ropes from your anchor instead of one.

Black Diamond Swift

Petzl Quark

Best for ice climbing

My winner
Best Ice Axes -  Petzl Quark
Pros

Suitable for more technical climbing routes

Works well on steep ice

Comes with small adze and spike

Cons

Not well-suited to more general mountaineering

The Petzl Quark is more rightly considered a traditional ice tool than an ice axe. It was designed first and foremost for ice climbing, not general mountaineering. That said, if you're going after more technical climbing routes with steep ice, this is the tool I'd recommend carrying.

What makes the Quark a better choice than other ice tools is that it comes with a small adze and spike. For really steep routes, you can even swap out the adze for a hammer option to get more powerful swings. Just be sure to practice self-arresting with this tool, since the recurved pick shape doesn't grab the slope like a standard ice axe pick.

Petzl Quark

Grivel G1

Most durable ice axe

My winner
Best Ice Axes -  Grivel G1
Pros

Excellent self-arrest performance

Plenty of grip in most conditions

Suprisingly cheap

Can be used around rocks and solid ice due to its hot-forged pick

Ergonomically-shaped head is less tiring to grip

Cons

On the heavier side at 15.8 ounces

The Grivel G1 is a great choice for mellow mountaineering objectives. The straight shaft and full-sized steel pick offer excellent self-arrest performance and plenty of grip in a wide range of conditions. Even better, the hot forged pick is virtually indestructible, so you can use this axe around rocks and extremely hard ice.

Another nice thing about the G1 is the ergonomically shaped head, which is less tiring to grip than more aggressive axes. The axe weighs in at 15.8 ounces, though, so it's far from the lightest option for non-technical objectives.

Grivel G1

Black Diamond Venom

Most versatile

My winner
Best Ice Axes -  Black Diamond Venom
Pros

Pick can easily be swapped out to meet different conditions

Angled shaft is suitable for steep snow

Rubber grip helps to keep your hands warm

Adjustable pommel

Cons

Heavier than most at 18 ounces

The Black Diamond Venom uses a unique modular pick design, which allows you to swap out the pick to meet different conditions. For example, you can have a neutral pick for glacier mountaineering and another, more technical pick for ice and mixed climbing. The picks are easy enough to change out, although it's not something you'd want to do mid-trip.

The Venom features an angled shaft that makes it suitable for steep snow, and I especially like the rubber grip at the base of the shaft since it helps keep your hands warmer. The axe also has an adjustable pommel.

The biggest downside to the Venom is weight. At 18 ounces, it's much heavier than some of my favorite all-around axes.

Black Diamond Venom

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How to Choose the Best Ice Axe

Which ice axe is right for you comes down to the types of trips you have planned. While some all-around axes like the Petzl Summit Evo might be good for a wide variety of objectives, many mountaineering axes are built with specific trade-offs in mind.

So, let's take a closer look at some of these trade-offs to help you find the right tool for your next climb.

Steel vs. Aluminum Construction

The debate between steel vs. aluminum ice axes largely comes down to weight and performance. Steel axes are incredibly durable and offer better self-arrest performance in firm ice. Aluminum axes are lightweight - sometimes as much as half a pound lighter than steel counterparts.

Most mountaineers who are just starting out ice climbing should opt for a steel ice axe. Self-arresting is hard enough, and steel axes make it easier to get purchase in poor conditions. Even most mountain guides stick to steel ice axes for the majority of trips.

An aluminum axe might make sense if you need a tool for trips where you're not expecting much snow or only need to deal with low-angle glacier travel. Even then, consider whether you can save a few ounces by jettisoning other gear instead of compromising your ice axe's performance.

Straight vs. Curved Shaft

Ice axes with straight shafts are designed primarily for low-angle climbs and glacier travel. The straight shaft is typically more comfortable to use in the self-belay and resting positions. It can also be easier to hold onto when self-arresting.

Axes with curved shafts are designed for more technical climbs, including steep snow and ice routes. The positive curve makes it easier to engage the pick into the slope when you're holding the axe in a mid- or high-dagger position.

Of course, high-end mountaineering axes can also be used on low-angle glaciers. They're just not as comfortable if that's the terrain you'll primarily be travelling through.  

Weight

Weight is at the top of most mountaineers' minds when choosing an ice axe. The difference between the lightest and heaviest steel axes can be half a pound, and aluminum axes can be half a pound lighter than the lightest steel models. That's a lot of weight for a piece of gear that will be with you on every single trip.

Of course, weight isn't all bad. The heavier an axe is, the more momentum you get with every swing. That means better penetration into hard ice when self-arresting, or better pick sticks when climbing technical ice.

So, before you opt for the lightest axe on the market, consider whether a few extra ounces might make your tool that much more versatile.

Sizing an Ice Axe

Axes come in different lengths, so how do you know what size ice axe is right for you?

The best way to estimate is to hold an axe by its head and then hang your arm down by your side. The spike should just barely scrape the ground, or even be an inch or two above it.

If you don't have an axe to hold, use a piece of string and adjust it until it just touches the ground. Then  measure how much string you let out (note that most axes are sized in centimeters).

When you're between sizes, I recommend opting for an axe that's slightly too short rather than one that's too long. It'll be much easier to control when swinging, self-arresting, or climbing steep snow.

Summary

Your ice axe is one of the most indispensable pieces of gear you'll carry with you into the alpine. So, it's important to make sure you have the best ice axe for the conditions you expect to encounter.

If you're looking for a highly versatile axe that you can use for technical and mellow objectives alike, I recommend the Petzel Summit Evo. If you'll be primarily travelling on low-angle snow and glaciers, the Petzl Glacier is a lightweight and budget-friendly alternative.

Common questions

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I live in Bellingham, Washington, at the base of the wild North Cascades. Over the last ten years, I've explored much of the region's steep terrain and endless layers of ridges and peaks, both on foot and on skis, often linking far-flung ridges together to push deeper into the range.

*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.

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