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How to Use an Ice Axe – The Beginner's Guide

There are few tools more important to getting around in the mountains than an ice axe. This multipurpose tool is absolutely essential to climbing any snow-covered or glaciated peak.

An ice axe can only do its job, though, if you know how to properly use it. So, I’ll explain how to use an ice axe in a variety of different situations you’re likely to encounter while mountaineering.

The anatomy of an ice axe

Before I dive into how to use your ice axe, we need to cover some basic terminology. There are several key parts to know on an ice axe:

Pick: The pick is the business end of your ice axe. This is the sharp, toothy blade that you’ll use to self-arrest.

Adze: The adze is on the opposite side of the axe from the pick. This small metal shovel is what you’ll use to cut steps and dig into snow.

Head: The head is the top of the ice axe and it connects the pick, adze, and shaft.

Shaft: The shaft is the long part of your ice axe, which you’ll hold when climbing steep slopes with your ice axe.

Spike: The spike is the sharp point at the bottom of the shaft, which plunges into snow and offers grip when walking on icy slopes.

What is the difference between an ice axe and an ice tool?

One common question from new mountaineers is whether there’s a difference between ice axes and ice tools. In fact, there’s a big difference.

Ice axes are designed for general-purpose mountaineering. Ice tools, on the other hand, are built for ice climbing. They have a more sharply curved shaft and pick, and may lack an adze or spike. While it’s possible to self-arrest with an ice tool, it’s not designed to make this easy.

When to use an ice axe

Since ice axes are such versatile tools, they’re good to carry on a wide variety of different climbs.

If your route involves any glacier travel, an ice axe is absolutely required. You’ll need it to self-rescue or build a snow anchor if you or your partner falls in a crevasse.

Ice axes are also essential whenever you might encounter a moderately steep snowfield. Unless the snow is soft enough that you’re sinking into it, an ice axe is the only tool you have to stop you from turning a fall into a long slide. Even if you’re out in late summer after most snow has melted, you might need an ice axe to navigate across a shady gully that’s held its snow longer than the rest of the mountain.

Ironically, the time that an ice axe is least helpful is when you’re on icy slopes. The pick isn’t designed to penetrate hard ice, but rather firm snow. That said, you should still carry an ice axe, along with a set of crampons, since you can use the adze to cut steps.

How to hold an ice axe

The best way to hold an ice axe can seem counterintuitive at first. Instead of holding it by the shaft, you want to hold it by the head with the pick facing backwards. That way, the pick is already positioned to plunge into the snow if you need to self-arrest.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you should always hold your axe in your uphill hand. Be sure to switch the axe between hands to keep it on the uphill side when you change direction or when the topography changes.

As you walk, you can plunge the spike into the snow as a third point of contact. If you slip, the spike will plunge further into the snow and, depending on snow conditions, that may be enough to hold you from falling.

Do you need a leash for your ice axe?

The pros of using an ice axe leash are obvious: if you drop your axe, it won’t slide down the mountain, potentially hit your partner, or fall deep into a crevasse.

On the other hand, the time you’re most likely to drop your ice axe is when you’re falling and picking up momentum. In that case, having a loose ice axe attached to you is a good way to get hit with it at high speed.

Personally, I rarely use a leash. If I drop my axe, things have already gone very wrong, and I don’t want to make the situation more dangerous. That said, it’s up to you to decide whether the benefits of using a leash outweigh the drawbacks.

How to self-arrest with an ice axe

Knowing how to self-arrest with an ice axe is a basic skill that every mountaineer should know. Consider self-arresting like an insurance policy. You should focus on footwork and technique to ensure you don’t fall in the first place. But if you do, knowing how to self-arrest can stop you from tumbling hundreds of feet downhill.

Depending on what position you’re in when you fall, the process of self-arresting will be slightly different. No matter where you start from, though, the end goal is the same: you want to get the pick of your ice axe into the snow surface and then get your body planted over the axe until you stop sliding.

To reach the final self-arrest position, you should:

1. Grab your axe with both hands. The hand you were carrying the axe in won’t move, and you’ll use your other hand to firmly grab the shaft. You should be holding the axe by the head and shaft.

2. Turn your body so that your chest is against the snow, with your head upslope and your feet downslope. If you fall in an awkward position, getting into this orientation may require using your axe for leverage to spin yourself around.

3. Bury the pick in the snow as deeply as it will go. You don’t want to swing the axe to do this. Rather, use your two-handed grip to push the entire ice axe down into the snow.

4. Once the axe is in the snow, kick with your feet to plant them in the snow and then push your entire body up over the pick. If you don’t push your body up so that it’s directly over the axe and off the snow, the pick is more likely to continue sliding through soft snow.

5. Once you come to a stop, ensure you’re in a good position. The ice axe shaft should be diagonal across your body, with one hand on the head near your shoulder and the other on the shaft near your hip. Kick deep foot buckets to give yourself a platform before trying to stand up.

Start the self-arrest process the moment you fall. Every second you don’t have the pick in the snow, you’re gaining momentum and arresting will become much more difficult as you gain speed.

It’s important to point out that self-arresting isn’t easy. You’ll have a weighted pack on preventing you from getting your body into the position where it needs to be. If the snow is too firm, you might not be able to get your pick in. If the snow is too soft, you might keep sliding even after getting the pick in. Practice is absolutely essential to developing your self-arrest technique before you head out on any exposed slopes.

Climbing and descending steep slopes with an ice axe

When you’re climbing or descending steep snow slopes, you may want to use the pick of your ice axe to help you climb. In this case, you’ll need to switch from the self-arrest grip I described above to a self-belay grip.

Hold the axe where the head and shaft intersect, with your thumb wrapping over the head and the pick pointed into the snow. Now, you can plunge the pick into the snow with each step and pull up on the axe to help you climb.

The idea behind the self-belay grip is that since your pick is already in the snow, the axe should hold you if your feet slide out. If you’re in soft snow and your axe doesn’t hold, your grip is already where it needs to be to initiate a self-arrest.

Summary

An ice axe is one of the most important items of equipment you’ll have with you when mountaineering. Whether you’re navigating glaciers, crossing snow slopes, or taking on a steep snow climb, an ice axe is the climbing tool you’ll need on hand. Be sure to spend time practicing essential skills like self-arresting in forgiving terrain so you’re confident in your technique in any situation.

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.