Scaling Epic Heights: Ices Axes and Mountaineering

Key Points

  • It's vital to use an ice axe when mountaineering along with crampons.

  • Take the time to get a properly-sized ice axe for your next mountaineering trip.

  • Ice axes have many purposes, some of which may save your life.

  • Practice performing a self-arrest, the most important and lifesaving use for an ice axe while mountaineering.

  • Think about why you want to go mountaineering and where you want to go.

Ice axes hold a special place within the collective psyche. They're associated with those brave souls trekking up Everest who slip, slide, and desperately flail for some solid footing. Climbers in these situations use an ice axe for mountaineering.

Most people don't want to summit the world's highest peak. Those interested in mountaineering prefer ascending something smaller. Even if you're not going to Everest, you still need to use an ice axe for mountaineering. It's an important piece of equipment to have in your arsenal. The only predictable thing about Mother Nature is her unpredictability, especially in higher elevations where snow and ice are the norm.

To prepare for the potential chaos of mountaineering, know how to wield an ice axe properly.

The Anatomy of an Ice Axe

Mountaineering means climbing mountains. The world's upper elevations symbolize ruggedness, remoteness, and wildness. Surviving in these environments requires a high level of fitness, knowledge, and the proper gear.

It's not a straightforward ascent from base to peak. Mountaineering requires a mix of hiking, trekking, rock climbing, and ice climbing. Even during summer, there's often snow and ice at higher elevations. To conquer these frozen forces, you need an ice axe. They are available at many outdoor retailers, like Petzl or R.E.I.

An ice axe is a specialized tool used in mountaineering and ice climbing.

Ice axe

The shaft is usually composed of aluminum and is either straight or curved. Straight shafts act as support on low-angle terrain and are excellent for self-belaying and for use as an anchor point. Curved shafts have a slight bend and work best in super steep terrain. An ice axe shaft has a grip that, well, makes it easier to grip.

At the end of the shaft is the head, which divides into two parts.

The pick looks like the end of an old-timey prospector's pickaxe. It's sharp and pointed, used for self-arresting and anchoring.

The adze is on the other end. It's a wide, flat blade for chipping steps into the ice.

The carabiner hole is in the middle of the head, which you use to secure an ice axe leash or clip on a carabiner.

The spike is at the opposite end of the shaft. Plunge these pointed ends into the snow or ice to establish a secure point for a belay or rescue.

Determining the Right Length for an Ice Axe

If your ice axe is too small or too large for your body size, it's unsafe, inefficient, and uncomfortable.

When you shop for your next ice axe, have a gear shop professional or a trusted comrade take the following measurement:

Grab the head of the ice axe. The adze must face forward with your thumb resting on it. Stand upright with your shoulders back and your arms hanging by your sides. Let the spike dangle toward the ground. Does the spike hang even with your ankle? If so, this is a proper length for you.

Some people want smaller ice axes. They weigh less, which is great if you plan to hit a lot of steep terrains or you expect not to use the ice axe a lot. Go up to 10 centimeters shorter, but not more. Even hobbits must not get an ice axe less than 60 centimeters. With an ice axe that short, the pointed parts hang closer to your stomach, so you're more likely to injure yourself if you fall.

Longer ice axes come in handy on many occasions: checking the terrain around you, building snow anchors, or traveling across low-angle terrain. Longer ice axes are heavier and make it more difficult to self-arrest.

Don't get an ice axe over 70 centimeters unless you are of N.B.A. player height.

The Two Ice Axe Grips You Need To Know

Always follow this general rule: It's better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

The higher your chances of falling, the more important it is to have the ice axe ready. Fatigue, slippery conditions, and steeper slopes increase the chances you take a tumble.

Perhaps the chances of falling are small, but the results of tripping are deadly. You might be on fairly dry terrain, but you're also walking upslope 10 feet away from a cliff edge. If falling has harsher consequences, have your ice axe close at hand.

A grip is a specific way you hold the ice axe. There are two grips for an ice axe: a self-arrest grip and a self-belay grip.

With a self-arrest grip, the pick points backward and the adze forward.

Wrap your thumb under the adze and the rest of your fingers under the pick. You can instantly pull off a self-arrest with this grip, but the pick is useless when walking. Hint: Use the shaft and spike if you need to drive into the snow on steep terrain.

With a self-belay grip, it's the opposite. The pick is forward. You use a self-belay grip to secure yourself on a steep slope. You drive the pick into the snow or ice. It allows climbers to maintain control over their position on the slope and ascend.

Using ice axe to scale a mountain

The thumb and pointer finger wrap under the pick and the rest of the palm envelops the adze. It's the go-to grip for steeper slopes, making it easier to thrust into the snow and pull yourself forward.

Know exactly what to do if you slip with a self-belay grip. In a panicked state, it's not easy to do the right thing. Practice spinning the head around into a self-arrest position.

The Many Uses of an Ice Axe When Mountaineering

With a firm grip on these basics, consider the myriad and mighty helpful ways an ice axe serves you.


Anchoring involves establishing a solid point to move towards or away from. On slippery conditions, you need an anchor to ensure you're firmly grounded. The pick or shaft serves as the anchor. Stab the snow or ice with them.

Creating Steps

Creating steps out of ice or hard snow makes it easier to ascend. Take the adze and create level platforms for you to step on when conditions create treacherous footing.


Your ice axe is also a walking stick. They provide balance and support on any type of terrain.


Ice axes are tools and weapons. It's a bold cat who even dares to invade a mountaineering group hopped up on adrenaline and wielding a sharp object.

Using pick axes as protection extends to emergencies. If a comrade falls down a crevice, an ice axe serves as a means to rescue them by extending your reach and grabbing them. If you fall into a hole, an ice axe might be the thing that stops you from dying by stopping you from falling with a self-arrest.

Danger lurks on the periphery of mountaineering. Keep it at bay by knowing how to utilize your ice axe fully.

How To Self-Arrest

Nothing sharpens the senses quite like sliding down a mountain toward inevitable death. Avoid such horrors by learning to self-arrest with your ice axe. It's the most important thing a mountaineering aficionado must know — the difference between life and death.

The ice axe stops you if you biff it and go for an unplanned slide. Once you start sliding, plunge the pick of the axe into the snow and apply downward pressure.

You may fall in several ways: on your stomach with your head uphill or downhill and on your back with your head uphill or downhill.

Falling on your stomach with your head uphill is the easiest position to pull off a self-arrest maneuver. The other positions are more complex and require practice to master.

Mountaineering with an ice axe

On Stomach With Head Uphill

In this position, your body is in a self-arrest position. Burrow the pick of your ice axe into the snow to establish an anchor. You'll stop sliding quickly, so hold on tightly to your ice axe. Bring your body close to the ice axe and lift your weight off the snow. Get your feet on the ground.

On Stomach With Head Downhill

This position is like going on your belly face first down a waterslide. Quickly burrow the pick into the snow. Do it to the side because you need to get your feet facing downhill.

On Back With Head Uphill

Roll over from your bum into your stomach. Roll the direction of your uphill hand (the one that holds the head of the axe). Once you're on your stomach, self-arrest.

On Back With Head Downhill

Reach out and plant your pick in the snow. Twist your body so you're on your stomach with your feet facing down. This is a tough maneuver requiring practice and a high level of fitness.

Sign up for a course to learn the ins and outs of self-arresting along with other skills needed for mountaineering. Getting professional lessons is the best way to ensure you're well-prepared.

Extra Equipment To Bring

Many pieces of equipment make the mountaineering experience much more fun and much less dangerous.


Crampons are spikes attached to the bottoms of footwear. They provide traction on wintery terrain and are the last thing in the world you want someone to wear if they accidentally step on your feet.

They come in different styles and spike sizes. You equip them with straps, clip-on systems, or step-in bindings. Shorter spikes help out in less technical ice climbing. Longer, more hardcore spikes mean longer, more hardcore mountaineering.

A crampon and ice axe combo ensures you stay upright and stable. The last thing you want when climbing mountains is to slip and fall into some Yeti's ice cave.

Ice Axe Leashes

An ice axe leash is a strap that secures the ice axe to your wrist or a harness. The leash stops the ice axe from tumbling away if you drop it.

Some climbers go without leashes. Leashes keep your ice axe close by, but it's risky to keep a sharp object tethered to your body.

Two ice axes when climbing a mountain

It comes down to your comfort level with handling an ice axe. Weigh the risks versus rewards to determine if you need a leash when mountaineering.

A Second Ice Axe

Some situations call for two ice axes, and mountaineering packs include loops for you to hang your unused ice axe. Having two ice axes gives you more options and flexibility in dealing with different situations. This is a must in terrain where things may go bad quickly and relentlessly.

Know the difficulty level before you jump into a mountaineering experience. You don't need two ice axes if you're trekking on mostly flat and dry terrain. That's like inviting two people on a date in case one bails.

When You Don't Need an Ice Axe

Ice axes aren't a substitute for rock climbing equipment.

They are handy with — you guessed it — ice. They help you self-arrest, anchor, and belay on snow or ice. Rock climbing gear helps you gain grip and friction on ice-free rocky surfaces.

It's like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. They don't belong together.

Most casual hikers don't need an ice axe.

With mountaineering, ice axes are a necessity. With hiking, ice axes are an accessory. They make you look cool, but it probably doesn't serve any purpose beyond a walking stick. If you're going to use it for that, get a regular walking stick without a sharp blade attached.

If you're hiking in higher elevations with snow or ice, then consider bringing an ice axe. These are the places where it becomes a necessary piece of equipment.

The Reasons To Go Mountaineering

With so many risks surrounding mountaineering, it may surprise you that it's so popular. If you're trained and prepared, the benefits of mountaineering far exceed the risks.

Every great deed needs a why — the purpose that drives you to complete the task.


Life needs an occasional adventure. Mountaineering offers thrills that reinvigorate even the most world-weary. It pushes you to your limits, showing that adventure is not just for the movies. Every day people like you are capable of one, so long as you're brave enough to give it a try.

Nature and Scenery

No place is as remote as a mountain peak — okay, the bottom of the ocean is far out there, but it takes a submarine and some gumption to go there.

The remoteness of mountaineering brings you into the heart of Earth's most wild places. This is nature in all her glory. It's a blessing to witness.


Go with other people to forge a lifelong connection with them. Experiences are the glue that binds humans. Nothing is more adhesive than a mountaineering trip.

Personal Growth

Everyone has insecurities, flaws, and shortcomings. Watch them all melt away under the trials of a mountaineering trip. Difficult activities callus the mind, and mountaineering is tough. Such a feat develops confidence, resilience, and self-reliance.

Spiritual or Philosophical Insight

There are a lot of unknowns in life. Without distracting technologies, it's easy to ponder and reflect on the universe and your place in it. Mountaineering provides a unique perspective and a chance for reflection.

Climbing a mountain range

Some of the Best Places to Go Mountaineering

You know why some decide to mountaineer. It's time to look at where to go.

The Himalayas

The Himalayas are home to Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. They stretch across Nepal, India, Tibet, and Bhutan.

Some other popular peaks are K2, Cho Oyu, and Annapurna.

Don't take this place lightly. Mountaineering in the Himalayas is dangerous. Extreme altitude, severe weather patterns, and the world's most difficult terrain make this place the opposite of a walk in the park.

The climbing season typically runs from late April to early June when weather conditions are at their tamest.

It's an expensive voyage. Mountaineers must obtain local government permits to climb any of the major peaks. Expect to shell out a lot of cash for local guides, equipment, flights, accommodation, and transportation.

It's the mecca of mountaineering, so go for it if you're willing to accept the risks and fork out the money.

The Alps

Shoutout to Europe.

The Alps are the largest mountain range on the continent, spanning France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. The highest peak is Mont Blanc on the France-Italian border.

If you're looking for a steep ascent with lots of challenges, the Alps have it. If you desire a casual hike with no need for an ice axe, the Alps have it.

This mountain range has something for everyone.

The Rocky Mountains

Whatever deity conjured up Earth put some heart into building the Rockies. It's a massive mountain range stretching from Northern Canada down to New Mexico. It's 3,000 miles of slopes, scenery, and spectacular wildlife.

Novice and expert mountaineers will have no problem finding a mountaineering experience that suits their needs.

The Rockies have plenty of options, such as guided tours and beginner-friendly routes. These provide an introduction to mountaineering and help you develop the necessary skills and knowledge.

The Scottish Highlands

Don your kilt and bust out the bagpipes. It's time to go to Scotland!

The Scottish Highlands offer a range of mountaineering experiences. Head off to Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the United Kingdom. If you're looking for a longer adventure, try out West Highland Way. It's a 96-mile journey, stretching across Scotland's most beautiful scenery.

The Southern Alps

A remote mountain range in one of the most remote countries in the world? Heck yeah!

The Southern Alps stretch for 500 miles on New Zealand's South Island. It's far away with unpredictable weather. The terrain contains steep slopes, mighty peaks, and glaciers galore.

If you're looking for a mountaineering experience with a Kiwi flair, head to the Southern Alps. Mountaineering runs deep in Kiwi culture.

New Zealand is home to beautiful, unspoiled landscapes, lots of which is in the Southern Alps.

Mountaineering Ethics

It's a privilege to go mountaineering. Treat the environment with respect.

Use existing trails. Don't blaze your own path. It damages the flora. If you're in a place with no trails, choose your route carefully. Avoid going single file to minimize impact. Step on rocks, snow, game trails, and other non-vegetated surfaces where possible.

Keep a respectful distance from wildlife. This isn't an open-aired petting zoo. Wild animals have no moral dilemma when it comes to ripping your face off.

Everything you pack in, you must pack out. Don't leave anything behind, not even a single water bottle. This does more damage than you know, especially when other people do it as well.

You're a guest. Treat a mountaineering trip like you're going to the house of someone you want to impress for the first time.

If you're traveling to a mountain range where people live, respect the local cultures and traditions. They are people just like you. Do nothing to offend or harm them and their land.

Take complete accountability for your actions. You're responsible for your safety and well-being on the mountain. Act with integrity.

Top of a mountain with ice axe

No Ice Axe Means No Mountaineering

A world without ice axes is a world without mountaineering. They are the apex tool of mountaineering, providing a means to climb on slippery terrain and stay safe while doing so.

Before going mountaineering, know how to use one. Be prepared to execute a self-arrest, get yourself in shape, bring the right equipment and people, and if you're inexperienced, take a class.

You need one thing before even considering ice axe sizes, what type suits you best, and what mountains you want to use it on — courage.

You're probably a little scared before your first mountaineering experience. That's normal. Even experts still get those pre-trip butterflies. As Bilbo Baggins said in The Lord of the Rings, "It's a dangerous business going out your front door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

What's the best way to keep your feet when mountaineering? The almighty ice axe!

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