Axes and Hammers

Ice axes come in countless variations on two basic styles: one-piece heads or modular tools. One-piece heads cannot vibrate loose, but pick loosening shouldn't be a serious problem on well-designed modular tools. Tools with interchangeable parts allow you to replace worn or damaged components, as well as to switch out the picks and/or adzes to better suit your purpose on a specific climb.

The market bristles with pick designs, some useful, others less so. The pick of a traditional ice axe juts out 90° from the shaft. Many of the techniques described in this book are not possible using such an axe. A classical curve matched to the shaft length and arc of a natural swing is best for all-around alpine ice applications. Properly designed reverse, or banana, curves also permit a natural swing, and perform well with shorter shafts and on steeper ice. They are the common choice for water ice. Even more steeply angled picks hook well on rotten or chandeliered ice, but require an unnatural downward flick of the wrist at the end of the swing. Some people prefer a lower-angle reverse curve pick for steep alpinegulotte (gully or chimney) climbing. Tube picks tend to fracture very brittle ice less than other styles because Forces are directed into the tube rather than out into the ice. Combined with a tubular adze, tube picks cut the fastest and cleanest bollards.

Other factors affect the function of a pick: whether or not the top and/or bottom is beveled,-the shape and depth of the teeth,- the overall cross-sectional shape and dimensions, that is, how tall the pick is, and how thick,- whether or not it exhibits positive or negative clearance; and the hooking angle of the point and first tooth. Beveling on both top and bottom makes the pick much easier to extract from the ice without compromising the security of the placement. Teeth along the entire underside of the pick help the tool stick in the ice, but if they are too deep (more than about 0.2 inches), the pick will be hard to remove. A thin cross section displaces less ice and therefore causes less fracturing, but if it is too tall and very thin, sideways vibrations will result and the pick will slice through soft or rotten ice. Positive clearance gives smoother performance in self-arrest, while negative clearance is required in thin ice and will hold well with shallower penetration in thick ice. A very aggressive hooking angle at the first tooth is absolutely essential on thin ice and mixed climbing to avoid the "skating" tendency of inadequate hook angles.

Adzes are mainly used for chopping. Most good axes have an adze almost perpendicular to the shaft. The adze should have sharp corners for cutting. Exotic, wavy edges add nothing to function. Secondary uses of the adze are torqueing in mixed climbing situations and in climbing slopes of snow-ice or rotten ice that a pick would slice through. Specialized adzes that have a steeper droop or hooking angle work better for these purposes and are shaped more like a pointed spade than a flat-edged shovel. Such an adze may also have notched sides that grab the edges of cracks for torqueing.

Shaft length and configuration depend largely on personal climbing style, strength, size, and type of climbing normally done. The strongest and best shafts are aluminum-alloy, fiberglass, or carbon-fiber-wrapped, thin-wall alloy. Metal shafts should be covered with smooth, soft rubber for insulation and a good grip,- carbon fiber and fiberglass shafts are warm enough as they are, yet they, too, are easier to hang onto if they are equipped with a rubber grip. Crosscountry ski waxes can be used on bare shafts to increase gripability.

For alpine use, the best ice axe has a straight shaft between 60 and 70cm in length, depending on your personal style, preference, and body size. If you plan to do only extreme alpine climbs, you can get by with a shorter axe, but tools less than 60cm long are difficult to use for self-arrest. The spike and ferrule at the bottom of the shaft should be smooth and gradually tapered for good penetration in snow. A second tool for alpine ice can be either a short-shafted alpine hammer or a North Wall hammer with curved pick, pounding anvil, and 45 to 55cm shaft.

For waterfall and extreme alpine routes, I like to carry a matched set of tools with reverse-curved picks and curved shafts. Curved shafts aid in reaching over bulges or around pillars, and they reduce the wrist bend that occurs while hanging from the tool, thus diminishing fatigue. Spikes on these technical tools should be stubbier than those on traditional ice axes, allowing a full grip at the very bottom of the shaft about an inch above the point of the spike. This assures that the spike stays out of the way when you swing the tool on steep ice or in tight places.

Although theoretically useful, a leash from the tool to the harness will often entangle the climber. I have seen minutes wasted and strength squandered while climbers attempted to sort themselves out. A good wrist loop, on the other hand, is crucial for steep ice climbing. On short stretches of very steep ice, a quick wrist loop can be fashioned for an alpine axe or hammer by wrapping a prusik loop around the handle or a short runner of the correct length through the carabiner hole in the tool's head. For waterfall ice and extreme alpine ice, tools should have permanently attached wrist loops. Most tools designed for this type of climbing are factory-equipped with functional, adjustable wrist loops. There are also a number of commercially available wrist loops, some of which offer better support than the factory-equipped variety. If the wrist loop is too narrow, it will tend to cut off the circulation to your hand; if it is too wide, it hinders flex in the wrist. I have found the best width to be about one inch. The length of the wrist loop must be properly adjusted so that you are supported with your hand in the proper position at the very bottom of the shaft.

Carry your tools in holsters on your harness or on a separate belt. Most leather or nylon webbing holsters and harness gear loops used as holsters make withdrawing or inserting the tools an awkward task. Carpenters' holsters with wire loops are easiest to work with, although they sometimes hang up in chimneys and other tight situations.


Crampons come in these basic configurations (with endless variations): rigid with twelve points (two projecting forward and ten downward under the boot); hinged in the middle, with either ten or twelve points,- and ultralight, with eight or fewer points. Footfangs fall outside the standard categories, being rigid crampons with twenty points and parallel side rails. Crampons with a single frontpoint, the monopoint, were introduced in the late 1980s.

The geometry of the points is crucial and determines how well the crampons work. The length of the points, the relationship of the frontpoints to the secondary points, the spacing of the points under the foot, whether or not the points follow the outline of the boot sole or are in two parallel rows, these and other variables affect performance. Not all crampons work equally well in all ice and snow conditions. Many hardcore climbers own two pairs, one for waterfall ice climbing and one for alpine use. I prefer vertically oriented monopoint crampons for water ice climbing and dual horizontal frontpoints for alpine ice. If you do not want to own two pairs of crampons, a single pair of adjustable rigid or hinged twelve-point crampons will serve you well on summer alpine climbs, winter icefalls, rime-coated rock, or frozen névé-

The best crampons are adjustable to fit a wide range of boots. Fit is critical to the performance of crampons. Each model has its own fitting parameters, so it is not possible to do more here than generalize regarding a few considerations. Longer points obviously work better in snow ice and névé- Adjust frontpoints long for these conditions, extending about f .2 inches in front of the boot toe, For hard alpine gully ice and black ice, 0.75 inch of frontpoint is all you will need. Paradoxically, frontpoints for waterfall ice climbing should be adjusted long, about the same as for snow climbing.

Crampons with straps must fit tightly so that they will stay on the boot when you peck them up without the straps holding them on. Crampons with a toe-bale/heel-clamp binding should be adjusted tight enough so that it takes significant force to lever the heel clamp up.

Straps used to be the only method of attaching crampons to boots. Nowadays, the best straps are made of neoprene-covered nylon that remains flexible in wet, freezing conditions. Whatever the strap component, the straps should use a pin-style or double-locking-ring buckle, rather than a friction-type buckle. Beware of straps attached by a single rivet; rivets are prone to failure.

Most of the best models of crampons offer a ski -type, toe-bale/heel-clamp binding to secure the crampon to the boot. These bindings have numerous advantages over straps: they are quicker and easier to put on and remove; they provide a more positive grip on the boot, they apply no pressure over the toe or foot that would restrict circulation; and they are less prone to breakage. 1 highly recommend this kind of binding. To ensure secure attachment, your boot must have a welt of 0.25 inch at the toe and heel for

Crampon with dud horizontal frMitpohtti art best for alpine ke. Tfcty should fit tightly on the hoots. (Photo: Ion Tcmlmml the binding to grab. Do not attempt to use this type of binding on a boot with less purchase than this.

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