Ice Axe Maintenance

The ice axe (fig. 12-1) is one of the most versatile and important pieces of mountaineering equipment a climber owns. Without it, safe alpine travel is restricted to easy scrambles. With an axe,






Fig. 12-1. Parts of the ice axe and the skill to use it, you can can venture onto all forms of snow and ice, enjoying a greater variety of mountain landscapes during more seasons of the year.

The modern ice axe is an inherently simple tool with many uses. Below the snow line, it's used for balance, as a walking cane, and to help brake going downhill. But its main role is in snow and ice travel, where it provides balance or a point of security to prevent a fall and serves to stop any fall that takes place.

The design of an ice axe often is a trade-off between features that make the tool better for particular uses. A longer axe may be OK for crosscountry travel and scrambling, where it's used as a cane and to provide security in low-angle climbing. You'll probably want a shorter axe for the steeper slopes in alpine climbing. For ice climbing, the axes get shorter still and other design aspects become more specialized, such as the droop of the pick, placement of the teeth, and shape of the adze. These specialized axes are covered in Chapter 14.

Parts of the ice axe

The head of an ice axe—which includes the pick and the adze—is usually made of steel, a material strong enough for snow and ice climbing. Although the hole in the head of the axe is commonly called a carabiner hole, most climbers attach their wrist leash through it.

The pick on most ice axes (fig. 12-2) is curved or drooped, a design that provides better hooking action in snow or ice, causing the axe to dig in faster when you're trying to stop yourself (self-arrest) after a fall. A moderate hooking angle of 65 to 70 degrees from the shaft is right for general moun

Fig. 12-2. Ice-axe picks: shapes and teeth patterns

taineering uses. A sharper angle of 55 to 60 degrees is better for technical ice climbing as it coincides with the arc followed by the axe head when it is planted in steep ice. Teeth on the pick provide grip for ice and hard snow.

The pick's hold for self-arrest is affected to some degree by its clearance (fig. 12-3). If the end edge of the pick is parallel to the shaft, the pick has neutral clearance. If the angle of the pick end tends toward the shaft, it has negative clearance. If the angle tends away from the shaft, it has positive clearance. Picks with neutral or negative clearance can skate or drag on an icy surface and not penetrate reliably during self-arrest. Picks with positive clearance tend to pull into the surface when press-sure is applied—so much so that they can bite into hard snow with such suddenness that the axe may be yanked out of the climber's hands. To beat this

What Positive Clearance Ice


Fig. ¡2-3. Ice-axe clearance problem, some climbers prefer a negative clearance to help with a more gradual stop in hard snow. But in most cases, the clearance probably makes little difference because self-arrest on ice is almost impossible regardless of the clearance, and in softer snow the pick will dig in whether the clearance is positive or negative.

The adze of the axe is used mainly for step-chopping on hard snow or ice. The Hat top of the adze is also a firm, comfortable platform for the palm of your hand while holding the axe in the self-belay grasp during snow climbing. Adzes for general mountaineering may be flat or curved, straight-edged or scalloped, straight-out or drooped. A flat, straight-edged, non-drooped adze with sharp corners is probably the best all-around tool for step-chopping.

The shaft of your axe will most likely be made of metal (aluminum or titanium) or a composite (fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon filament), or a combination of both. The wooden shafts of yesterday—often dense, straight-grained hickory—have been replaced by these stronger materials. Even the historical advantages of wood in dampening vibrations and offering a warmer grip have been minimized by the new composites.

Some shafts are covered at least partly by a rubber-type material for a better grip. The material helps give surer command of the axe during self-arrest and also dampens vibrations and increases control in placing the pick in ice. You can improve your hold on a shaft that doesn't have a rubber grip by adding athletic grip tape or using gloves with rubberized palms. However, the gripping material on the shaft can keep the axe from slipping as easily into the snow when you're using it for a boot-axe belay, probing, or self-belay. For this reason, it is recommended that ice axes for basic mountaineering not have this grip.

The spike, the metal tip of the axe, must be kept sharp so that it pokes readily into snow and ice. The axe does come in handy on rocky trails and talus slopes by helping with balance, but beware of dulling the spike.

Ice-axe lensth

Ice axes range in length from 40 centimeters (about 16 inches) to 90 centimeters (about 3 feet)—still much shorter than the 5-foot alpenstocks of the alpine pioneers. The shortest axes are for technical ice climbing; the longest ones are for tall mountaineers using the axe as a cane on easy terrain.

The optimal length for an ice axe may depend more on what you plan to do with it than on how tall you are. Axes less than 60 centimeters long are ice-climbing tools, excellent for placements on steep slopes but not so good for self-arrest. An axe of 70 centimeters is the longest that is generally useful for ice climbing. A length of 60 to 70 centimeters works well in most alpine situations, where you are climbing moderately steep snow slopes and using the axe for self-belay and self-arrest. Longer axes are better for cross-country travel and scrambling, and also are good as snow anchors and for probing for cornices and crevasses.

Ice-axe leash

The leash provides a way to attach the ice axe to your wrist or your harness when you want to ensure it won't be dropped. The leash also has other uses that we'll get to. Although the length of a leash can vary, it usually consists of a piece of accessory cord or webbing attached through the hole in the head of the ice axe (fig. 12-4).

The leash is valuable insurance on crevassed glaciers or long steep slopes where losing an axe would leave you without a principal tool for safety and put climbers below in danger from the runaway axe. The leash also lets the ice axe hang freely





Fig. 12-4. Ice-axe leashes (wrist loops), attached through carabiner hole in head of axe while you make a move or two on occasional rock during a snow climb.

Short wrist leashes are favored by those who find them adequate for basic snow and glacier travel—easy to use and an aid to quicker control of the ice axe during a fall. During an uncontrolled fall in which you lose your grip on the axe, the short leash prevents the axe from Hailing around as dangerously as it would on a longer leash. Ice axes sometimes come with a short wrist loop attached by the manufacturer.

A longer leash is now preferred, however, for all but the most basic of snow travel. With a long leash, you no longer have to switch the leash from wrist to wrist as you move the axe to the other hand for a change in direction up a snow slope. The long leash also makes the axe more versatile for climbing steep snow or ice.

A long wrist leash is usually about as long as the axe itself, and if it's just the right length, it can help reduce arm fatigue during step-chopping and ice climbing. It should be long enough to let you grasp the shaft near the spike through the wrist loop as you hold the leash taut from the head of the axe. This way, the wrist can share the work of the arm, and the head of the axe will be more stable. You can shorten the leash when you don't need it by wrapping it around the shaft.

With the long leash attached to your seat harness, the axe can serve as a personal anchor.

If you buy an ice axe without a leash, one can easily be made from a length of 5- or 6-millimeter accessory cord or l/2-inch to 1-inch flat webbing, tied into a sling, and then girth-hitched through the hole in the axe head. Tie a slip knot at the end of the sling to form the wrist loop. Ready-made leashes are also available at climbing stores.

Ice-axe maintenance

Modern metal-shaft ice axes require very little special care. Inspect the shaft before each use for deep dents that might weaken it to the point of failure under load (but don't worry about minor nicks and scratches). Clean mud and dirt off the axe after each climb and remove any rust.

Check the pick, adze, and spike regularly. To sharpen, use a small hand file instead of a grinding wheel, which could change the temper and strength of the metal.


Mountaineering is unthinkable without crampons, but when the first 10-point crampons came on the scene in Europe in the early 1900s, many alpinists thought the gadgets took unsporting advantage of the peaks. However, crampons proved to be the one aid that could relieve climbers of the tremendous burden of step-cutting and open up a vast array of new snow and ice faces. They have since evolved into the 12-point crampons of today, with 10 bottom points and 2 front points.

As with ice axes, the different crampon designs involve a trade-off between what's good for general alpine use and what's good for technical ice climbing. Most crampons are made from chrome-molybdenum steel, an extremely strong, lightweight alloy.

Climbers face a number of questions in shopping for crampons. What type of crampons should I buy? How will I know when the crampons fit my boots? Which attachment system should I use? This section provides information to help answer these questions and offers tips on crampon maintenance.

Crampon points

The early 10-point crampon has long-since been eclipsed by the addition of two forward-slanting points in the 1930s to create the 12-point crampon. The 12-point models eliminated even more step-chopping and permitted "front-pointing" up steep snow and ice. Because 10-point crampons usually don't have front points, they're no good for very steep ice and are no longer available except as used equipment.

The angles of the first two rows of points determine the best use for a set of crampons. When the first row (front points) is drooped and the second row is angled toward the toe of the boot (fig. 12-5), the crampons are better suited for front-pointing than for general mountaineering. This configuration allows the boot heel to be lower without additional calf strain. Straight points are better for flat-footing and general use.

Tiny instep crampons with four or six points are sold for use by backpackers who need to cross an occasional short snowfield. Because there are no points at the heel or toe, they're unsuitable for

suited for front-pointing

mountaineering and can be dangerous on steep snow or ice.

Hinged vs. rigid crampons

Mountaineers have a choice of either hinged or rigid crampons (fig. 12-6). Rigid crampons are for technical ice climbing. For most mountaineering, hinged crampons are preferable.

A hinged crampon flexes at the instep and is

Make Crampons
Fig. 12-6. Types of crampons: a, rigid; b, hinged.

meant to bend with the natural rocking action of walking. It can be attached to any mountaineering boot, full shank or not, and to plastic boots. Attached to a full-shank or plastic boot, hinged crampons perform nearly as well for ice climbing as rigid crampons, because the boot provides the stable climbing platform that's required. If you buy only one set of crampons, buy hinged. If your goal is steep technical ice, then you can consider a rigid crampon. Some hinged crampons can be made rigid simply by adding a screw to each side of the crampon.

A rigid crampon is inflexible and not meant to bend at the instep. In most cases, it must be used with full-shank or plastic boots because it could break from the natural flex of another boot. Rigid crampons don't perform well in mixed terrain, where some flexibility is desired, and they can be heavier than hinged crampons. Rigid crampons come into their own when you're front-pointing up technical ice. They vibrate less than hinged crampons when you swing them into the ice, and their stiffness makes for less tiring front-pointing by allowing you to keep your heel lower.

Crampon attachment

Anyone who has had a crampon come loose in the middle of a steep slope of hard snow on a dark, cold morning knows the urgency of keeping crampons attached until you really want them off. To keep the crampons on the boots, climbers can choose from a variety of traditional strapping methods or the newer step-in/clamp-on bindings. The various systems are available on either hinged or rigid crampons.


Buckled straps do a good job of attaching crampons to boots. Neoprene-coated nylon is the best strap material because it is strong, doesn't absorb water, won't stretch, and can be easily transferred from one pair of crampons to another. Leather straps are less expensive but stretch when wet and will eventually rot or break. Nylon or fabric webbing is least desirable, since it readily accumulates snow and may freeze to the buckle.

Three strap-on designs are in general use:

Four independent straps per crampon are used in one design: two short straps, with buckles, attached to one side of the crampon and two longer straps attached to the other side. One long strap then connects the front four attachment posts over the instep of the boot, while the other wraps around the ankle and connects the two rear posts (fig. 12-7a).

Two independent straps per crampon are used

Ice Crampons Old Tie
Fig. 12-7. Systems for attaching crampons to boots: a, four-strap; b, two-strap; c, Scottish; d, step-in!clamp on.

in an alternative strapping system: one connecting the front four attachment posts over the instep and the other wrapping around the ankle from the two rear posts (fig. 12-7b).

The Scottish system is a third strap-on method that is quicker than the other two and is gaining widespread use. A strap with a ring in the middle is permanently connected to the two front posts. A strap then runs from one side post through this ring to the other side post. The rear strap is the same as in the two-strap system (fig. 12-7c).

When strapping on crampons, position the buckles on the outward side of the boots to minimize the chance of catching a buckle with your foot as you walk. To reduce the danger of the front straps loosening on the two-strap and four-strap systems, thread the strap through the hole at each front attachment post from the outside in, and then give the strap an extra twist.

A word to beginning mountaineers: whatever you do, don't head out on a climb until you practice strapping on your crampons in the comfort of home. You'll have plenty of chances later to put the crampons on in the dark by feel, or by flashlight, with cold, numbed fingers. Lay the crampons on the floor with all straps started through the hole at an attachment post, put on your boots, place each boot in turn on its crampon, and attach the straps. Do the crampons fit? Do the straps have holes punched in them at the right places for attaching to the buckles? Do the straps need to be longer to accommodate insulated gaiters or over-boots? Are they tight enough to keep the crampons on through thick and thin, but not so tight that they restrict blood flow? As best you can, work out all the wrinkles before you get out on that steep slope of hard snow in the cold, dark morning.

Step-in/clamp-on bindinss

The old agony of fumbling with crampon straps and buckles is largely eliminated by the newer step-in/clamp-on bindings (fig. 12-7d). The crampons attach to the boot with a wire toe bale and a snap-up bale on the rear. They're fast and easy to put on, and each crampon has a safety strap so you won't lose it if it ever comes off. However, there are a couple of considerations in addition to higher cost to keep in mind before you decide to use step-in/clamp-on bindings.

The fit to the boot is more critical than with crampons that are strapped on. The boot must have a pronounced welt at both the heel and toe and, therefore, the step-in/clamp-ons fit especially well on plastic boots. Crampons with straps often work better on leather boots, particularly those without a decided heel welt. And some climbers, nervous about the possibility of the clamp-ons releasing, continue to use straps for technical ice.

Crampon fit

To ensure that crampons stay attached and perform well, it's essential they fit just right. Here are some tips to help in fitting crampons, either the kind that attach with straps or the step-in/clamp-on type.

• When buying crampons, try them on with the boots you'll be wearing. If you plan to use them on more than one pair of boots, check the fit on all pairs.

• If you'll be wearing gaiters with a rubber band that fits around the welt and instep of the boot, be sure to wear the gaiters when you fit the crampons.

• The front crampon points should protrude about 3/4 inch to 1 inch beyond the toe of the boot.

• Many crampons are adjustable to one degree or another. This can include adjustments for length and for the width of instep, heel, and toe. Being able to adjust the heel and toe widths can be especially important if you're using telemark boots (for a climbing/skiing trip) or overboots.

• The attachment posts at the sides and rear of strap-on crampons should hug the boot snugly without significant bending to fit. Test the fit by lifting the boot upside down by the crampon. The posts should hold to the boot without the use of straps.

• The heel wire found on some strap-on crampons helps keep the boot heel in place by preventing it from slipping through the rear post, especially when using plastic boots.

• The welt on a boot is especially important with step-in/clamp-on bindings, which grip the welt at toe and heel. Most desirable are Norwegian-style double-stitched welts on heavy leather boots and the indented toe and heel on plastic boots. • Some climbers place a flat piece of foam, shaped like the bottom of the boot, between the boot and crampon to help insulate the foot from the snow. If you want to do this, take it into account when you fit your crampons.

Crampon maintenance and safety

Regular simple maintenance is required for safe, dependable crampons. Keep the points sharp, clean the crampons after every climb, and inspect them before the next outing.

Snow and ice routes often include short sections of rock that you'll climb with crampons on. The crampons should be able to take the punishment, but too much of this will dull the points. As with ice axes, sharpen crampon points with a hand file, not a grinding wheel (fig. 12-8).

After you return home from each climb, wipe dirt and water from crampons to prevent rust. Check the points before each climb. They should be clean and reasonably sharp, though very sharp points are needed only for technical ice climbing. Also check alignment of the points, because splayed points make the crampons less efficient at gripping the snow and more effective as a weapon that can slash pants and legs. It's probably best to retire a pair of crampons with badly misaligned points. Check the tightness of nuts and bolts on adjustable crampons. And while you're looking over the crampons, don't forget to inspect the straps if you have the strap-on type. Look for rotting, abrasion, cracks, or cuts.


FILE EDGES OF POINTS Fig. 12-8. How to sharpen crampons

In the mountains, following a few easy rules can protect you, your gear, and your companions from sharp crampon points. Walk carefully to avoid snagging your pants, gashing your leg, or stepping on the rope. When you're carrying the crampons, use a set of rubber protectors to cover the points, or keep the crampons in a special pouch. Both the 12-point protectors and the crampon pouch are available commercially.

One little trick makes crampons safer and more effective in soft, sticky snow. Just wrap the bottom of the crampon with duct tape to minimize the amount of snow that balls up under the crampon. This balling of snow can be dangerous, particularly where slushy snow overlays an icy base. Or you might be able to just take the crampons off.


To find their way back over snow and glacier routes, mountaineers often mark the path with tiny flags atop thin bamboo wands. Climbers usually make their own, using the green-stained bamboo sticks sold at garden supply stores for plant supports. Convert them to wands by attaching a piece of bright, durable, water-repellent material to one end; plastic route-marking tape or coated nylon is best (fig. 12-9). A common method is to slit the first couple of inches at one end of a wand, slip the flag in the slit, tie it, then tape the slit closed. Be sure the flag is secure enough to withstand the high winds of open snow slopes and glaciers.

Wands usually vary in length from 30 inches to 4 feet. Less than 30 inches and the flag may not be high enough to be easily seen; longer than 4 feet and the wands are awkward to carry. Use your longest wands in winter when they have to be



Fig. 12-9. Wand construction pushed in farther because of soft snow and when new snowfall can bury them even deeper.

Continue reading here: Ski Poles

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  • larissa auten
    How often should you buy a new ice axe?
    11 months ago
  • madeleine
    How to shorten an ice ace leash?
    2 years ago
  • wilimar
    How to clean rust off climbing ice axe?
    2 years ago
  • ambessa
    What parts of an ice axe can youreplace?
    3 years ago
  • ulrike
    Can you sharpen self arrest ice axe?
    6 years ago
  • miranda
    Do I need to sharpen a glacier ice ax?
    9 years ago
  • tuomo sundstedt
    What is negative clearance in ice axe?
    10 years ago
  • yvonne
    Do you sharpen a spike on an ice axe?
    10 years ago
  • sarah
    Which ice axe leash for general mountaineering?
    10 years ago
  • yonas
    What is a positive clearance ice ax?
    10 years ago