The Ice

The tool is called an ice axe, but it's really an invaluable all-purpose item that often goes to work long before snow or ice is reached.

The axe has a lot of unsuspected uses. It pro vides a "third leg" during stream fording. It gives a brief touch-and-go balance point while you hop across talus. It also helps with balance on steep trails, serving as a heavy-duty cane going uphill

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and a brake going down. The axe held diagonally across the body, spike touching the slope, will help you hold a stable, vertical stance on steep hillsides. The ice-axe self-arrest is taught as a technique for snow, but many climbers have been happy to use their "dirt axe" to stop themselves in steep meadows, forest, and heather.

On open trails many climbers strap the axe on the pack. It comes off the pack and into the hands as the route gets rougher (and as the axe on the pack begins snagging on brush and tree limbs). The ice axe is truly the mountaineer's friend, but it's also probably the most dangerous implement of mountaineering. Its pick (the pointed end of the head), adze (broad end of the head), and spike are always ready to poke, gouge, and impale a climber or nearby companions. Leather or rubber guards are available to cover sharp points and edges when the axe is not needed. Be aware that these guards often get knocked off by brush. Remove the guards when on steep, slippery terrain, whether it's mud, needles, grass, or snow.

Carrying an axe without the skill to use it provides a false sense of security. All too often, climbers slip on hard snow and discover they don't know enough about self-arrest to stop their fall. This indispensable skill comes from practicing on slopes with safe run-outs. (See Chapter 12 for details on this technique and much more information on ice axes.)

The safe way to carry an axe while walking

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Carrying Ice Axe
Fig. 5-2. Carrying an ice axe: a, in your hand on easy terrain; b, as a cane.

along a trail (fig. 5-2a) is to grasp the shaft at the balance point (shaft parallel to the ground), with the spike forward, and the head to the rear with the pick down. This way, the hiker behind is safeguarded against running into the spike and the pick is less likely to jab you in case you stumble. To use the axe as a cane while hiking (fig. 5-2b), grasp the head, with the spike toward the ground. It's usually easiest to have the pick pointing forward, permitting the palm of your hand to rest comfortably on top of the adze.

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