When we bought our first ice axes, most of us probably didn’t even know how to use them properly yet. I didn’t. We bought first and sought instruction later (maybe). Then one day we realized that the axe wasn’t suited for our purposes. There are dozens of used or sometimes brand new ice axes for sale on Ebay every day because of this trend. After a dozen years of owning my 65 cm Grivel Nepal ice axe I realized it didn’t suit my style any longer, and so I sought a longer axe and got a PayPal account.
But why would anyone today want a longer axe? There are a lot of sensitive discussions on this subject. The advocates against long ice axes think the rule for fitting an ice axe is outdated. In a guide rental shop, for instance, the rule for choosing an ice axe says wearing boots and holding the head of the axe in your hand with your arm to your side, the axe should not touch the floor. Some go on to say the spike of the axe should reach your ankle but no farther. General mountaineers generally endorse this, with minor exceptions given for personal preference and the predominant slope expected for a certain climb, even though the other groups of climbers derogatorily refer to long axes as walking sticks or alpenstocks. However, the greater portion that a route is prolonged in a steep slope, the shorter the axe for your height is justified. Hence, this is why climbers on the steepest of routes, excluding vertical ice, tend to use 55 cm axes.
As hearty backpackers and general mountaineers, we should consider two issues when selecting the appropriate length of our ice axes: First, our height using the rule described earlier, and second, the dominant slope we will typically encounter on our routes. The dominant slope may require us to carry a shorter axe. For example, I am six-foot-even and prefer to carry a 75 cm ice axe that suits the guide shop’s rule, and because I typically snowshoe these days and use my axe as a walking stick 80 percent of the time (admittedly, an ice axe is probably a bit overkill) and as a true climber’s companion on the exposed ridges of Mount Mansfield the rest of the time. If I currently covered 60 percent or more time in true alpine environments with a degree of steepness greater than the slope of a household staircase, my 65 cm ice axe would have been a tool better suited for such climbing. I made the chart below to illustrate this point, though not necessarily set a rule, since every climber’s preference and comfort with their ice axe is different.
And for those of you that just bought your first ice axe, I urge you to get trained in how to self belay, self arrest and chop steps while down climbing. Then practice. It might save a weekend jaunt from becoming a helicopter rescue.