Why Would Anyone Want a Long Ice Axe?

Ice Axe

Grivel Nepal Ice Axe (Szalay)

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 The advocates against long ice axes think the rule for fitting an ice axe is outdated.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.

Sizing Guidance for a Traditional Mountaineering Ice Axe

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5 thoughts on “Why Would Anyone Want a Long Ice Axe?

  1. Pingback: Winter Fun: Pack Well to Prevent Calamity « The Suburban Mountaineer

  2. I definitely agree with your theory on this. It’s not all about the old school method to fit an axe for your body. Although it usually works great for non technical mountaineering, basically snow hiking, it doesn’t always apply to the very steep terrains. Personally I think for my experience level, my 75cm axe will do great for everything I might need it for, even piolet traction, despite it being slightly more awkward with half of the shaft extending beyond my wrist.

  3. Chouinard’s influential “Climbing Ice” in 1970s said a general mountaineering axe should be 70cm for nearly everyone. Full stop. He offered some extremely well thought-out reasoning, mainly based on ergonomics, which I almost completely forget. So I ditched my 85cm axe and have used a 70cm ever since for mountaineering — sort of like the old guys who won’t shave their mustache.

    Obviously, the general opinion on axe length has since shifted downward somewhat, for reasons which I see as mainly ranging from good to indifferent.

    Were I in the market for a new axe, I’d certainly get either a 60 or 65cm. This is not because I hike on particularly steep terrain, but 1) Vast majority of time when I have an axe, I merely carry it on my back or in car, airplane, etc., and at these times, the shortest -possible axe is obviously preferred. 2) It’s certainly the fashion; it suggests you climb very steep terrain, and if not TOO short,* they do work fine for self-belay & arrest.

    Most people have long-since taken to carrying poles, in addition to the ice-axe; another reason to trim axe’s weight and hassle factor.
    *Interesting post a few years ago on British web site, warned that shafts shorter than maybe 55 cm (?) may sacrifice some efficiency in self arrest.

  4. With an extremely short axe, it’s said one may loose some levering control over axe head in self-arrest. Or so I understand.

    But it occurs to me that as shaft length increases, so too does potential for “catching” tip on obstructions during self-arrest.

    None of which is to be confused with whatever Chouinard advised in his book.

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