There is often a dilemma in any long climb, be it Alpine, Himalayan or Scottish, over what axes to take. If the route is remote but non-technical, a light walking axe and ski pole usually works fine, with a pair of technical tools being preferred on the other extreme, i.e. hard and steep. Each type of axe copes well in the role it was designed to do, with penalty’s in weight or performance always offset by one another. In a perfect world, you could leave it there – but thankfully we don’t climb in a perfect world. There exists a Grey area in mountaineering when we may find ourselves on technical terrain but don’t want to have carried a heavy technical tool all the way there to climb it. Times were you trusty wooden shafted ‘BumbleExtrem’ just won’t cut it and your ‘Deathaxe 2000’ is just overkill. This kind of terrain can be generally called Alpine – but you can encounter it any were. Often classic Alpine routes may involve some technical climbing, interspersed between easier plodding. Early and late season rock routes can often involve some tricky mixed climbing not suited to your stout but inadequate ‘BumbleExtrem’ you may have only brought along for the descent.
These Alpine axes also fulfil an important role in being perfect introductory axes for beginners, having three of the most important features you want in an axe when starting out, being cheap, strong …. and cheap. A solid Alpine axe will get most climbers up any route they wish, although you usually find above grade IV a more technical pick will make things a little less exciting.
Don’t confuse walking axes with climbing axes. Although most axes will stick into neve only the better quality models can be repeatedly placed and removed without fatiguing the pick. Be wary of aluminium, headed axes, as these are only intended for ice axe arrest and deform with even light use. The classic Alpine pick is designed to follow the natural swing of the arm, placing and cleaning easily from neve or ice, yet still able to be used for self-arrest. Because the pick angle is less aggressive, hook-ability is more limited, requiring more care when climbing on steeper ground. An Alpine pick work in reverse to a drooped pick in that to clean it you push the shaft against the ice instead of away. This means on anything steep you’re forced to pull out on the shafts which can be quite scary at first. What limits a Alpine pick is a lack of precision on thin ice or harder mixed, although in some cases the picks themselves are far stronger than on many technical tools.
The spike on an Alpine axe is generally much more important than the spike on a more technical tool, as an Alpine axe will be used on less technical terrain, where the shaft will be plunged more and often due to less gear being carried, used for main belays. The spike helps the axe to penetrate hard neve and increases security on hard ice descents.
The adze of an Alpine axe is a versatile tool indeed. The art of cutting steps should be practised by all climbers, especially those climbing at a moderate level and using Alpine tools. A few blows with your adze and you can often pass sections of ice and neve without stopping to don crampons or chop steep sections down to size with the odd foot ledge or two. Chopping bollards and digging snow holes are just two of the other many uses of an alpine adze.
The shaft of a good axe should be thin but strong, with a low profile, tough rubber grip, allowing easy plunging and removal. As with technical tools, huge rubber gripped models are more tiring to hold when wearing gloves and are damaged more easily by crampons. The repeated sliding in and out of a shaft will be made harder or easier depending on the above factors, and because you may find yourself doing this many thousands of times, a crucial point in choosing what axe to buy. There are quite a few axes on the market now with curved shafts designed to increase such things as shear resistance, and make it easier to stow when walking. In reality, I think these designs, although looking a bit more technical, don’t really off that big an advantage and I wouldn’t let this affect your choice.
The shape of the headset of an axe, the point where the pick is joined to the axe, is critical to hand comfort, as the axe will spend a great deal of time being held in this position. Holding the headset in both right and left hands, there should be no sharpness, aggressive teeth or edges. These will only damage gloves and give blisters. If your heading somewhere really cold, or find you have problems with hand comfort, try rapping duck tape around the headset to add a bit of insulation.
There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the optimum length for an Alpine axe. First of all, ignore all the crap about measuring your feet and multiplying by the width of your nose and all that rubbish, there’s a much simpler way of getting the right tool. First of all, decide what you want it for. For technical climbing go for something between 50 to 55, for Alpine 50 to 65 and for snow plods and general mountaineering 60 to 70 (depending on height). Next to get the optimum length in each category you should be able to hit your raised heel with the spike while holding onto the headset. Then holding the axe in the self-arrest position the spike shouldn’t stick out much further than your hip bone. This way you should end up with an axe you can easily use to stop your crampons baling up yet still self-arrest safely with the danger of an overlong shaft catching in the snow. Your axe isn’t a walking stick and if you want something to lean on buy a ski pole. For climbing in poor steep snow conditions like you may find in South America or Alaska a slightly longer axe than usual may be found useful.