Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
As with any piece of modern hardware there is a huge and confusing choice when it comes to buying technical axes these days with everything from sci-fi leashless tools designed for state of the art mixed ‘tooling’, down to fixed non modular models aimed at either the budget climber or for those who just want some simplicity in this dizzyingly techno world, all vying for your attention.
This combination of variety coupled with new ideas on how to use them, some of which are a broad departure from what was considered as the norm i.e. ‘a technical tool has a straight or bent shaft, with a curved pick and a leash attached’, means it’s now even harder to decide on what tool to buy, because you fear you’ll either end up with something redundant a month after you buy it (“Hey dude, sorry to see you aren’t using anti gravity leashes.”) to ending up with something that is just over the top (“Excuse me have you seen my anti gravity axes - they seem to have floated off?”).
This article will attempt to help you get over some of these hurdles - not by giving you a long review of all the tools that are out there, but by highlighting the tools I think stand out above the rest and, most importantly, why. Remember that what you read in this piece is my opinion alone, some of which doesn’t fit with tradition, but which I hope will do within the next few winter seasons.
WHAT SHOULD THE AVERAGE CLIMBER WANT FROM AN AXE?
This review assumes the reader climbs between Grade III and Grade VI in the UK and also climbs in the Alps (icefall or Alpine) or further afield. For those who climb either above or below this grade then these tools are still perfectly good, although both may find more flexibility or value in other models, either more or less technical. Here are the main areas that are crucial in buying this new axe.
THE AXE MUST CLIMB WELL
Yes, it’s a fairly obvious one and, although, in the past there were quite a few models that failed to deliver on this one, thankfully nowadays the number of tools that are just plainly crap can be counted on one hand.
DOES THE AXE FIT YOU?
What this means is, will the axe work well in partnership with you, suiting your own style and body shape? This means getting an axe that feels comfortable in your hand, with a grip that is neither too thick (pumpy), nor too thin (lack of control) and that means when wearing a variety of gloves, not barehanded.
Does the tool rest nicely in your hand, how well does it swing above your head? Hold the axe up and get someone to try and force the pick side to side and see how well you can resist them. This shows you how much control you have over the pick, important when your hands start to tire. Next, try gripping the head as if you were plunging it into the snow, does it feel comfortable and easy to hold? Don’t forget to swap it between your left and right hand.
Buying a tool from somewhere where you can test it first would be ideal for this kind of test, which means a shop with some kind of ice wall attached. Unfortunately most shops don’t have such facilities, but a bouldering wall (often used for people to try out their rock boots) can provide almost as much information, allowing you to see how well you can grip the tool when hooking (get permission first and no sneaky placements in the plywood).
The weight of technical tools has come down considerably over the last five years, due mostly to the redesign of pick angles which are now generally shallower and so require less weight behind them in order to be effective. This means that most technical tools are now easier both to carry and wield, saving a great deal of energy. The only downside with this is that it can prove harder to place pegs and drive in protection, although with advances in gear this is increasingly less of a concern.
The grip width of axes has also dropped considerably which is great for everyone apart from the most ham-fisted of climbers. This means the axe is less tiring to grip and improves control - especially when you do get tired - and is especially good if you are female, or if you’re Jeremy Beadle.
One of the biggest advantages in the last few years has been the introduction of the hand rest, which stops the hand slipping off the bottom of the axe. For leashed climbing this helps control and, in the case of full sized hand rests, stops knuckle damage and, most of all, gives vastly improved grip over the shaft. For leashless climbing all these things apply, with the only difference being the obvious increased importance of improving grip on the tool.
Many climbers are wary of these hand stoppers on the bottom of their tools, as they fear they will make shaft plunging more difficult. In my experience this hasn’t been a problem and I have found that by switching between plunging, daggering with the head (using the pick full depth) and normal pick placements I have been able to climb anything, from soft névé to candyfloss and personally even if there was a problem I’d be happy to work around it as the improved grip just blows old school grips away every time.
WHAT DO CE ICE-AXE REGULATIONS MEAN TO YOU?
All technical tools these days sold in Europe must pass minimum CE norms. The shaft of a technical tool must pass the T (technical) test, guaranteeing a minimum strength of 350kg. This is carried out by applying a load to the shaft as if it was being used in a snow belay, which although far from practical - after all you’d be hard pressed for an axe belay to hold more the 35kg - does mean that when you’re jamming the shaft into cracks and standing on it, it should be up to the job.
Of far more importance is the pick rating, which is either denoted by a ‘B’ or ‘T’ stamped on the pick. The ‘permanent deformation’ test does not necessarily relate to practical application either; picks are clamped in a vice, a lever of 330mm (often the shaft of the tool itself) is used to apply 42 (B) or 60 (T) Newtons of force for 60 seconds. At the end of the test period the lever must not show more than 70mm of permanent deflection from its start position.
Unfortunately, most picks that are noted for their ‘high performance’ are B-rated, which suggests a contradiction between the best performance and the greatest strength. The ‘cyclic fatigue’ test applies only to T-rated picks, which must endure 50,000 flexes at the end of a 250mm lever in order to pass. What this means to you the climber is that B probably stands for ‘bent’ if used for full on and intensive mixed climbing, while T stands for ‘Tourquer’, aimed at some serious twisting.
Of course. this doesn’t mean that if you climb mixed routes then you need a T-rated pick, just as climbing ice doesn’t mean you need a B-rated pick. What it tells you is what they were intended for, meaning you take more care with a B-rated pick when it comes to a full-on horizontal torque. For the majority of climbers the best pick will no doubt be of the B variety, as this will work best on all terrains, but if your thing is mixed climbing, or you know you’re a monster and have drawers full of broken picks then go with a T pick.
When buying your new axe find out how much spare picks cost and what other picks are available. In a very busy season you may end up wearing out/breaking a pair of picks and if these turn out to cost almost as much as a new axe (the printer cartridge syndrome) then you may wish you had taken more notice of such things.
NUTS AND BOLTS
How does the pick attach to the shaft? How robust is it and easy to operate? In the past it was only Black Diamond that had the reputation for having a foolproof system, using a single bolt, with everyone else using Allan bolts that more often than not either got so trashed that you couldn’t get them off, or simply stripped when putting them back on again. Thankfully those days have gone, with most of the companies now having systems that are both robust, foolproof and climber friendly (same thing).