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What is the correct length of the traditional alpine mountaineering ice axe?
The length of the traditional mountaineering ice axe is about the number of centimeters from the climbers fingertips to the floor when he or she is standing in boots on a level surface. I am 6'2' tall with long legs and my favorite axe is 80cm.
Some one will advise, "You should have a modern shorter axe!"
Here is what Lene Gammelgaard said on page 171 of her 1999 book "Climbing High". about her Into Thin Air - Everest experience: "Lousy axe for climbing. What was Scott thinking of when he recommended it - has he forgotten what it's like up here? I would have felt much better with a long handled classical axe. Well next time I have to trust my own experience more."
Often, the retail advisor is picturing a very steep snow or ice wall for sport climbing when showing a short handled tool. Some self appointed advisors have never had Self Belay or Self Arrest training on the steep snow slopes. On steep water ice, technical ice climbers opt for two technical short expensive hand tools. These technical tools are nearly useless for mountaineering functions like balanced walking, probing, belaying, or self-arresting.
Snow travel, steep snow climbing and glacier travel all require use of the long traditional mountaineering ice axe as a point of connection to the snow.
Self "belay" hand position and self "arrest" hand poition:
Walking on easy snow, the axe is used in the cane position in the up hill hand, using the belay grip, palm over the adze, pick forward. Modern ice axes are usually stamped from steel and have sharp edges that can bruise hands and fingers even through thick gloves. The palm of the hand on the adze enables the climber to push the axe more easily into the snow. However, in order to arrest with the axe (its secondary safety function) the grip must be changed to the arrest hand position. This requires time and two hands to accomplish.
When the going gets more dicey in the perception of the individual climber, the axe is normally changed to the arrest grip, with the thumb under the adze and the palm over the center point of the axe head. A perceptive leader will note when this change-over occurs among his team members.
The first imperative is Don’t Fall. The second is to Self Belay a slip. The third is to Self Arrest a slide or fall. All of these imperatives are assisted by a (long) traditional mountaineering ice axe.
Self Belay and Self Arrest illustrations from Mountaineering, the Freedom of the Hills
Buy a traditional mountaineering ice axe made by a major manufacturer. Don’t worry too much about the positive or negative angle of the point of the pick. A super light axe with a short pick is fine for spring and summer strolls in the high country. Buy a strong axe for steeper snow and glaciers. You will need the stronger shaft for snow anchors, boot axe and carabiner belays, etc. A slightly heavier axe will actually aid in balance on a slick slope with a thousand feet of exposure.
Make sure the shaft of the ice axe is smooth, without fancy rubber hand grips and so on. These just impede your ability to thrust the smooth shaft deep into the snow. Use a rubber cover for the adze and pick, pulling it back from the pick only while climbing. Keep the adze covered to prevent a nasty cut on the cheek or eye while violently arresting. The spike cover should be left in the car as it will soon get lost in the snow.
Always wear strong gloves while using your ice axe. Practice arrests without gloves some time and you will quickly find out why.
Make a tether. Use a long piece of half inch wide accessory tape to tie an ample shoulder loop to go under one arm and to tie under
the head of the axe to the "carabiner" hole. Make sure the tether is long enough to use the axe in the banister position but not so long as to
catch on your knee as you climb a steep snow slope. This tether will enable you to drag the axe behind you a short distance while scrambling over
rocky terrain or carry it tucked behind your pack shoulder strap and most of all, to change hands as you traverse up a slope.
Read more in our seminar notes about steep snow climbing, glacier travel, and the imperatives Don’t Fall, Self Belay and Self Arrest linked below in www.TraditionalMountaineering.org!
--On Belay! Bob Speik
Copyright© 2000-2010 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.
The Mountaineering Council of Scotland: The Length of your Ice Axe?
In a past edition of Scottish Mountaineer
(SM6, December 2000) an article giving information and advice about winter
mountaineering elicited many comments regarding what was considered to be the
best length of an ice axe for climbing and for general mountaineering. We were
able to publish a few of the letters in subsequent Scottish Mountaineers, but
there were such a great range of views it was decided to open the debate further
through the pages of Pitch-in.
Pete Hill and Stuart Johnston make the following comment:
We are very glad that our article has brought this topic into the light, it was obviously high time it was aired! What is important here is for people to realize that there is a choice, and that nothing is set in stone. Some instructors use longer axes, some use shorter - we are all grown up and able to form our own opinions. Mick is very pro long axes, though when chatting to him recently (after the publication of his letter) he was telling me about someone having to self arrest on difficult ground, which they apparently did with style - and with a short axe!
Everyone is entitled to do as they choose, but remember that any length of axe is useless if you don't know how to use it. Get trained and get safe!
Mick Tighe wrote to the editor:
The December issue of The Scottish Mountaineer contained an article entitled 'Gear-up for winter' comprising extracts from a book "The Mountain Skills Training Handbook". According to the leader it 'pulls together much of the information forming the syllabuses of the Mountain Leader Training Awards'. Does this imply that the Mountain Leader Board endorse this book? Does it also mean that the MCofS agree with the information contained in the article, as it appears in their Newsletter?
The piece concerning ice-axes is very worrying indeed and the section plus photographs justifying the use of shorter axes is at best spurious nonsense, and at worst out and out dangerous. The traditional and time-served method of selecting an ice-axe's length is dismissed as 'dangerously outdated' and it seems 'the days have gone of an axe being used as a walking stick'. So it seems that just about every mountaineering handbook in Britain has been wrong for the past 100 years or so. Blackshaw, Fyffe & Peters, Moran and Langmuir (the real author of the official Mountain Leader Training Awards manual), upper class twits, who it seems don't know what they are talking about. If we don't need an ice-axe as a walking stick cum balancing tool, one wonders why people are using walking poles - maybe they've got gout or housewives' knee. Sadly, the trend towards walking poles in place of a decent length ice-axe has led to a spate of accidents in the Scottish mountains whereby folk are slipping with their axes still firmly attached to their rucksacks, or, as on Christmas day on Ben Nevis, when a man fell to his death clutching a very short axe in one hand and a walking pole in the other. No one will ever know for sure, but I can't help wondering if he'd had a decent length axe and nothing to clutter his free hand - would he have been able to arrest his fall?
Coming down hill (when most accidents occur), on narrow windy ridges and cutting steps - despite what the article says - are all times when a longer axe is preferable, not to have one is to defy gravity and the Homo Sapiens propensity to walk upright.
Ice-axe arrest is the cure for a fall and everyone knows what's better than a cure, and interestingly we are one the few mountaineering nations in the world that set so much store by ice-axe arrest. The 'black art' is virtually unknown in continental Europe and North America. There, Guides and Alpinists prefer to concentrate on prevention by not falling over in the first place, and to this end the vast majority use longer axes.
Short axes for walkers, mountaineers and all but the very hardest of climbs, are little more than a fashion, and a very dangerous one at that. Strangely we had a similar fashion a few years ago with rounded heel boots. Several people died or were injured before the mountaineering world woke up to the dangers - don't let it happen again, chuck the short axes in the bin along with the rounded heel boots.
Pete Hill and Stuart Johnston replied:
Mr. Tighe is, of course, completely free to offer his opinion on any subject that takes his fancy. We would humbly suggest, however, that those now confused by his writings speak to any fully qualified and up-to-date professional mountaineering instructor or guide about their opinion on the subject before making a decision. Alternatively, they could refer to an excellent article in February's High about this very topic.
However, we, as well as many others, do take exception to Mr. Tighe calling the likes of Blackshaw, Fyffe and Peter, Moran and Langmuir "upper class twits". This is an insult in the extreme, and is poking fun at those authors and their publications that we, like many others, hold in very high regard, being the written works upon which many thousands of hill and mountain-goers have based their learning.
J Mesarowiez wrote:
Continuing the debate on size - I refer to ice axes of course, it really is what you do with it that counts! I read with interest Mick Tighe's thoughts and it is obviously his after dinner debate subject. I would ask Mick to think about his reference to accidents where walkers slip and still have their axes on rucksack. If you don't have it out it doesn't matter what size it is, you still can't use it. Personal choice is the name of the game and as Pete and Stuarts book advises, get your ice axe out before you need it. I also have the audacity to admit to glissading quite happily down hills with the thought of self-arrest to add to the thrill. If the Europeans don't do it that's there loss. I have been through my ML & SPA training in the last 11 months and faithfully swotted up using Langmuir and Fyffe. Both big and expensive books. I was fortunate to have been trained by Pete Hill when his book was in its final stages and had the privilege of seeing it in draft form at Glenmore. It is a godsend for anyone wanting to brush up and revisit specific areas. I can take it with me in my rucksack if I want and its much easier to read in the bath than Fyffe (no offence cos he is a great bloke). I use this book for both walking and climbing methods. The photos are very clear and the language is concise. It is a great book and I would advise anyone who is doing ML or SPA to get it as an additional and ultimately quick reference especially in between training and assessment. I think it will become a classic along with Fyffe and Langmuir. Oh! for the record I have to say that I do prefer a big one but my walking companion has a little one.
Roger Wild wrote:
Pete Hill and Stuart Johnston suggest seeking the opinion of any fully qualified and up-to-date professional. I am both and I disagree with their advice that axes "have now settled at a length of 50cm or 55cm" and that "there is no difference in length between walking axes and climbing axes these days". Pete and Stuart quite rightly hold the textbooks by Fyffe & Peter, Moran and Langmuir in very high regard because these authors bring a balanced and experienced view to a range of mountaineering topics. These books recommend the following lengths:- Fyffe & Peter 50cm - 80cm; Moran 55cm - 75cm; Langmuir 55cm - 65cm.
Primarily the axe is a third point of contact with the mountain (the other two being our feet). This increases stability and prevents slips. This is far more important than a self-arrest that may not prove effective. The ideal length is determined by the steepness of the terrain. For moderate slopes a long axe is preferable. On slopes over 45 degrees a short axe may well be better – but this is getting onto graded climbing ground not general mountaineering. For all the terrain in between these two extremes a medium length axe is best. The guiding principle is that the axe must be long enough to provide realistic support. This ensures effective footwork by maintaining two points of contact when one foot is in motion. A short axe causes the mountaineer to lean into the slope instead of standing upright and makes a slip more likely. Choosing the length of an axe is a compromise based on intended use and the mountaineer's height.
Determining axe length on the basis of self-arrest places too much importance on a skill that is a last resort. A short axe has disadvantages anyway - the leverage you can apply on the pick is reduced and your hand is trapped against your body. In the "head first on your front" position you can't get your arm out to the side properly. I have only used self-arrest once (and it was with a 65cm axe).
A longer axe is also fine for all the other jobs we use an axe for, especially step cutting. The only time I prefer a short axe is for steep climbing – and then I've got two axes.
Finally, 22 active instructors and guides have recently told me that they use 60cm or 65cm axes for general mountaineering (including some young, top grade climbers). Will it be Pete or Stuart who tells them that they are not up-to-date?
An anonymous correspondent wrote:
Concerning Mr. Tighe's letter about axe length. Apparently, the dinosaurs let out a pathetic whimper before they became extinct. This is simply history repeating itself.
Oh no! Yawn yawn. Here we are again in another no win/no lose argument which seem to be filling climbing conversations these days. With so many people invading the hills it should be a matter of individual preference according to size, use, and probably most importantly, cost as we are not all as Mick Tighe pointed out 'posh twits' who use the hills as a catwalk.
What happened to the good old days when everything seemed to be better.
Another anonymous correspondent writes:
I feel that this argument is now becoming silly. Its just a forum for people to slag each other off. Why don't we all make our own decisions based on what information we can gain from different sources. And stop arguing and go out and walk and climb instead of bickering about it.
Bruce Strachan wrote:
I personally use 50cm axes for tech climbing, and a 60cm axe for hill walking/general use, and have never had any bother...I am only replying to this debate to show how simple the answer is...If your happy use it...easy wasn't it....!!!!
Alan Kimber wrote:
I was descending from Alphubel this last summer and saw a local young Swiss guide offering good advice to his clients. It bought back memories of the debate on axe length. The main thrust of his advice was to stand upright in your steps to avoid your feet slipping outwards. He was spot on, unlike Stuart and Pete, whose advice to use a short axe will lead in the end to bending over to reach the ground. This in turn leads to a sore back, poor posture and an eventual slip if you are not careful. I'm not just supporting my colleagues (Mick Tighe and Roger Wild), with whom I regularly have differences of opinion. My points come from an understanding, gained over thirty years on the Scottish hills and farther away. Stand up straight folks and use a longer axe for general mountaineering (60/65cm) and a shorter axe and ski poles for approaching the climbs. Now there's another argument which is set to run.
Ian Broadley wrote:
I find it amazing that this is still running. If those who are so offended take time to look, they will see that Pete and Stuart put forward an opinion that axes over 60 cm are getting too long, a length that the so called "experts" above agree as being a reasonable length.
I also find it hard to believe that Wild and Kimber think that people will have to bend over to let their axe reach the ground - what happened to the old days of standing up straight and using balance and technique for walking? If they feel that they need a "third leg" then perhaps they are in the wrong place and out of their depth. On steeper ground, a shorter axe is appropriate, and for self arrest by far the most efficient, as Pete and Stuart quite correctly explain.
It is time to let this rest and to let folk decide for themselves what is the best way forward - using an axe as a walking stick certainly is not.
Alan Kimber continued:
Ian Broadley has highlighted two important points about the ice axe length debate. Firstly, what we are talking about here is the advice given to inexperienced mountaineers who are referring to a text book for information and not about sure-footed hotshots doing their own thing. Indeed beginners are not necessarily particularly steady on their feet and this is why many slips on relatively easy terrain still occur (sometimes with fatal consequences). Secondly, Ian's remarks about the "old days of standing up straight and using balance and technique" are absolutely correct and this evolved when ice axes were at least 60cm long (and certainly no shorter). You can't have it both ways. Pete and Stuart's most recent comment concedes: "What is important here is for people to realize that there is a choice and that nothing is set in stone." It's just a shame this balanced view wasn't expressed in the first place. The next time you pass 55 Ian (years not cms that is) ask yourself if your views have changed on this topic. Finally, Ian, if you fancy a day's climbing with a single axe sometime, I know plenty of 65cm axe users who will give you a run for your money. Any grade considered. Happy Christmas!
Allan Thompson wrote:
I have been very interested in the long Vs short debate above. However the slagging match between one side and the other detracts from the seriousness (if that is a word) of this debate. Above all this is a safety issue and can result in injury or death.
I notice that in all the correspondence above no one has thought to get the input from the manufacturers, who in my opinion, have some responsibility here. After all they design and manufacture the products to their varying specifications for us to go and use in some of the most potentially dangerous places on earth, so what do the manufacturers recommend is the rule that should apply.
If you buy safety clothing such as a helmet to use for motorcycling etc. it must be manufactured to the relevant safety standard and will usually have some kind of dos and don'ts list supplied with it so that you cannot sue the manufacturer when used in the wrong way. When I bought my ice axe (length not specified) it never came with any information at all.
So come on manufacturers let's hear from you.
Noel Darlow wrote:
In my own experience as a walker rather than a climber, a long axe is vital for safety. It is quite frightening that "experienced" guides can recommend anything different. I think it is very misleading to suggest that it's a question of individual preference.
As a dedicated bumslider, I've had a lot of self arrest practice when things get out of control.
In some conditions (wet, sugary snow - not uncommon in the freeze/thaw conditions of the Scottish Highlands) the pick simply won't bite in a fall so you have brake with the shaft, driving it deep into the pack to get even a minimal stopping force. An axe with a short shaft won't be much help here.
In perfect conditions (i.e. a hard polystyrene crust) a longer shaft has an advantage because the greater leverage gives you more control. A short axe can still do a decent job in these conditions but it's a desperate business to be bouncing and bumping down a snow slope at high speed so I'll take any advantage I can get.
As has been pointed out above, a third point of contact in slippery conditions is going to make it much less likely that you slip in the first place - another clear win for a longer shaft.
The modern use of poles also has great dangers. I've seen new guys using poles only on steep slopes because they don't feel in control of their balance when they switch to their axe - short or long.
Maybe we should set up a comparative test on a steep 200ft slope ending in a sheer crag and leave it to Darwin to resolve the argument.
Nigel Flather wrote:
No hard rules could apply to axe lengths, to suit the ever-varying conditions of a mountain environment (not to mention different physical types of climbers) one can only learn what is best for themselves by practice.
From my personal experience I have found that two axes are best for me. A long/light axe for walking and slight slopes, a short/heavy axe for more serious stuff and used together when conditions require.
There is no substitute for experience. One cannot get this from books; only to go out and try a different selection/combination of tools will a climber find which works best for them.
O.K.! Statistically, one could say that accidents have occurred because of X, Y&Z but in the final analysis one should rely on a combination of previous accident information and ones own intuition and experience.
It would seem to me that many theories are instigated by gear manufacturers who's interests are more profit motivated.
Cameron Bell wrote:
After a couple of years walking in summer, I went along to a winter skills course last year which I thoroughly enjoyed - enough to want to go back into the hills in winter for more, on organized outings. I purchased my ice axe through the company I went out on the course with - who ordered one which was in their opinion the correct size for me - 55cms - I am 5'11" tall.
My friend who accompanied me bought his out of a high street store, he is 5'8" and was sold a 60cm axe.
For complete beginners like myself you have to trust the advice of experienced qualified people. We have remained confused and concerned over this for a year. Who (if anyone) was right?
Alan Hunter wrote:
Like the previous writer, I am an experienced summer walker who wants to walk in the Winter. I am 5' 8" and was sold a 70cm axe. My appeal to the Professionals is to give amateurs like myself a wide perspective on this and not leave me wondering if I have been sold the wrong thing.
To be honest from a women's point of view I think you are all a bunch of blokes so concerned with making your opinion known and are also worried about the way you look rather than the practical: get out and have some fun rule.
Yes safety is important, but lets face it fun is why we started. Dont be so serious. Get outside and have an adventure on the hills.
An anonymous man replies
Oww that's below the belt. A few "blokes" including myself are a bit worried about the advice given to use shorter axes. In summer you don't need a lot of specialist knowledge to wander about in the hills but winter conditions are different. It's not much fun if you break a few bones or worse so it's good to see a forum discussing best (ie safest) practice.
Oliver Francks writes:
In my opinion fashion and safe mountaineering do not mix. While short, curved-handled axes are considered an advance in very steep climbs, as far as I am concerned that is where they should stay. To suggest your average recreational hill climber uses anything else than a good inside leg measurement axe is madness. This was true sixty years ago for my grandfather, who climed the alps all winter long for his work and his enjoyment and it's still true today. Less showing off and more sense please.
Mike Hoare writes:
Just had my first and rather scary "in anger" self arrest here in the French Alps where I live. Dropped a piece of kit and in failing light decided to retrieve the 3 Euro item which was stuck on a ledge some 10 metres below. I misjudged the slope and as the surface began to slough I started a very rapid slide. Was grateful to have had a longer axe (65cm) through which I could exert some leverage in the loose packed snow. Climbing back up was also easier in that I was able to bury the shaft deep enough to gain purchase. Just my 5 p worth.
Kevin Woodcock writes:
I have read the Mountain Skills book and i think the idea of only using a short axe is mis-leading, especially to beginners. For general mountaineering a longer axe is preferable. At the end of the day it is about prevention not cure, the longer tool gives natural support when walking up inclines, a short one will naturally tend to bend you over. Many years of wisdom are very seldom wrong. When moving on to steeper stuff shorter is better, you can use long axes on steep routes as long as you have very strong fore-arms to wield them. One technique often over looked is to take a long and a short, so the long does all the general work and get the short out when it gets steeper, or to bang a peg in.
Jason Shuttleworth writes:
Great debate! I thought that it was 55cm for everything alpine, a view shared I note by the needlesports website alpine kit list. Long axes are very handy at times on the hill but can be inconvenient when not in use, for example when on the pack doing rock pitches or absails in the alps. The rise of the short axe seems to accompany the rise of the ski pole, which does many of the jobs of the long axe. Probing crevasses, crossing rivers, acting as a third leg on rough descents, were all once its preserve. I think for a beginner the note on training is an excellent one, much more important than how long the shaft is. Like many others I did a winter skills course, and one day had to self arrest in earnest. That I did this automatically and effectively, stopping a slip becoming a disaster was because of the excellent tuition I had had in the past.
An ice axe once saved my bacon and size didn't matter at the time . However short is beautiful, and a long axe takes too much wielding and if you are traversing on steep hard snow, it puts your uphill hand up in the air so to speek.50 -55cm is the tops I reckon.
Philippa Simms writes:
Can't say I've bothered to get the tape measure out but I guess it must be long seeing as I use it as a walking stick. I'm on the 'long team' - surely it helps to avoid falling in the first place. If anyone has invented a 'cozy cover' to stop my hands freezing while holding it and rendering any action useless, I'd love to hear..
Rob Gray replies:
Philippa, buy some gloves. These can be bought in most good outdoor retail stores and are brilliant for keeping your hands warm. They come in a variety of styles and colors. Once you've tried them you'll never go back to not wearing them whilst holding a cold axe in winter.
Jim Wightman adds:
Yes Philippa, I would have to agree with Rob on this one. Gloves are an excellent way to keep your hands warm when carrying your ice axe in winter there is also an alternative to gloves which are better known as mitts, can be just as effective, best visit one of the various outdoor shops for them to explain them in better detail.
Lambert Dizon will be happy to end the discussion :
55,60,65,70...who cares. get an ice axe that works well for you and not for anyone else. it's you who will be using it and not them. I do alpine mountaineering. I'm 5'8 and have a 65cm ice axe. i chose that length because of versatility. I have no problems in self arrest and it's a good walking stick. I love it and it's perfect for me. that's all that matters.
Note: I found this discussion on the web today, and I am pleased to pass it along with credit to The Mountaineering Council of Scotland. These folks really know their steep snow slopes and I find them coming down on the side of longer ice axes.
I particularly liked the following observation: "Sadly, the trend towards walking poles in place of a decent length ice-axe has led to a spate of accidents in the Scottish mountains whereby folk are slipping with their axes still firmly attached to their rucksacks, or, as on Christmas day on Ben Nevis, when a man fell to his death clutching a very short axe in one hand and a walking pole in the other. No one will ever know for sure, but I can't help wondering if he'd had a decent length axe and nothing to clutter his free hand - would he have been able to arrest his fall?" --Webmeister Speik
WARNING - *DISCLAIMER!*
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