How to use an ice axe

How to use an ice axe

Possessing an ice axe is one thing - knowing how to use is quite another. On snow or ice your ice axe is your most valuable asset. Allen Fyffe explains the key techniques to get you out of trouble.

Placing an ice axe

Placing the pick of an ice axe or ice-climbing tool is not too difficult, but some people do find it awkward to begin with. This is usually due to a lack of accuracy rather than a lack of strength, and practice soon improves performance. Hold the shaft just above the ferrule to make best use of the leverage and momentum of the head to ease placement.

With a curved pick a smooth, rounded swing from the shoulder will place the tool efficiently with the weight of the head doing most of the work. Using the whole arm here means that the arc of the swing and the curve of the pick roughly coincide for an easy placement. A full swing as used with a curved pick can result in the top edge of the tool hitting the ice and bouncing off.

For an inclined pick the action is more of a sharp, downward, chopping movement with the swinging action coming from the elbow.

When using a banana-shaped pick, the action is very similar but more of a swing is possible.
To remove the pick, pull it up and down to loosen it and lift it out. Never waggle it from side to side as this can bend or break it. Stubborn placements may have to be loosened by sliding the hand up the shaft and banging the underside of the head with the hand. Try to take the pick out in the reverse of the line that it followed on its way into the ice.

winter walkingUsing a single tool

When using a single axe to climb ice, place it as high as is comfortable and then, with one hand just above the ferrule, place the other hand on the axe head, being careful to pull down and not out on the axe. Move up until the axe is at shoulder height and, with the feet securely placed and standing in balance, remove the axe and replace it higher up. In this way the axe is used for support at the crucial time: that is, when you are moving. When removing the axe and replacing it higher up, balance and good crampon work are essential. Sometimes more than one blow is needed to get a good placement and this is often the result of not hitting the ice squarely with the pick. If the first effort is not satisfactory, strike again at the same spot: after a few blows the pick should be secure. One of the secrets of efficient ice climbing is driving a pick in the correct distance. Overdriving wastes time and energy and can even destroy the placements.

Cutting steps

Although cutting steps has now been superseded by the use of crampons, steps may still be required in several situations: crampons can break, be lost or forgotten; climbers can become tired, unsteady or injured. It may be quicker to cut a few dozen steps than to put crampons on and take them off soon afterwards and in some places this may be so awkward or dangerous that it is safer to cut steps. They also often provide rests and opportunities for placing protection when cramponing on climbs.

Modern axes, with their curved or inclined and toothed picks, are designed to stick and hold and this makes them less suitable for cutting than their straighter predecessors. In most cases, having a taut wrist loop takes some of the arm strain out of cutting and almost all step cutting on snow is done with the axe.

Step patterns

The pattern of steps on a slope depends on the size and shape of the slope, its angle, and the consistency of the snow or ice. It is best to zig-zag uphill; the angle of the diagonal line of steps to the fall line will depend on the slope, but the spacing and line taken follows that which a step-kicking climber would produce, usually between about 45 degrees and 60 degrees.

Type of steps

The type of step cut will depend on a variety of factors - the hardness of the snow or ice, the angle, size and shape of the slope, the use to which the steps will be put and the competence of those using them. There are however, a few basic points which usually apply.
 

  • Steps should be cut in a positive manner while the climber is standing securely in two steps.
  • The pattern of steps should allow comfortable movement yet still be economical of effort; each step should form a positive hold angled into the slope. The weight of the axe and the way that it is used should do most of the work.
  • The best way to make any cutting efficient is always, after the first blow, to cut away from the initial hole so that snow can be broken out and the adze does not stick.
Slash steps

The quickest and most efficient type of step to cut in a diagonal zig-zag pattern is the slash step. This is cut while the climber is facing across the slope with the axe held in the uphill hand. The axe is swung in an arc so that the adze enters and leaves the snow as part of this swing. The weight of the axe does much of the cutting, and the step produced should be as long as the boot, horizontal and sloping inward so as to give positive hold. In good, hard snow a suitable step can be formed with only one swing, although two or three are more usually required. 

To change from one diagonal to the next it is best to cut a large bucket step, stand in it with both feet and change the body position and cutting hand. The axe is planted firmly with either the shaft or the pick in the snow and used for security while you change direction.

Bucket steps

Bucket steps can be of various sizes, depending on the use to which they are to be put. They slope inwards and are roughly semi-circular in section. They are cut with a simple downwards action of the axe, unless the larger versions are being made when a horizontal cut is angled into the slope, then cuts are made downwards into the snow above this (this forms the basis of the stance used when making a snow belay). The upper snow, being undercut, will break away more easily. The inside, outside or both hands can be used. These steps can generally he made more secure by an increase in size but this will be more tiring, although the principle of always cutting towards an existing hole helps.

Pigeonhole steps

Pigeonhole steps are used in direct ascent or where it is steep and icy enough to require the hands for security or balance. As each step serves as both a hand and foot hold, it must be large enough to take the front half of the boot and have a pronounced lip to give a positive hand hold. If more than a few steps are required it is best to wear crampons and change to front pointing.

Side steps

These are similar in shape to slash steps and are particularly useful when traversing or crossing strips of ice such as frozen streams. After cutting an initial hole, subsequent blows work from heel to toe or away from the body. 

Descending

Steps can only be cut going downhill if the slope is not too steep. If good handholds are needed for support, cramponing or abseiling is usually the quicker and safer alternative. Slash steps are the best and most efficient type to use for descending: in fact they can be cut more effectively going down than up because of the better body position. Face across the slope and cut with the outer or downhill hand to form a step directly below the feet. The lower foot is then stepped down on to it, the upper foot brought down to occupy the step just vacated and the process begins again with cutting the next step. Each step is cut from the position of balance and the inner hand can be used for balance and support if required (Fig 3).

Self arrest

In most aspects of climbing prevention is better than cure - and this is certainly the case when applied to movement on snow and ice! Mastery of the techniques that will prevent a slip or stumble is the first priority, but everyone should be able to save himself or herself should a trip turn into a slide. Anyone can trip and the human body can quickly reach alarming speeds when sliding on snow slopes so it is vital to regain control as soon as possible. The techniques for controlling such slides are known as self-arrest. It is important that the skills described here are mastered in safe, controlled conditions before they can be relied upon in a real emergency.

The ideal place to practise is on a concave slope that has a safe run-out: that is, no protruding rocks or dangerous drops. This allows an out-of control climber to slide to a safe and gradual stop, and also offers increased steepness and realism for use as your skills improve. A good run-out is vital; as you will find it difficult to relax and concentrate on the techniques if the you know consequences of failure are injury!

Always wear a helmet and it is also wise to ensure that as little skin is left exposed to the abrasive qualities of rough, hard snow, surfaces.

Ice-axe braking

If you are unfortunate enough to trip or fall over on snow (most common in descent when you are tired and not concentrating) you must stop yourself as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is to use the pick of the ice axe forced into the snow to bring yourself to a halt. The skills necessary to perform a successful self-arrest must be learned and practised before you can depend on them. Never wear crampons when practising as any mistake with the positioning of your feet can easily result in serious injury. Remove ice axe wrist loops too or, if this is not possible, tie them up out of the way.

Since the slope used for practice should have a safe run-out, it is better to slide to a stop at the bottom if you lose control rather than to attempt to regain control of a whirling axe at the end of the wrist loop, risking the possibility of impaling oneself at the same time.

To achieve a level of competence in ice axe braking it is best to divide the technique up into progressive stages and to ensure that each stage is mastered before progressing to the next. It is also better to master each stage using alternate hands on the head of the axe. There are several different methods of ice axe braking, but the method described below is effective and can be adapted for any slide that occurs.

The basic braking position

This method of ice axe braking is based upon the usual way of holding the axe, whether in ascent or descent. With one hand on the head of the axe, grasp the end of the shaft and the ferrule with the other. Cover the spike with your lower hand, both to protect your body and also to reduce the chance of the spike catching in the snow and the axe being wrenched from your grasp. Hold the axe is across your body with the adze under your right shoulder (assuming that it is your right hand is on the axe head), and your left hand on the spike by your left side. This is the basic braking position. When you are lying on the slope, push down with your right arm and shoulder and, if necessary, pull upwards on the end of the shaft with your left hand to force the pick into the snow. This allows the chest to be used as a pivot, providing more leverage on the pick. It is crucial that you keep the adze of the axe firmly pushed into the hollow just below the collarbone. If the axe is not under your shoulder, it will become impossible to exert sufficient force on the pick. This can happen if you lift your head up away from the snow as this automatically lifts up your shoulder as well.

Keep your knees apart to give stability and lift your feet up, well clear of the snow. If you put your feet down on to the snow while wearing crampons, they will catch, causing you to somersault and lose control. Practise with your feet up as if you were wearing crampons; in a real fall you can use your feet to brake if necessary, but only when you've made a conscious decision to do so and when you are not wearing crampons.

From a position lying face down on the snow, arch your back, withdraw the pick from the snow and begin to slide. The slide is easily arrested by gradually exerting pressure, through the shoulder onto the axe head. If you apply this pressure too quickly the axe will tend to snatch at the snow and may be torn from your grasp or pulled from its correct position under the shoulder.

Sliding feet first on the back



If you fall and find yourself sliding feet first on your back, you must roll on to your front to get into the basic braking position. Do this by rolling towards the head of the axe - never towards the spike: it is too easy for the spike to catch in the snow and be wrenched from your grip. Think of this manoeuvre in three stages:
  • You are sliding on your back, the axe against your chest holding your feet held up, away from the snow.
  • You roll over, towards the head of the axe. The pick of the axe does not make contact with the snow at this stage, nor do your feet.
  • Apply pressure to the head of the axe by pushing your shoulder into the slope and exerting an upward force on the end of shaft. Increase this pressure until the slide is arrested. It is important that you complete the roll before your pick contacts the snow, otherwise it will be impossible to exert sufficient force on the axe head.
Sliding head first, face down

The aim here is to use the pick as a pivot point for your body before braking as described above. When you are lying face down and with your head pointing down the slope, hold the axe in the usual grip, but this time with one arm straight and out to the side. Your pick should be level with your shoulder and as far out to the side as can be reached easily. If your arms are relaxed, the axe head will be carried in front of your head and any bumps or undulations may cause the axe to smash into your face. If you plant the pick out to the side, your body will swing around. When you have spun around, withdraw the pick from the snow and, by arching your back, replace it under your shoulder. This will allow you to brake as before.



Experience will quickly show you how much force should be applied to the axe to gain the correct amount of turning momentum. You can practise and build up this sequence from a static position (with your feet in a slot for security) to greater speeds as you gain confidence.

Sliding head first on your back

The important feature when stopping a head first slide on your back is movement, as the ice axe initially provides only resistance to work against: it does not solve the problem on its own. You must not only turn over this time, but also pivot around. Hold the axe with the head in your right hand and your left hand round the end of the shaft, level with your right hip and some way out to the side.



Plant the axe in the snow and pull your upper body up on the shaft and towards the axe head, simultaneously throwing your legs out in the opposite direction - away from the axe head and pivoting your body around the axe. You may find it helpful to kick your legs out to the side and think about 'unwinding'. Then remove the axe from the snow and complete braking in the usual way.

Practise

The above is an outline of the basic skills required to stop when sliding in a controlled situation. You must practise with either hand on the head of the axe until you have perfected these skills. It is also worth experimenting with tumbling and rolling falls. In an uncontrolled or tumbling fall you have to stop this rolling. Do this by throwing your legs and arms wide apart, thus forming a star or spread-eagle shape before braking using one of the methods described above. 



Although it is best to practise all these 'exercises' at relatively high speeds, it must be appreciated that real self-arrest must take place as quickly as possible. In a real emergency there is no time for careful organisation and rearrangement: braking must be an instinctive reaction. The further you slide, the more your speed will increase, making the fall much more difficult to stop. It is vital that you are equally proficient with either hand, as the time taken to change hands may lead to you picking up so much speed that stopping is impossible.

Without an axe



If ever you lose your axe in a fall, you need to make every effort to stop by using your arms, feet, hands and legs. If the snow is soft, this is quite easy, but in conditions of harder snow it can prove very difficult. One technique that is reasonably successful is to get into a facedown position on the slope and slide feet first. As you slide, move your feet shoulder width apart and gently push up with your arms into a press up position.This will usually bring you to a halt. Don't do this too quickly or you risk being back-flipped.

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