Picking the Best Ice Axe
Whats the best ice axe for mountaineering? We looked at 15 of the best and most popular products and compared them head-to-head in the following categories: self-arresting, steep ice and snow climbing, comfort to carry, use as an improvised anchor, weight, and anchor construction/digging. We also looked at each axe's advantages and disadvantages across different user groups: general mountaineers, backpackers, ski-mountaineers, alpine rock climbers and through-hikers.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
A lot has changed since the first axes where invented in the European Alps during the early 1800s. Before the invention of crampons at the turn of the 19th century an axe's primary job was chopping steps – thus the reason for the seemingly ridiculous length of axes of the day. Chopping steps is now rarely done, but is sometimes still a useful function of an axe. Modern axes have a broader range of needs and users types, from early season backpacking and adventure racing to steep alpine ice routes where an axe might be paired with an ice tool.
Criteria for Evaluation
We tested 16 top products both individually in the field and in a side-by-side setting comparing each contender in specific tasks. We compared each axe for self arrest performance, ability to climb steep snow and ice, ability to chop steps and dig a T-trench as well as weight and comfort while carrying them and reported our findings below.
How to Choose the Best Ice Axe where we offer tips for buying axes, important considerations: such as pick and shaft design, sizing suggestions, notes about materials, and T vs B strength ratings. We also break down important factors and specific features for different users, and tips on what to look for depending on what type of climbing you are the most interested in.
What are your intended uses?
The first thing you should consider when purchasing an ice axe is what type of climbing or mountaineering do you want to do? Are you a backpacker who just wants gear for early season hikes or are you someone who is into or aspiring for glacier-mountaineering routes? Or, rather are you an alpine rock climber who needs a product to assist during snowy or glaciated approaches or are you a climber who is into more complex and steeper mountaineering routes?
Petzl Glacier Literide which is a fully functional axe that is simply super lightweight. Ultralight axes are best for early season hikers, ski mountaineers, alpine rock climbers and folks who are primarily into very basic mountaineering routes. Our General mountaineering category includes models that are solid options for all but the most complex routes that might feature snow and ice up to 50 or 60 degrees. Our final category is Modular axes that feature interchangeable picks and a curved shaft for steeper routes. These products will do everything more than fine on routes suitable for a general mountain axe but will just be heavier. But the Modular axes can be used on even the most complex glaciers and alpine and waterfall ice routes most folks would consider using them up to around WI4.
There are three primary ways to make the head (the head refers to the pick and the adze). The strongest and best performing way to produce a head is to hot forge it. This process not only makes a stronger pick, but also lets manufactures create a pick that is 25-30% thinner (but still stronger) so that it performs better while self-arresting or climbing steep snow yet also remains the most durable. Hot forging also gives the manufacturer the most control in the shape and detail of the pick, Examples include, the Grivel Evolution, Grivel G1, Petzl Summit, Sum'tec and Summit Evo. Why doesn't everyone hot-forge their picks? As you'd imagine, it's also the most expensive being on average around 50% more than non-hot forged versions. The next best way to manufacture a head of an axe is to laser cut it. This method needs the pick to be fatter (thus performing more poorly on steep snow) and is comparably less strong, nor as durable, though it is less expensive, with examples being Black Diamonds Raven series. The least expensive is to stamp the head, which is the weakest, least performance oriented and heaviest method, but also the cheapest.
There are three primary pick designs:
Neutral Where the pick is fairly straight out from the head with no droop. This design offers solid self-arresting, but very poor steep climbing performance.
Positive Where the pick droops slightly downward. This design excels at self-arrest because the tip wants to dive deeper as it's driven inward. This design is okay at steeper snow and ice, but is harder to clean (remove) and doesn't offer as much clearance as a reverse curve.
Reverse curve or reverse positive Which feature two bends and appear the most aggressive looking. This design is okay for self arrest but is less smooth compared with other designs and can feel a little "jerkier" or "bumpier" in firmer conditions. Reverse curve picks offer the best steep snow and ice climbing performance because of superior clearance on steeper ice and because it is the easiest to remove when swung into ice or firm snow.
Shaft Shape and Design:
More and more models are starting to be designed with a slight bend in the shaft and nearly half the axes in our review feature it. The bend is not nearly as much as an ice tool that is designed primarily for vertical ice climbing. This slight bend helps both with swinging the axe on steeper routes and while low and mid daggering on more mid-angled routes (40-60 degrees). After extensive side-by-side testing our testers also preferred axes with a slight bend in the shaft for self-arresting, which our testers felt gave us more leverage on the pick and felt it created superior self-arresting power.
Material plays a big role in an axes overall durability and performance. With only a handful of exceptions; most designs feature a shaft that is made of aluminum (with the exception of 100% titanium models) and the head, pick and adze are made of aluminum or steel, or in the case of the Camp Corsa Nanotech some of both. Aluminum is more lightweight but doesn't provide as good of surface on firm snow and is significantly less durable; however aluminum is noticeably lighter. Steel is heavier, but provides more security on firm slopes and is much more durable.
Climbers today certainly use shorter models than the 1970's or even the 1990s and with good reason. Remember the primary purpose of an ice axe is to aid in balance while ascending and descending snow and to assist a climber in the event of a fall. It's hard to go too short when choosing a model, but easy to go too long. If your tool is too long it will actually hinder, rather the assist the climber in balance while traversing or ascending a steeper slope because your hand will be too high and thus will raise a climbers center of balance. On very low angle terrain a longer design can be nice when used as a cane, but it won't assist in balance when you actually need it on steeper ground. Instead of a longer axe, try the now common practice of using a shorter axe in one hand and a trekking pole while traveling on more modest terrain. Again, make sure to check out our Ice Axe Buying Advice article for more details on sizing.
Self-arresting is the proper way of saying, "stopping yourself from sliding downhill". Climbers and mountaineers need to self-arrest to stop themselves or their teammates from a slip and to safeguard the rope team from crevasse falls. All the axes we tested are able to self-arrest but the two biggest factors that influenced each contender in self-arrest performance were pick shape and shaft design. Positive and Neutral picks performed better than reverse curve designs and our testers preferred axes with slight bends in the shaft while self-arresting.
After extensive side-by-side testing, we found the Petzl Summit and Petzl Summit Evo along with the Grivel Evolution to be the smoothest for self arresting. They all feature the same hot-forged positive shaped pick that bit into the snow smoother than any other we tested. Both of the Summits don't feature teeth near the top of the pick to make self arresting easier on your hands. The Petzl Glacier and the Glacier Literide scored essentially the same (just ever-so-slightly less) and self-arrested just as smooth as the aforementioned axes but lacked the slight bend in the shaft but remained comfortable to stop in a wide range of conditions.
The Black Diamond Raven family along with the Grivel G1 and CAMP Neve were the smoothest for self-arresting, but not quite as good as the Summits nor the the Evolution when conditions got firmer. The two super light products in our review the CAMP Corsa and the Camp Corsa Nano Tech were moderately smooth and were the least comfortable with thin gloves on and didn't bite in as well if it was firm.
The reverse curve pick models like the Petzl Sum'Tec and the Black Diamond Venom where the least "smooth" self-arresting products if conditions were at all firm. They still worked, and bit into the snow fairly effectively but were much "bumpier". They performed better than the super light models at self-arresting but not as well as most of the general mountaineering models.
Steep Ice and Snow Climbing
Axes with steel peaks perform best on steeper snow and ice routes compared to aluminum models. The thickness and design of a model's pick has a huge influence when the snow gets firmer. Often, Hot-forged picks penetrate better than laser-cut or stamped picks because they are thinner. The Petzl Sum'tec is our top choice for steeper routes and we even climbed WI4 with it. We loved the Sum'tec sliding pommel which Petzl calls the Trigrest along with the Sum'tec's the overall shape and hot-forged pick. The Black Diamond Venom was second among axes we tested for steep snow but it wasn't a close second because of the much more basic pick on the Venom and its lack of a pommel. Both these products have reverse curve picks which are vastly superior when swinging them like an ice tool in Piolet traxion position both because superior clearance and this design makes the pick much easier to remove from the ice.
In mid-dagger (Piolet Manche) and low-dagger (Piolet Panne) positions axes that featured a curved shaft also provided more clearance for your hand and kept our gloves drier and hands less fatigued. Among the more general mountaineering designed ice axes, the Petzl Summit Evo and Grivel Air Tech Evolution were our next top picks because of the hot forged pick, curved shaft and rubberized lower grips. The Petzl Summit performed nearly as well, featuring just a slightly differently shaped shaft compared to the Summit Evo. Our testers felt the ripples on the lower part of the aluminum shaft of the Summit provided noticeable increased traction but it just wasn't quite as good as the aforementioned ice axes which feature rubber on the lower part of their grips.
The Grivel G1 and the Camp Corsa Nano Tech were the next best and were both noticeably better than any of the Black Diamond Raven series during any position while climbing up a steep slope both because of the pick design providing more "bite" than the BD Ravens, but also the curved shaft providing better clearance while swinging or daggering the axe. This is one category where your axe can be too light, because axes with less mass don't penetrate the snow or ice as effectively resulting in less surface and this is the primary category where the 8 ounce all-aluminum Camp Corsa really suffered.
Adze Performance: Chopping Steps, Anchors and Tent Platforms
We compared each axe's adze performance while digging snow anchors, chopping steps and hacking out tent platforms. Steel axes far out performed their aluminum and titanium counterparts. We spent a couple of hours hacking away a massive pile of ice trying to figure out exactly which adzes work best and why. Adzes with a slight curve (but not too much) and a sharper edge, performed the best. The Petzl Sum'tec came out on top because it blasted through even the most bulletproof ice we could find with few problems. Tied for second are the Petzl Summit, Black Diamond Venom, Petzl Summit Evo, and Grivel Air Tech Evolution. The Grivel G1, Petzl Glacier, and Glacier Literide all scored about the same. The Black Diamond Raven, Raven Pro and Raven Ultra, were okay, but scored below average. This is another category where the lightest models, which all featured very small aluminum adzes performed the poorest, with the Camp Corsa and Camp Corsa Nanotech struggling with even quasi-firm snow.
Comfort to Carry
In the last five to ten years the comfort factor has been more heavily considered by manufacturers compared to in years previous. While few axes are truly "uncomfortable", some are nicer than others. The design of an ice axe strongly reflects its region of origin. For example in Europe almost no one walks in self-arrest position with the pick backward (there is literally not even a french name for it because so few people use the pick-backward position) and most European climbers use self-belay position with the pick forward or Piolet Cane position.
The result of this cultural/stylistic difference is that most European axes are designed to be carried most comfortably with the pick facing forward while North American designs reflect our habit of carrying axes in the self-arrest position. More and more climbers from both regions are understanding that each technique has a place and are using the appropriate position depending on the terrain and the circumstance and as a result, manufacturers are starting to accommodate both positions.
After months and months of testing and comparisons (yes actual months of testing), our testers found that all the Black Diamond Ravens (Raven, Pro and Ultra) were the most comfortable and the nicest to carry and proved comfortable in either position. The Black Diamond Venom is very close in design and as a result was nearly as comfortable. Not too far behind is the Grivel G1, Petzl Summit, Summit Evo, Petzl Glacier and Glacier Literide. Our testers found all of these axes comfortable in either position during long days, they just weren't quite as nice as the Black Diamond Raven, Raven Ultra and Raven Pro. The Camp Corsa and Corsa Nanotech were some of the few axes we tested that weren't that great in self-arrest position but quite comfortable in self-belay position. An interesting note is that those with smaller hands really liked the Petzl Glacier and Ravens.
Use As Improvised Snow Anchor
B versus T ratings
All UIAA certified axes have either a B (basic) rating or T (technical) rating. These ratings are based on the strength of both the shaft and pick. A "B" rating is tested to 280 kg and a T rating is 400 kg. For an axe to be T rated it must have both a T rated pick and shaft. If it only gets a T rating in one category and a B in the other, then it still gets a B rating overall. Some axes, specifically those with modular picks, will show a separate rating on both their shaft and their pick. This is because with modular axes, some will have a T rated shaft but could have a B or T rated pick depending on your selection. For example, Petzl Sum'tec has a T-rated shaft and a B-rated pick that results in a B-rated ice axe, but if you put their T rated pick on it, it would then become a T rated axe. Do you need a T-rated axe for general mountaineering? Certainly not. Can you still belay off your ice axes in a T-slot or clipped to the eye? Yes, but not for extreme loads. Do you need a T rated axe for harder alpine routes? Not necessarily; a T-rated axe will just be stronger and more durable.
The two most common improvised axe snow anchors are vertically oriented (using a sling or carabiner clipped to a hole in the top of the shaft or the middle of the head) or even more commonly while horizontally oriented (commonly called a "dead man" or a "T-Slot."). A dead man is done with a clove hitch (proved to be less twisting force in professional level testing) around the balance point of the shaft and buried into the snow with the sling coming out of the snow. The girth hitch is in place near the balance point to even out the surface area of the axe.
We scored T rated models slightly higher than B rated ones for our use as an improvised anchor category because of their ability to handle the load. Having a hole big enough to clip most carabiners in was the next thing we considered because this was an obvious advantage to facilitating different types of anchors. Having a hole in the adze to clip is something we rarely, if ever used. In a roundtable discussion with over 90 years of experience represented, there were only two instances recalled where someone clipped the adze hole to make an anchor and thus didn't give products with holes in their adzes a higher score. Overall most axes scored well with the exception of the holes in the heads of the SMC Capra, Grivel G1, and CAMP Neve being slightly harder to clip and thus received a slightly lower score. The Camp Corsa and Corsa Nanotech also would lead to loading carabiners improperly when clipping to the hole in the head and thus received a slightly lower score, though these ultra-light axes don't really have that in mind.
In climbing and mountaineering with any piece of gear, weight matters and this remains no less true with ice axes. However a super lightweight piece of gear is not suitable for any alpine or mountaineering route. Nor do you need to carry a super burly CEN-T rated model with a modular reverse curve pick if all you're going to do is walk up moderate glacier routes.
The lightest product we tested was the all aluminum Camp Corsa tipping the scales at a scant 7.4 ounces. While the Corsa isn't super versatile it's insanely light and a good option for basic snow climbs, ski mountaineering or alpine rock climbs. Its also a good option for hikers as a "just in-case" model. The Camp Corsa Nano Tech which is the same model plus a riveted on steel pick is only marginally heavier at 8.7 ounces and certainly steps up security noticeably.
The lightest contender we tested that featured a steel pick and a steel head was the Petzl Glacier Literide at 11.2 ounces. The Glacier Literide also features a real spike, something the heavier and non-hot-forged, Black Diamond Raven Ultra cannot offer at 12.6 ounces.
The Petzl Glacier at 12.3 ounces and the Petzl Summit at 13.4 ounces are the lightest fully featured mountaineering axes that our testers would take up nearly any mountaineering route. They both feature hot-forged picks, steel spikes and a comfortable grip.
Choosing an ice axe can be trying. There are a few key factors to consider when finding the axe most appropriate for your needs. This review is designed to help you know what to look for before making your purchase. Our Buying Advice article can also help sort out the things to keep in mind before selecting the axe for your mountaineering purposes.
— Ian Nicholson
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