Picking the Best Ice Axe

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On the Forbidden Glacier in the North Cascades, Dave Ahrens digging quick with a Petzl Summit during the Crevasse rescue drill on our AMGA Alpine guide exam.
Credit: Ben Mitchell
We looked at 13 different ice axes and compared them head-to-head in the following categories: self-arresting, anchor digging, step chopping, use as improvised anchor, steep ice and snow climbing, and comfort to carry. We also looked at their advantages and disadvantages across different user groups: general mountaineers, backpackers, ski-mountaineers, alpine climbers, and through hikers.

A lot has changed since the first ice axes where invented in the European Alps during the early 1800s. Before the invention of crampons at the turn of the 19th century an ice axe's primary job was chopping steps thus the reason for the seemingly ridiculous length of ice axes of the day. Chopping steps is now rarely done, but is sometimes still a useful function of an ice axe. Modern ice axes have a broader range of needs and types of users, from early season backpacking and adventure racing to steep alpine ice routes where an axe might be paired with an ice tool.

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Ice Axes Displaying 1 - 5 of 13 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Black Diamond Venom
Black Diamond Venom
Read the Review
Grivel Air Tech Evolution
Grivel Air Tech Evolution
Read the Review
Petzl Summit
Petzl Summit
Read the Review
Black Diamond Raven
Black Diamond Raven
Read the Review
Black Diamond Raven Pro
Black Diamond Raven Pro
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Best Buy Award    Editors' Choice Award  Best Buy Award  Top Pick Award 
Street Price Varies $135 - $150
Compare at 7 sellers
Varies $180 - $182
Compare at 3 sellers
$170
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $71 - $100
Compare at 9 sellers
Varies $80 - $100
Compare at 9 sellers
Overall Score 
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86
Editors' Rating
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User Rating
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100% recommend it (3/3)
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2 ratings
Pros Climbs steep ice well, very comfortable, multiple pick options, great value.Durable, penetrates hard ice well.Well-designed, hot-forged pick, nice adze.Comfortable, light weight.Comfortable, light weight.
Cons Heavy.Expensive, a little on the heavy side.Expensive, heavy.Doesn't penetrate hard ice well.Doesn't penetrate hard ice well.
Best Uses Steeper snow and ice routes.General mountaineering and steeper snow and ice climbing.General mountaineering, steeper snow and ice climbs.General mountaineering, moderate snow routes, alpine rock routes.General mountaineering, moderate snow routes, alpine rock routes.
Date Reviewed Feb 27, 2010Jan 15, 2010Jan 15, 2010Jan 16, 2014Jan 16, 2010
Weighted Scores Black Diamond Venom Grivel Air Tech Evolution Petzl Summit Black Diamond Raven Black Diamond Raven Pro
Self Arresting - 30%
10
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8
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9
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9
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10
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10
Digging Step Chopping - 20%
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9
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10
10
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10
10
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7
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7
Use As Improvised Anchor - 20%
10
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10
10
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9
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10
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10
Steep Ice And Snow - 20%
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9
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6
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6
Comfort To Carry - 10%
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7
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10
10
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10
Product Specs Black Diamond Venom Grivel Air Tech Evolution Petzl Summit Black Diamond Raven Black Diamond Raven Pro
Weight (oz) 18.1-18.7 17.6 17.1 16.1 14
Size tested 57cm 58cm 59cm 60cm 60cm
Lengths availible 50, 57, 64cm (50, 57 hammer) 48-53-58-66cm 52, 59 and 66 55-80, 90cm (every 5 cm) 55-75cm (Every 5 cm)
Rating CEN-T CEN-B CEN-B CEN-B
Category Modular General General General General

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products
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Petzl Sum'Tec
$175
100
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85
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Petzl Summit
$160
100
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87
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CAMP Corsa
$120
100
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57
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Black Diamond Venom
$140
100
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90
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Black Diamond Raven
$80
100
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86
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Petzl Snowracer
$80
100
0
71
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Black Diamond Raven Ultra
$110
100
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80
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Black Diamond Raven Pro
$100
100
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86
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Grivel Air Tech Evolution
$180
100
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88
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Ushba Altai Titanium
$239.00
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SMC Capra
$75-$86
100
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79
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Petzl Snowalker
$90
100
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77
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CAMP Neve
$80
100
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74
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REI Yeti
$75
100
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79
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Self-Arresting
All the ice axes we tested self-arrested well to a certain extent. Ice axes with a classic (positive) shaped picked work better than ice axes with a reverse curve pick. A neutral pick does not work as well and our testers didn't look at any for this review. Steel and titanium perform better than aluminum because the harder metals bite better, especially in firmer snow conditions. We like ice axes with a slight bend in the shaft for self-arresting, which gives the axe more braking power. After extensive side-by-side testing, we found the Black Diamond Raven family were the smoothest for self-arresting. The REI Yeti, SMC Capra, CAMP Neve, Petzl Summit, and Grivel Air Tech Evolution were not far behind. The Petzl Sum'Tec, with its reverse curve pick, is the least smooth at self-arresting but still gets the job done. The CAMP Corsa with an aluminum head is less confidence inspiring in firm conditions.

Steep Ice and Snow Climbing
Ice axes with steel heads perform best on steeper snow and ice routes. This is one category where your ice axe can be too light. If the head doesn't have enough mass it can't penetrate firmer conditions effectively. Also, the thickness of the pick has a huge influence. Often, non-hot-forged picks penetrate the best. This is because non-hot-forged steel can be made thinner while maintaining its strength compared with other styles of manufacturing such as laser cutting and stamping. The Petzl Sum'Tec is our top choice for steeper routes with the Black Diamond Venom a close second. In the general mountaineering axe category the Grivel Air Tech Evolution and the Petzl Summit are best.
Click to enlarge
Rebecca Schroeder using ever aspect of a classic ice axe on the Cosmique Arete, Aiguille De Midi, French Alps
Credit: Big Ian

Chopping Steps, Anchors and Tent Olatforms
When digging snow anchors and chopping steps, steel axes out-perform their aluminum and titanium counterparts. We spent a couple of hours hacking away a ton of ice trying to figure out exactly which ice axes work best and why. Adzes with a slight curve (but not too much) and a sharper edge do the best. The Petzl Sum'tec came out on top because it blasted through even bulletproof ice with few problems. Tied for second are the Petzl Summit and Grivel Air Tech Evolution. Next best, and a surprise to us, is the Black Diamond Venom.
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Ian Nicholson and Graham Mcdowell spending over an hour chopping a tent platform out of bullet ice with 2" of fresh snow on top while climbing in the Waddington.
Credit: Ryan O'Connell

Comfort to Carry
In the last five years the comfort factor has been more heavily considered by manufacturers. While few ice axes are uncomfortable, some are nicer than others. The designs strongly reflect their region of origin. In Europe almost no one walks in self-arrest position (pick backward). There isn't even a French term for it. Instead, everyone walks in self-belay position (pick forward or Piolet Cane position). Thus most European axes are designed to carry with the pick forward. North American designs reflect our habit of carrying axes in the self-arrest position but also sometimes take European carrying preferences into account. All Black Diamond Ravens are the nicest to carry in either position and the Black Diamond Venom is very close in design. Not too far behind are the REI Yeti and the SMC Capra.

Use as an Improvised Snow Anchor
The two most common improvised axe snow anchors are vertically oriented (using a sling or carabineer clipped to a hole in the top of the shaft or the middle of the head) and horizontally oriented (commonly called a "dead man" or a "T-Slot.") A dead man is done with a clove hitch (proved to be stronger than a girth hitch in our testing) around the balance point of the shaft and burried into the snow with the sling coming out of the snow.

Ice axes that plunge well made creating a vertically oriented snow anchor easier. Axes with nicer spikes perform best. We didn't notice much difference when "dead manning" any of axes. Having a hole in the adze to clip is something we rarely used. In a roundtable discussion with over 30 years of experience represented, there where only two instances recalled where someone clipped the adze hole to make an anchor. We really like the Black Diamond Raven family and the Ushba Altai for making anchors. The holes in the heads of the SMC Capra, REI Yeti and CAMP Neve are slightly harder to clip. That isn't a big deal until your partner falls into a crevasse and your legs are screaming as you try to set an anchor.

Bottom Line
We divided our Editors' Picks into three categories because there are so many specialized ice axes and climbers demand many different needs from their axe:

General Mountaineering Axe
This was a tough discussion with no runaway winner. We finally picked a winner after long debate, side-by-side comparisons, long phone calls with partners, and a roundtable discussion with a group of fellow guides. We asked everyone, "If you could only have one ice axe for everything, what would it be?" The winner was the Petzl Summit because it was one of the top performers in every category. The Grivel Air Tech Evolution performed equally well in nearly every catagory but the Summit scored slightly better, is cheaper, and is slightly lighter. We saw many other good ice axes. The Ushba Altai is ultra light and did nearly as well in many catagories. The Black Diamond Raven Pro and the Petzl Snowalker are other good all-arounders and lighter than either the Summit or the Evolution.
In the General Mountaineering category we saw the biggest price difference from $75 to $240. The Black Diamond Raven gets our Best Buy Award. It put in a strong performance at a great price. Its only drawbacks were that it is a little heavy and performs average on steep ice.

Ultralight Ice Axes
We consider an axe ultralight if it has no spike and is less than 13 ounces. These axes are intended for use on mellow snow and glacier routes, ski mountaineering, early season hiking, and carry over alpine rock routes. Our Editors' Choice award was a difficult selection between the Black Diamond Raven Ultra and the CAMP Corsa. They are both great ice axes and while both are ultralight, the Corsa's 7.5 ounces is untouchable. For early season backpackers, adventure racers or climbers looking for just the basic needs of an ice axe, the Corsa is awesome. For ski mountaineering, where steep climbing or picket pounding may be required, or for many climbers looking to save weight without losing versatility and performance, we would reach for the Raven Ultra. While we thought the performance was slightly better on a Raven Ultra, the Petzl Snowracer was almost as good and $30 less, making it our Best Buy winner.

Modular Ice Axes
This is a growing category for traditional mountaineering axes. These axes aren't quite ice tools because they are lighter, come in longer lengths, and have larger non-modular adzes more oriented toward mountaineering. We reviewed our two favorites, which both performed well. The Petzl Sum'Tec barely edged out the Black Diamond Venom for a few reasons. The Sum'Tec was slightly lighter, had a cool slider pommel, the hot forged pick climbed ice better, and it had a better adze. We gave the our Best Buy award to the Venom because it was almost as good, $32 less, and had more pick and hammer options than the Sum'Tec.

You might also enjoy taking a look at our Dream Ice Climbing and Mountaineering Gear List.

Ian Nicholson
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by Ian Nicholson
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