How do you choose and ice axe? Here are some key factors to consider when buying an ice axe for mountaineering.
I often see people with ice axes that are too big for them. Somehow the mantra "the absolute longest an ice axe should be is that the spike hits your ankle" was twisted into "the spike should hit your ankle." There is a common misperception that an ice axe should work as a cane while walking on flat ground. That is exactly where you don't need a third point of contact and you should use a trekking pole. If you are traversing a steeper slope where you need a third point of contact, your axe should be in your uphill hand. If your axe is too long, your hand will be too high to effectively increase your stability.
Sizing Guidelines for classic mountaineering axes
Under 5'6" 50cm
5'6" to 5'8" 50-55cm
5'9" to 6'0" 50-60cm
6'1" to 6'4" 55-65cm
Over 6'4" 60-70cm
-Classic curve (Positive curve)
A classic curve is what most ice axes use. This is where the pick makes a slight arching curve downward. The reason why these axes are the most popular is they self-arrest nearly as well as a neutral curve but climb steeper ice far more securely. When swung into higher angle ice, it doesn't clean as easily as a reverse curve design. (An example is a Black Diamond Raven)
A neutral curve is exactly like it sounds: the pick comes strait out from the head of the shaft with no droop. A neutral curve pick is the best for self- arresting but it is far less secure when swung into the ice. (An example is a Grivel Pamir). We did not review any neutral curve axes because we don't recommend them.
-Reverse Curve (Reverse positive)
A reverse curve pick is best for climbing ice and thus all modern ice tools have reverse curve picks. A reverse curve starts down like a positive curve but more commonly at an increased angle, then curves the other way. This shape makes removing the pick from the ice easier after it has been driven in. They are the least "smooth" of the three when self-arresting and give the climber a "bumpy" feeling stop. We are not to saying that you can't or shouldn't be self-arresting with a reverse curve pick. It is just not ideal. (An example is a Petzl Sum'Tec)
Steel is the most popular metal in ice axes manufactured today. It is the most durable but also the heaviest metal used. Steel is the favorite for pounding pickets, chopping steps, and penetrating ice. It allows more effective self- arresting and better performance while swinging into firmer snow and neve. While titanium is stronger than steel it also bends more easily. Steel is only slightly more durable than titanium. Because it less likely to bend than titanium, steel picks are better suited to ice and mixed routes.
Aluminum is lighter than steel or titanium. That alone is a reason to use it in certain situations. However, it won't stand up to abuse like titanium or steel. It is best for ski mountaineering, adventure racing, and early season backpacking where you won't be climbing a lot of steeper snow and ice or pounding a lot of pickets. Aluminum is best for basic general mountaineering applications and tends to be "lighter duty." Light aluminum axes are the best choice for a "just in case" situation on an early season backpacking trip.
Titanium is lighter than steel and heavier that aluminum. Titanium is stronger metal than steel but it is also slightly softer. This means it bends more easily than steel but won't break or shatter like aluminum. Titanium has nearly all the same applications as steel unless the user is particularly hard on their ice axe.
B versus T ratings
The B (basic) and T (technical) ratings are based on tests to the shaft and pick. B rating is tested to 280kg on an ice axe's pick and shaft and a T rating is 400kg on its pick and shaft. 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, then it gets the B rating overall. Some axes, especially those with modular picks, will show a rating on both the shaft and their pick. This is because your axe could be B or T rated depending on your pick selection. For example, Petzl Sum'Tec has a T-rated shaft and a B-rated pick that results in a B-rated ice axe. Do you need a T-rated axe for general mountaineering? Certainly not. Do you need one for harder alpine routes? Not necessarily; a T-rated axe will just be stronger.
Curve in the Shaft
One surprise in the tests was that curved shafts increased stopping power of most ice axes when self-arresting. It gives the user more leverage. The curve in the shaft gives better clearance when swinging the ice axe (Piolet Traxion) into ice. It is also useful when climbing straight up steeper ice or climbing in and out of crevasses or pulling burgshurds. It keeps your hands warmer and drier by keeping them out of the snow while in Piolet Mache (Mid Dagger, hands on the shaft below the pick, useful for snow 45-60 degrees). The downside is that the curved shaft is marginally harder to drive into the snow when using it as a vertically-oriented deadman.
Modular ice axes
We tested two of the most popular modular ice axes. The advantage of a modular pick is when one pick wears out you can replace it. The other advantage, as seen with the Black Diamond Venom, is you can switch from a classic to a reverse curve pick depending on the terrain. The disadvantage is that modular systems are heavier.
Climbers and mountaineers often don't consider the adze in an ice axe comparison. But when alpine climbing your adze allows you to dig a snow anchor, dig a snow cave, and even chop a tent platform out of the hardest ice. It is probably the only tool that allows you to dig a snow bollard, something most climbers rarely do. Ian was one of those people until he dug three bollards on a single trip in situations where a shovel wouldn't make a dent.
Do I need a spike?
A spike is useful when using the ice axe as a third point of contact while walking on a firmer surface. (If the snow is soft, then a spike doesn't matter as much.) Another benefit of a spike is it helps the axe penetrate more easily into the snow when using the axe as a vertically-oriented snow anchor. If you are someone who climbs a lot of glacier routes, then a spike bites the bare ice much better. For adventure racers, backpackers or ski mountaineers, a spike is less essential because you are usually in softer snow. Spike-less axes are often shorter because they are rarely used as a cane.