The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of gear

Picking the Best Ice Axe

Assisting in ascending steeper snow is another one of the foundational jobs of a mountain axe and thus a category we weighted very heavily. Photo: Ian Nicholson and Graham Zimmerman use their axes in mid-dagger position while traversing a steep slope while attempting to climb a new route in the Kichatna Range  AK.
By Ian Nicholson ⋅ Review Editor
Thursday December 19, 2019
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We've been chopping out frozen waterfalls with the best ice axes for over 10 years. We've tested over 21 products in total and this update compares 10 of the market's top contenders. Taking the time to do the hard work, we've swung all these axes while mountaineering, traveling over glaciers, ski mountaineering, alpine rock climbing, and more. In addition to testing each in the field for months, we closely examine each to assess shining advantages and gloomy disadvantages. We can tell you which of these contenders is the best of the best, a great deal for your wallet, and which to use for a variety of different use cases. Our unbiased recommendations are happily offered and we hope you find them useful in your quest.

Top 17 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 17
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Best Overall Ice Axe


Petzl Summit Evo


84
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Self-Arresting - 15% 9
  • Digging & Step Chopping - 15% 9
  • Use as Improvised Anchor - 15% 8
  • Steep Ice & Snow - 25% 9
  • Comfort to Carry - 5% 9
  • Weight - 25% 7
Hot-forged pick
Curved shaft assists in steep snow and self-arresting
Outstanding steep snow climbing performance
Teardrop-shaped shaft reduces fatigue while mid-daggering
Comfortable
Versatile
Excellent self-arrest performance
Average in weight
On the more expensive side

If we could only have one ice axe for a wide range of activities, the Petzl Summit Evo would be it. This non-modular axe climbs steep snow and ice routes and navigates complex glacier routes like a champion. While most at home on challenging routes, it's still light and comfortable enough to be used by nearly anyone. There's just so much we love about the Summit Evo. Its hot-forged pick penetrates firm snow and ice, and its curved shaft has a unique teardrop-shaped design that proves far less fatiguing on steeper routes than any model we tested. It also provides one of the more confidence-inspiring self-arrests and top-notch adze performance.

The biggest thing worth noting is that if you're primarily using your ice axe for early season backpacking or ski mountaineering, or less technical terrain, a lighter axe will do the trick. The bottom line is you can buy a lighter axe for specific applications, but you can't buy a better do-everything performer for as many alpine-oriented tasks.

Read review: Petzl Summit Evo

Best Bang for the Buck


Black Diamond Raven


54
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Self-Arresting - 15% 5
  • Digging & Step Chopping - 15% 7
  • Use as Improvised Anchor - 15% 7
  • Steep Ice & Snow - 25% 3
  • Comfort to Carry - 5% 10
  • Weight - 25% 5
Great price
Most comfortable model to carry
Narrow head provides additional clipping options
Self-arrests well, particularly in softer conditions
Doesn't climb steep snow well
Heavy
Below average performing adze
Pick doesn't penetrate firm snow and ice as well as other models

With products in our fleet ranging in price, there's a significant difference between the products we tested. We selected the Black Diamond Raven for our Best Buy Award because we feel it's the best axe you can buy for the money. It's a solid, comfortable general mountaineering axe, as long as the terrain isn't too technical.

It works well for moderate snow climbs, early-season backpacking, and basic glacier routes but is a cut below the rest when the going gets tough. The Raven did face some extremely tough competition from the equally priced CAMP Neve, which only barely missed our award.

Read review: Black Diamond Raven

Best for Steep Snow & Ice


Petzl Sum'Tec


Petzl Sum'Tec Mountaineering Ice Axe
Top Pick Award

$199.95
at Backcountry
See It

81
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Self-Arresting - 15% 7
  • Digging & Step Chopping - 15% 9
  • Use as Improvised Anchor - 15% 9
  • Steep Ice & Snow - 25% 10
  • Comfort to Carry - 5% 6
  • Weight - 25% 6
Hot-forged pick
Climbs steep ice extremely well
Slider pommel
Is compatible with any of Petzl's ice climbing picks
One of the best performing adzes in the review
Extremely versatile
On the heavier side
Expensive
Overkill for basic snow climbs and glacier routes
Choppy self-arresting if conditions are firm

The number of different modular-headed ice axes has increased in the past few years, and manufacturers are responding to this rapidly growing hybrid category. No model is as much of a blend between a traditional ice axe and an ice tool than the Petzl Sum'tec, and that's a good thing. The Sum'tec is the brainchild of the late Ueli Steck (along with Kilian Journet and Colin Haley, among others) who wanted a lighter weight ice tool and were willing to make a host of sacrifices except when it came to pick performance, which they felt was foundational to performance. The Sum'tec was born out of these desires, and it shows. The Sum'tec is basically a lightweight shaft with a Quark (a popular Petzl ice tool) head on it.

As a result, the Sum'tec is compatible with all of Petzl's interchangeable picks, hammers, and adzes. No model climbed steep snow or moderate ice better than the Sum'tec. Its pick penetrated firm snow and ice and the adjustable slider pommel and nicely curved shaft make the Sum'tec a tool we'd reach for, even when we knew we had to climb sustained steep snow, complex glacier routes, or moderate water ice.

Read review: Petzl Sum'tec

Best for Light Weight


Petzl Ride


Petzl Ride
Top Pick Award

$107.99
(14% off)
at Amazon
See It

69
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Self-Arresting - 15% 9
  • Digging & Step Chopping - 15% 4
  • Use as Improvised Anchor - 15% 7
  • Steep Ice & Snow - 25% 5
  • Comfort to Carry - 5% 8
  • Weight - 25% 9
Extremely lightweight
Good steep snow climbing performance
Lightest model to feature a steel head
Short length can fit inside a pack
Surprisingly versatile
One of the lightest models we tested
Average comfort to carry
Only available in one length (45cm)
Poor adze performance
No real spike

As our favorite ultralight model, the Petzl Ride is our Top Pick for several reasons. It's nearly the lightest model we tested and is less than an ounce heavier than the lightest option in our review. Despite its low weight, it features a steel pick and adze, which adds a fair amount of versatility and performance. It's most at home ski-mountaineering or alpine rock climbing but is versatile enough for basic snow climbs and moderate glacier routes.

Despite its low weight, the Ride's pick provided good purchase, even in firmer conditions, and was one of the most confidence-inspiring while ascending steeper terrain. It was also one of the most comfortable to carry in the 11 ounce and under category. While the Ride faced some tough competition, its low weight, compact length (that could be carried inside your pack if the terrain requires), and confidence-inspiring steep snow climbing performance are what helped set it apart from the competition.

Read review: Petzl Ride


Analysis and Test Results


Mont Blanc was first climbed in 1786, and a lot has changed since the first axes were invented in the European Alps during the late 1700s. Before the invention of crampons at the turn of the 19th century, an axe's primary job was chopping steps, and thus the reason for the seemingly ridiculous length of axes. Chopping steps is now rarely done but is still a useful function of an axe. Modern axes now have a much broader scope of requirements that even the most recreational user will demand. Depending on your adventures, like early-season backpacking or steep alpine ice routes where an axe might be paired with an ice tool, there can be a lot to consider.

We carefully considered options currently available before selecting models to include in our review. We did our best to choose our favorite models for a wide spectrum of uses and applications. We then compared them in primary categories both head-to-head in more systematic tests and in the field  reporting our findings here.
We carefully considered options currently available before selecting models to include in our review. We did our best to choose our favorite models for a wide spectrum of uses and applications. We then compared them in primary categories both head-to-head in more systematic tests and in the field, reporting our findings here.


Value


Whether you need the absolute lightest axe, the most versatile, or the strongest, the price tag will probably factor into your decision, and might even be your primary consideration. If cost is key, consider the Best Buy award-winning Black Diamond Raven, one of the least expensive we tested. Or, if you place more emphasis on performance, our favorite all-rounder Petzl Summit might fit the bill.

Another one of the many uses of an adze. Ian Nicholson and Graham McDowell on the second of three snow bollard rappels; one of which was overhanging. After attempting to climb Bicuspid tower  Tiedemann Glacier  Waddington Range B.C.
Another one of the many uses of an adze. Ian Nicholson and Graham McDowell on the second of three snow bollard rappels; one of which was overhanging. After attempting to climb Bicuspid tower, Tiedemann Glacier, Waddington Range B.C.

We tested 17 top products in the field and in a side-by-side setting, comparing each contender at 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 their comfort while carrying.

Considering what types of routes you enjoy climbing or aspire to climb will help determine what type of product you might want. Here Graham McDowell contemplates his options. Coast Range BC.
Considering what types of routes you enjoy climbing or aspire to climb will help determine what type of product you might want. Here Graham McDowell contemplates his options. Coast Range BC.

Self-Arresting


Self-arresting is the proper way of saying, "stopping yourself in the event of you find yourself sliding downhill and out of control". Climbers and mountaineers need to self-arrest to stop themselves or their partners from a slip and to safeguard the rope team from the event of a crevasse falls.


Self-arrest is simply another way of saying stopping yourself and along with assisting with upward progression through increased balance and as an aid while climbing steep snow or ice; self-arrest is likely the other most fundamental function of an ice axe. Here self arrest testing in the Condoriri region of the Cordillera Real  Bolivia.
Self-arrest is simply another way of saying stopping yourself and along with assisting with upward progression through increased balance and as an aid while climbing steep snow or ice; self-arrest is likely the other most fundamental function of an ice axe. Here self arrest testing in the Condoriri region of the Cordillera Real, Bolivia.


All the axes we tested can self-arrest, but the two most significant factors that influenced each contender in self-arrest performance was the pick shape and its shaft design. Positive and neutral picks performed better than reverse curve designs, and our testers preferred axes with slight bends in their shaft for increased leverage while self-arresting.

Self-arresting is an obviously important skill and a technique that must be practiced in the unfortunate event of a fall but consider ice axes primary job is to increase security and minimize the chances of falling to begin with. Here Michael Yarnall taking his time to minimize the chance of a slip.
Self-arresting is an obviously important skill and a technique that must be practiced in the unfortunate event of a fall but consider ice axes primary job is to increase security and minimize the chances of falling to begin with. Here Michael Yarnall taking his time to minimize the chance of a slip.

Self-Arrest Results

After extensive side-by-side testing, we found the Petzl Summit, Petzl Summit Evo, Grivel Air Tech Evolution, Black Diamond Swift, and Black Diamond Venom to be the smoothest and most confidence-inspiring for self-arresting. Except for the Venom, all of these models feature a hot-forged, positive curve-shaped pick that bites into the snow smoother than any other we tested.

Tester Ian Nicholson comparing contenders side-by-side in a wide array of tests. Here he self-arrests with each contender more than a half-dozen times back-to-back to directly compare their performance.
Tester Ian Nicholson comparing contenders side-by-side in a wide array of tests. Here he self-arrests with each contender more than a half-dozen times back-to-back to directly compare their performance.

The next best scoring models were the Petzl Glacier and the Glacier Literide. These Petzl models are essentially the same, and both self-arrested just as smoothly as the previously mentioned axes, but lack the slight bend in the shaft. They are, however, comfortable for use in a wide range of conditions.

Self-arresting is important not only if you or a person on your rope team were to accidentally slip and fall but also if someone unexpectedly "trap-doors" and falls into a hidden crevasse. Dan Whitmore and David navigating crevasses while trying to avoid the dreaded "trap door" on the Neve Glacier  Snowfield Peak WA.
Self-arresting is important not only if you or a person on your rope team were to accidentally slip and fall but also if someone unexpectedly "trap-doors" and falls into a hidden crevasse. Dan Whitmore and David navigating crevasses while trying to avoid the dreaded "trap door" on the Neve Glacier, Snowfield Peak WA.

The reverse curve pick models like the Petzl Sum'tec, CAMP Corsa Nanotech, and Black Diamond Venom (if we were using one of Black Diamond's reverse curve picks) were the least "smooth" self-arresting products if conditions were firm. They still functioned and bit into the snow fairly effectively, but were much "bumpier" and took more effort to control. They performed better than some of the superlight models, but not as well as many of the general mountaineering models.

Digging & Step Chopping


We compared each axe's adze performance while digging snow anchors, chopping steps, and hacking out tent platforms. Steel axes far outperformed their aluminum and titanium counterparts, and full-sized hot-forged adzes generally worked the best.


Several of our review team spent more than two hours hacking away at a massive pile of ice, trying to figure out exactly which adzes work best and why.

We worked hard to accurately compare adze performance and to figure out what features and design characteristics lead to the best performance. Some models had too much curve while others not enough. Lastly  an effective cutting edge proved to be among the most important design features. One of the better overall performers the Black Diamond Venom shown here after digging a T-trench.
We worked hard to accurately compare adze performance and to figure out what features and design characteristics lead to the best performance. Some models had too much curve while others not enough. Lastly, an effective cutting edge proved to be among the most important design features. One of the better overall performers the Black Diamond Venom shown here after digging a T-trench.

Adzes with a slight curve, but not too much, and a sharper cutting edge performed the best. Several models blasted through even the most bulletproof of ice a cut above the rest. Those models are the Petzl Summit and Summit Evo, two models we especially liked because of the shallow ribs built into the adze, which added tremendous strength in what is already a hot-forged design. The Black Diamond Swift and Grivel Air Tech Evolution are also top performers, all featuring hot-forged picks and excellent designs. One thing that made the Swift stand out is how much weight is centered in its head, taking less physical effort in each swing to cut away the same amount of ice.

As climbers and mountaineers  we use the adze of an ice axe for countless applications; building snow anchors  chopping out tent-platforms  cutting steps  or created a snow bollard in the edge of a bergschrund from which to rappel from as seen here in this photo with the Grivel Air Tech Evolution  just to name a few.
As climbers and mountaineers, we use the adze of an ice axe for countless applications; building snow anchors, chopping out tent-platforms, cutting steps, or created a snow bollard in the edge of a bergschrund from which to rappel from as seen here in this photo with the Grivel Air Tech Evolution, just to name a few.

This is another category where the lightest models, which all featured very small aluminum adzes, performed the poorest, though, among the ultralight models, the Petzl Glacier Literide certainly performed the best. The Petzl Ride or Gully's adzes were small and not particularly our favorite, but offered better performance than the tiny, all-aluminum Camp Corsa and Camp Corsa Nanotech, which both struggled, even with quasi-firm snow.

Ian Nicholson and Graham Mcdowell spending over an hour chopping a tent platform from bullet hard ice with 2" of fresh snow on top while climbing in the Waddington Range BC.
Ian Nicholson and Graham Mcdowell spending over an hour chopping a tent platform from bullet hard ice with 2" of fresh snow on top while climbing in the Waddington Range BC.

Use As Improvised Snow Anchor


B versus T ratings

All UIAA certified axes have either a CEN B (basic), also known as a Type 1 rating, or a CEN-T (technical), also known as a Type 2 rating. These ratings are based on a series of tests with various parts of the axe, measuring the strength of the shaft, pick, and a connection point between these two parts.


All UIAA rated models (both CEN-B/Type 1 and CEN-T/Type 2) are okay to use from improvised crevasse rescue or belaying a second climber on snow. CEN-T/Type 2 models are simply stronger. Here IFMGA guide Steve Banks teaches the finer points of crevasse rescue on the Quein Sabe Glacier.
All UIAA rated models (both CEN-B/Type 1 and CEN-T/Type 2) are okay to use from improvised crevasse rescue or belaying a second climber on snow. CEN-T/Type 2 models are simply stronger. Here IFMGA guide Steve Banks teaches the finer points of crevasse rescue on the Quein Sabe Glacier.

All models that meet both of these ratings (CEN-B and CEN-T) are appropriate for use as an anchor during improvised crevasse or to belay directly off of while belaying a climber seconding on snow. Technically speaking, the shaft and the pick have to both pass all the required tests to officially hold a "CEN-T" rating. For example, the Black Diamond Venom features an identical shaft to the Swift, which carries a CEN-T rating. However, because the pick of the Venom only has a CEN-B rating, the whole axe is considered to have a CEN-B rating. Conversely, a modular headed model like the Petzl Sum'tec, which also carries a CEN-T rating, can only be sold with CEN-T rated picks.

Without going into too much detail (there is lots of available from the UIAA), we will share some of the easiest to understand tests and see their real-world intentions. The first test is an ice axe weighted from mid-shaft being pulled perpendicularly as if it placed as a deadman. A CEN-B rated axe has to withstand 2.5KN, and a CEN-T has to withstand 3.5KN. The strength of the head shaft interface when being pulled perpendicularly, as if it was a vertically placed anchor or standing ice axe belay, a CEN-B has to withstand 2.5KN, and a CEN-T has to withstand 4KN. There are also several tests regarding the strength of the pick.

Do you need a T-rated axe for general mountaineering? Certainly not. Can you still belay off your axe in a T-slot/Deadman or clipped to the eye? Yes, but not for extreme loads. Do you need a T rated axe for harder alpine routes? Not necessarily, but it depends on how hard. A CEN-T-rated axe will obviously be stronger, offer better durability, and be more reliable. For technical climbing where you are often pulling on your tools and weighting only the pick, you should strongly consider a "T" rated model.

We thoroughly tested each model's ability to be used as a horizontally oriented anchor such as in a deadman or "T"-slot as well as a vertically oriented anchor. A vertically oriented anchor is most commonly used to back-up a seated stance  a standing ice axe belay  or beef-up an existing anchor as a second point equalized with a sling or cordellete or as a Saxon's cross.
We thoroughly tested each model's ability to be used as a horizontally oriented anchor such as in a deadman or "T"-slot as well as a vertically oriented anchor. A vertically oriented anchor is most commonly used to back-up a seated stance, a standing ice axe belay, or beef-up an existing anchor as a second point equalized with a sling or cordellete or as a Saxon's cross.

Improvised Anchor Considerations

The two most common improvised axe snow anchors are vertically oriented or horizontally oriented. For a vertically oriented anchor, the user is most commonly driving their axe in vertically and using a sling or clipping a carabiner to a hole (this hole is required by the UIAA for all CEN ratings) often called an eye. While we rarely belay directly off of an ice axe in this position, it is useful for backing up a seated stance while belaying, or adding a second point to an existing snow anchor.

We gave higher scores to models that were easier to clip or sling the heads of  as well as models that we found consistently easier to plunge deeply into the snow. The Black Diamond Venom shown as an anchor backing-up a seated stance here.
We gave higher scores to models that were easier to clip or sling the heads of, as well as models that we found consistently easier to plunge deeply into the snow. The Black Diamond Venom shown as an anchor backing-up a seated stance here.

We gave higher scores to models with well-designed spikes that helped penetrate the axe deeper into the snow more easily. We also gave models higher scores with larger holes that were easier to clip. A handful of models had large enough head holes that you could clip two carabiners. While we thought this was a unique idea, and hardly a downside, it isn't necessarily something to look for, as most of our review team does not do this. We did make sure that the higher scoring models could easily be clipped with at least one larger sized locking carabiner.

An ice axe's ability to help construct and to improvise as an anchor is extremely important to everything from basic glacier travel to even the most technical of routes. We compared all models both side-by-side and in the field to tell you how they stacked up.
An ice axe's ability to help construct and to improvise as an anchor is extremely important to everything from basic glacier travel to even the most technical of routes. We compared all models both side-by-side and in the field to tell you how they stacked up.


The other common way people use their axe (to make an improvised anchor) is horizontally oriented in a deadman or T-slot position. This is most commonly achieved by clove hitching (proved to create less twisting force than a clove hitch) around the balance point (approximately the mid-point) of the shaft and buried into the snow with the sling coming out of the snow as the bottom of the "T". CEN-T rated models higher scores than CEN-B ratings. We also gave higher scores to any feature that was aimed at making setting up either of these two anchors easier.

Improvised anchors are most commonly used to belay or fellow climbers  build rappel stations  and perform crevasse rescue but there are countless other uses. Here Michael Yarnall practices saving John Yarnall on day 6 of the Ptarmigan Traverse on the Dana Glacier near Dome Peak  Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Improvised anchors are most commonly used to belay or fellow climbers, build rappel stations, and perform crevasse rescue but there are countless other uses. Here Michael Yarnall practices saving John Yarnall on day 6 of the Ptarmigan Traverse on the Dana Glacier near Dome Peak, Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Steep Ice and Snow Climbing


Steep snow and ice climbing performance are one of the most important attributes of an ice axe. Simply put, we carry an ice axe for various reasons, but the two most important jobs are to help us not fall and to help us stop if we do fall.


After extensive testing, we found axes with steel picks perform better on steeper snow and ice routes compared to aluminum models.

More aggressive hot-forged picks tended to score better in our side-by-side comparison of different models in their steep snow performance. This photo shows the aggressive  heavily drooped  hot-forged pick of the Black Diamond Swift.
More aggressive hot-forged picks tended to score better in our side-by-side comparison of different models in their steep snow performance. This photo shows the aggressive, heavily drooped, hot-forged pick of the Black Diamond Swift.

The thickness and design of a model's pick has the biggest influences on performance 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 was one of our favorite models for steeper snow routes and moderate ice climbs. While we liked the Black Diamond Venom and appreciated its value being less in cost than the Sum'tec  we thought the Sum'tec performed better in steeper terrain. Here Danny Spreafico using a pair of Sum'tec while climbing the lower portion of the North Face of Mt. Shuksan with Price Lake below.
The Petzl Sum'tec was one of our favorite models for steeper snow routes and moderate ice climbs. While we liked the Black Diamond Venom and appreciated its value being less in cost than the Sum'tec, we thought the Sum'tec performed better in steeper terrain. Here Danny Spreafico using a pair of Sum'tec while climbing the lower portion of the North Face of Mt. Shuksan with Price Lake below.

The Petzl Sum'tec is our top choice for steeper routes on ice and snow, outperforming the majority of models in our review by a significant margin. The Sum'tec is the most hybrid model we've seen and literally takes the head of a Quark (Petzl's ice tool) and sticks it onto the shaft of a more traditional axe (originally an idea prototyped for the late Ueli Steck). To make it even better, Petzl added a sweet adjustable pommel to support your hand that can be positioned anywhere along the length of its shaft. This design has since been taken on by several other manufacturers.

Adjustable slider pommels are a HUGE are a very nice benefit while climbing in steeper terrain. Many people think that these pommels are only meant to be used at the bottom of the shaft for use when swinging an axe overhead like a traditional ice tool  but we loved them for climbing in mid-dagger positions as well. We gave higher scores in this category to any model that featured one  and higher yet scores to models whose pommels could be set at any position along the shaft  maximizing versatility.
Adjustable slider pommels are a HUGE are a very nice benefit while climbing in steeper terrain. Many people think that these pommels are only meant to be used at the bottom of the shaft for use when swinging an axe overhead like a traditional ice tool, but we loved them for climbing in mid-dagger positions as well. We gave higher scores in this category to any model that featured one, and higher yet scores to models whose pommels could be set at any position along the shaft, maximizing versatility.

The Sum'tec climbs WI3 every bit as good as a more traditional ice tool and isn't too shabby on WI4. We climbed WI5 with our testing model, but it took a fair amount more work than with traditional tools. Because the Sum'tec uses the same head as the Quark, the interchangeable adze and pick can be swapped with all of Petzl's ice climbing picks and hammers.

While no model climbed water ice as well as a traditional ice tool  for more moderate ice routes  the Petzl Sum'tec came close and the BD Venom and Petzl Gully were not much further behind yet. We felt there wasn't much difference between these models and a traditional ice tool on WI3  but had to work a harder on WI4 and WI5 when directly compared to a dedicated water ice climbing tool.
While no model climbed water ice as well as a traditional ice tool, for more moderate ice routes, the Petzl Sum'tec came close and the BD Venom and Petzl Gully were not much further behind yet. We felt there wasn't much difference between these models and a traditional ice tool on WI3, but had to work a harder on WI4 and WI5 when directly compared to a dedicated water ice climbing tool.

The Black Diamond Venom and the Petzl Gully were both very strong seconds in this category but didn't climb steep snow, or more specifically, moderate water ice, as well as the Sum'tec. The current Venom can now use any of Black Diamond's picks that are designed for their ice tools, increasing its versatility over its previous model.

The Petzl Gully used in mid-dagger/piolet appui position with the slider pommel providing some support and protection. We certainly underestimated how well the Petzl Gully would climb. When we first picked up this sub-10-ounce tool we didn't have high hopes but were throughly impressed.
The Petzl Gully used in mid-dagger/piolet appui position with the slider pommel providing some support and protection. We certainly underestimated how well the Petzl Gully would climb. When we first picked up this sub-10-ounce tool we didn't have high hopes but were throughly impressed.

The newest Venom now also features an easy to adjust pommel. The Petzl Gully's pick is AWESOME, and all of our review team loved its adjustable pommel; it's just so incredibly lightweight that it takes a little more effort to climb water ice in colder conditions. With that said, its killer for steep snow and moderate water ice.

Even if you are only ascending moderate snow climbs and basic glacier routes  most climbers will eventually want to attempt routes that have some steep snow or moderate ice climbing where low and mid-dagger technique will be used. Here Peter Webb ascends 800ft of 50 degree snow to reach the rock portion of the North Ridge of Forbidden Peak  WA.
Even if you are only ascending moderate snow climbs and basic glacier routes, most climbers will eventually want to attempt routes that have some steep snow or moderate ice climbing where low and mid-dagger technique will be used. Here Peter Webb ascends 800ft of 50 degree snow to reach the rock portion of the North Ridge of Forbidden Peak, WA.

All three of these products have reverse curve picks (or reverse curve options), which are vastly superior when swinging a given model over your head like an ice tool (in Piolet traxion position). Both of these models feature curved shafts, which give its user better clearance when swinging overhead but also keeps their user's hands out of the snow, and thus warmer, and drier in mid-dagger/piolet appui position.

Showing the Black Diamond Venom in mid-dagger/piolet appui position. This photo also displays the benefit of a curved shaft and how it creates clearance for the user's hand while in mid-dagger position as well as when swinging overhead. This clearance has several nice benefits while ascending sustained steep snow climbs as it would keep its users' hands dryer and warmer than models that featured less or no curve.
Showing the Black Diamond Venom in mid-dagger/piolet appui position. This photo also displays the benefit of a curved shaft and how it creates clearance for the user's hand while in mid-dagger position as well as when swinging overhead. This clearance has several nice benefits while ascending sustained steep snow climbs as it would keep its users' hands dryer and warmer than models that featured less or no curve.

All of our testers preferred models with curved shafts for steeper routes, where a fair amount of mid-dagger/piolet appui) and low-dagger/piolet canne are required. Among the more general mountaineering designed ice axes, the Petzl Summit Evo, Grivel Air Tech Evolution, and Black Diamond Swift were our next top picks. They all feature a hot-forged pick, curved shaft, some type of supportive slidder pommel, and rubberized lower grips.

Showing the shaft and related steep-snow climbing features on the Black Diamond Venom (top) and Petzl Sum'tec (bottom)  our two highest scoring steep snow models.
Showing the shaft and related steep-snow climbing features on the Black Diamond Venom (top) and Petzl Sum'tec (bottom), our two highest scoring steep snow models.

The Petzl Summit performed nearly as well, featuring an identical pick (just a slightly differently shaped shaft) compared to the Summit Evo.

The Petzl Summit Evo (shown here) and the Grivel Air Tech Evolution were the best steep snow climbers to feature a positive curve pick and thus were among the most versatile overall.
The Petzl Summit Evo (shown here) and the Grivel Air Tech Evolution were the best steep snow climbers to feature a positive curve pick and thus were among the most versatile overall.

Our testers felt that the ripples on the lower part of the aluminum shaft (of the Summit) provide a noticeable increase in traction. However, the Summit's performance just wasn't quite as good as the axes above, which feature rubber on the lower part of their grips.

We compared review contenders on all types of terrain; from mellow glacier climbs  to steep snow  ice and mixed routes. Here Ian Nicholson leads a pair of climbers up the Sunshine route on Mt. Hood. Oregon Cascades.
We compared review contenders on all types of terrain; from mellow glacier climbs, to steep snow, ice and mixed routes. Here Ian Nicholson leads a pair of climbers up the Sunshine route on Mt. Hood. Oregon Cascades.

The CAMP Neve and the Camp Corsa Nano Tech were the next best and were both noticeably higher performing than any of the Black Diamond Raven axes in the series. The curved shaft provides better clearance while swinging or daggering the axe, and the pick design offers more bite than the Black Diamond Raven models while climbing up steep slopes.

Tracey Bernstein comparing all-mountain models on the North Face of Mt. Buckner.
Tracey Bernstein comparing all-mountain models on the North Face of Mt. Buckner.

This is one category where your axe can be too light. Axes with less mass don't penetrate snow or ice as effectively as heavier ones; this is the primary category where the 7.5-ounce all-aluminum Camp Corsa really suffered.

Rebecca Schroeder using every aspect of a classic ice axe on the Cosmique Arete  Aiguille De Midi  French Alps
Rebecca Schroeder using every aspect of a classic ice axe on the Cosmique Arete, Aiguille De Midi, French Alps

Comfort to Carry


In the last five to ten years, the comfort factor has been more heavily considered by manufacturers.


While few axes are truly "uncomfortable", some are certainly nicer than others, and the difference in designs becomes even more apparent on warmer days with thinner gloves.

While no model was truly uncomfortable and all are suitable to be carried for days on end  some are certainly more comfortable than others. Additionally  several models proved far more comfortable in a specific position over another (for example self-belay over self-arrest) while others were comfortable in a variety of positions. Phil Wadlow on the Upper Curtis Glacier  North Cascades WA.
While no model was truly uncomfortable and all are suitable to be carried for days on end, some are certainly more comfortable than others. Additionally, several models proved far more comfortable in a specific position over another (for example self-belay over self-arrest) while others were comfortable in a variety of positions. Phil Wadlow on the Upper Curtis Glacier, North Cascades WA.

The design of an ice axe, in regards to comfort, strongly reflects its region of origin. For example, in Europe, almost no one walks in self-arrest position with their pick backward (there is literally not even a French name for this technique because so few people use the pickbackward position), and most European climbers use self-belay position with the pick forward or piolet canne position.

Hand positions shown from left to right for reader reference. Left most photos: self-arrest  middle photo: self-belay (piolet canne) or with the pick in the snow low-dagger (piolet panne). Right photo: mid-dagger (piolet appui).
Hand positions shown from left to right for reader reference. Left most photos: self-arrest, middle photo: self-belay (piolet canne) or with the pick in the snow low-dagger (piolet panne). Right photo: mid-dagger (piolet appui).

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 understand that each technique has a place and are using the appropriate position depending on the terrain and the circumstance they are traveling in. As a result, many manufacturers are starting to accommodate both positions.

While certainly not universally true  we found that many European designed axes are most comfortably carried with the pick facing forward (self-belay/piolet canne)  while North American designs show their bias to the self-arrest position. There are certainly several exceptions most notably several of the Petzl and Black Diamond models which proved the most comfortable in either position. Testing on the Easton Glacier  Mt. Baker  WA.
While certainly not universally true, we found that many European designed axes are most comfortably carried with the pick facing forward (self-belay/piolet canne), while North American designs show their bias to the self-arrest position. There are certainly several exceptions most notably several of the Petzl and Black Diamond models which proved the most comfortable in either position. Testing on the Easton Glacier, Mt. Baker, WA.

After months and months of testing, direct comparisons, and input from a large pool of OutdoorGearLab review staff, our testers found that all the Black Diamond Ravens (Raven, Pro, and Ultra) were the most comfortable and the nicest to carry in either position. The Black Diamond Venom and Black Diamond Shift were very, very close but weren't quite as comfortable in self-arrests (as the Ravens). Very close to those in comfort were the Petzl Summit, Petzl Summit Evo, Petzl Glacier, and Petzl Glacier Literide. All of these axes are top-tier for comfort in self-belay/piolet canne position, and for use in self-arrest position. Petzl removed all the inner teeth on their picks, dramatically increasing comfort in this position.

We spent countless weeks traveling on glaciers and climbing steep snow routes with every single model included in our review to provide you with the most complete data set. We also took input from over a dozen users to get better information about what models might be better for bigger or smaller sized hands. Photo: The Petzl Glacierlite Ride on the Boston Glacier.
We spent countless weeks traveling on glaciers and climbing steep snow routes with every single model included in our review to provide you with the most complete data set. We also took input from over a dozen users to get better information about what models might be better for bigger or smaller sized hands. Photo: The Petzl Glacierlite Ride on the Boston Glacier.

We want to be clear that no model was truly "uncomfortable", at least to the point where it was unusable or left our hand sore. It is worth noting that we found Grivel's axes to have a stronger self-belay preference but are fine in self-arrest. All of CAMP's models, the Neve, Corsa, and Corsa Nanotech, have the most strong self-belay basis.

At OutdoorGearLab  we think people should put their regional biases aside and accept there are times for both self-belay and self-arrest positions depending on the conditions and the terrain. So if you find yourself only using one technique  read up on your less familiar technique and learn about the best times to apply it.
At OutdoorGearLab, we think people should put their regional biases aside and accept there are times for both self-belay and self-arrest positions depending on the conditions and the terrain. So if you find yourself only using one technique, read up on your less familiar technique and learn about the best times to apply it.

Weight


Weight matters in climbing and mountaineering with any piece of gear, and this remains no less true with ice axes. However, a super lightweight piece of gear is not suitable for alpine or mountaineering routes. Nor do you need to carry a super burly CEN-T rated model with a modular head if you are planning for walk-up style moderate glacier routes.


Weight is always important with any backcountry activity. However  in the case of an ice axe  it is literally your primary attachment point to the mountain and lighter models don't offer nearly as much versatility. Don't skimp on weight if it's not appropriate for the terrain. With that said  a lighter model is totally suitable for things like ski-mountaineering  where you are likely carrying your axe on your pack 90% of the time and only breaking it out for short steep sections.
Weight is always important with any backcountry activity. However, in the case of an ice axe, it is literally your primary attachment point to the mountain and lighter models don't offer nearly as much versatility. Don't skimp on weight if it's not appropriate for the terrain. With that said, a lighter model is totally suitable for things like ski-mountaineering, where you are likely carrying your axe on your pack 90% of the time and only breaking it out for short steep sections.

The lightest product we tested was the all aluminum Camp Corsa, which weighs in at an impressive 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. It's also a good option for hikers as a "just-in-case" model. We were also pleasantly surprised by the Corsa's self-arresting ability which was quite smooth as long as conditions were firm.

Many of the lightest models are great for applications where you are carrying them on your pack most of the time of the snow portion of your trip isn't too technical. These ultralight models are great for certain types of applications like early season backpacking  ski-mountaineering and alpine rock climbing  but a poor option for even moderately challenging glacier travel or steeper snow and ice climbs.
Many of the lightest models are great for applications where you are carrying them on your pack most of the time of the snow portion of your trip isn't too technical. These ultralight models are great for certain types of applications like early season backpacking, ski-mountaineering and alpine rock climbing, but a poor option for even moderately challenging glacier travel or steeper snow and ice climbs.

The Petzl Ride is the next lightest model (8.4 ounces) and the lightest model to feature a steel head and adze. While we liked the Corsa and it worked well, the Ride is a fair amount more versatile. The Ride's pick penetrates firm snow well, and its adze, while tiny, still performs well. We also loved the super short 45cm length, which also helps it achieve such a low weight, and could fit inside our pack if we so desired.

For some alpine rocking climbing and ski-mountaineering applications  buying an axe that is short enough that it can go INSIDE your pack is pretty sweet. When it's packed away in the interior  it won't get snagged or hung up while rock climbing nor will interfere with attaching your skis to your pack and will generally stay more out of the way. If this sounds crazy to you  give it a go  you'll likely appreciate it more than you think. Plus a shorter axe is lighter than a longer one... Here Peter Webb applying this technique on the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart.
For some alpine rocking climbing and ski-mountaineering applications, buying an axe that is short enough that it can go INSIDE your pack is pretty sweet. When it's packed away in the interior, it won't get snagged or hung up while rock climbing nor will interfere with attaching your skis to your pack and will generally stay more out of the way. If this sounds crazy to you, give it a go, you'll likely appreciate it more than you think. Plus a shorter axe is lighter than a longer one... Here Peter Webb applying this technique on the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart.

The Camp Corsa Nano Tech is the same model as the Corsa but sports a riveted-on razor-sharp steel pick, which helps it climb steep snow and ice surprisingly well. At 8.7 ounces, it's only marginally heavier and noticeably steps up security. The lightest contender we tested to feature a full-sized steel pick and a steel head was the Petzl Glacier Literide, weighing in at 11.2 ounces. The Literide blurred the lines between an ultralight model and an all-around mountaineering axe. It doesn't cut any corners in its design and is impressively lightweight. It's as suitable for basic snow routes and simply glacier climbs as it is on ski mountaineering traverses and alpine rock climbs.

12.5 ounces for the Petzl Summit (seen in this photo) is pretty darn impressive for an all-mountain axe  especially one that performs so well on such a wide range of terrain. Even though it can be tempting on more complex trips it's better to carry the extra 1-4 ounces and have an axe suitable for the objective. Photo: Dan Whitmore waiting for the Water Taxi on Ross Lake for a traverse of the Northern Pickets and happy he is carrying an all-mountain axe for complex routes on the docket.
12.5 ounces for the Petzl Summit (seen in this photo) is pretty darn impressive for an all-mountain axe, especially one that performs so well on such a wide range of terrain. Even though it can be tempting on more complex trips it's better to carry the extra 1-4 ounces and have an axe suitable for the objective. Photo: Dan Whitmore waiting for the Water Taxi on Ross Lake for a traverse of the Northern Pickets and happy he is carrying an all-mountain axe for complex routes on the docket.

We were thoroughly unimpressed with the 12 ounce Raven Ultra. It's not that light, nor does it perform that well, and it doesn't even have a spike. There are many axes you can buy that are both lighter and perform better.

Sometimes a heavier axe is worth the weight  depending on the objective. It can inspire confidence and allows its user to move quickly and safer. You can certainly save weight depending on which axe you buy; the difference in weight between our heaviest axe and our lightest one is 11.5 ounces. Here North Cascade Mountain Guides owner and IFMGA Guide Jeff Ward is happy to be carrying his Black Diamond Swift for the confidence it inspires.
Sometimes a heavier axe is worth the weight, depending on the objective. It can inspire confidence and allows its user to move quickly and safer. You can certainly save weight depending on which axe you buy; the difference in weight between our heaviest axe and our lightest one is 11.5 ounces. Here North Cascade Mountain Guides owner and IFMGA Guide Jeff Ward is happy to be carrying his Black Diamond Swift for the confidence it inspires.

The Petzl Gully is worth talking about, even though its nearly in a category all its own. At 9.8 ounces, it is easily low enough in weight for any trip where weight is at a premium but offers unbelievably good steep snow performance. While the Gully isn't an exceptional all-arounder, it excels at a surprising number of things, and is perfect for alpine rock climbing, ski-mountaineering, or alpine ice climbing alike.

The Petzl Gully thoroughly impressed us as it was under 10 ounces (9.8 to be exact) but still offered an impressive amount of performance. Despite its impressively low weight  we felt it was certainly suitable for steeper snow routes and moderate ice climbs but still lightweight enough to be used for ski-mountaineering or alpine rock climbing. All-mountain versatility  maybe not  but a truly wide range of applications for such a light axe.
The Petzl Gully thoroughly impressed us as it was under 10 ounces (9.8 to be exact) but still offered an impressive amount of performance. Despite its impressively low weight, we felt it was certainly suitable for steeper snow routes and moderate ice climbs but still lightweight enough to be used for ski-mountaineering or alpine rock climbing. All-mountain versatility, maybe not, but a truly wide range of applications for such a light axe.

Of the more general mountaineering axes, the Petzl Glacier Literide is 11.2 ounces and the Petzl Glacier is 12.3 ounces. At 12.6 ounces, the Petzl Summit brings an incredible amount of performance for being one of the lighter weight models in its category.

Depending on the types of routes you climb  the weight and length of your axe is a major factor. Here Tester Ian Nicholson is happy to have a 50 cm Petzl Glacier Literide  the lightest fully featured axe in our review  while carrying it up-and-over the East Ridge of Forbidden Peak.
Depending on the types of routes you climb, the weight and length of your axe is a major factor. Here Tester Ian Nicholson is happy to have a 50 cm Petzl Glacier Literide, the lightest fully featured axe in our review, while carrying it up-and-over the East Ridge of Forbidden Peak.

These three models are comparable in weight to a Black Diamond Raven Ultra but blow it out of the water in every aspect of performance, and are lighter or close in weight. This is impressive, especially when you stop to consider that the Raven Ultra doesn't even feature a real spike. At 14.1 ounces, the Petzl Summit Evo is also respectably light for how much performance it brings to the table.

Conclusion


Choosing an ice axe can be trying, and there are a few key factors to consider when finding the one most appropriate for your needs. This review is designed to help you know what to look for before making your purchase. We hope we've been able to help you sort out the things to keep in mind before selecting the axe for your mountaineering purposes.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read our review  we are truly passionate about writing the most helpful articles possible and we hope you found it valuable. Here is lead tester Ian Nicholson on the summit of Denali during his 10th trip to the mountain with a Petzl Summit (left) and OGL friend Zach Keskinen (right) with a Petzl Summit Evo.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read our review, we are truly passionate about writing the most helpful articles possible and we hope you found it valuable. Here is lead tester Ian Nicholson on the summit of Denali during his 10th trip to the mountain with a Petzl Summit (left) and OGL friend Zach Keskinen (right) with a Petzl Summit Evo.

Important Considerations


What Are Your Intended Uses?


The first thing you should consider when purchasing an ice axe is the type of climbing or mountaineering you want to do? Are you a backpacker who just wants to add security to 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? Conversely, are you a ski-mountaineer or a seasoned climber who is after the best product to help them with complex and challenging ascents.

What are you going to use your ice axe for? General mountaineering and glacier routes? Ski mountaineering? Alpine rock? In the article below we compare different qualities and characteristics that are worth considering depending on the types of routes you would like to climb. Photo: Side-by-side testing  comparing anchor building qualities on Mt. Shuksan for our review.
What are you going to use your ice axe for? General mountaineering and glacier routes? Ski mountaineering? Alpine rock? In the article below we compare different qualities and characteristics that are worth considering depending on the types of routes you would like to climb. Photo: Side-by-side testing, comparing anchor building qualities on Mt. Shuksan for our review.

Categories


We broke all the products in our review down into three categories: Ultralight, General Mountaineering, and Modular designed for more technical routes. While some axes slightly blur the lines of each of these categories, it is still a good frame of reference as to the general category of models you should be looking in.

The spectrum of models available has never been so broad. To help make selecting one easier  we break down the general characteristics of different models and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Photo Dan Whitmore on the Challenger Glacier with a Petzl Summit and David behind him with a CAMP Corsa Nanotech.
The spectrum of models available has never been so broad. To help make selecting one easier, we break down the general characteristics of different models and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Photo Dan Whitmore on the Challenger Glacier with a Petzl Summit and David behind him with a CAMP Corsa Nanotech.

Ultralight are light (obviously) and most commonly make some types of sacrifices to save weight with varying levels of impact on performance. Several models don't feature a spike, or at most, are fairly minimal, and most only come in shorter lengths. Ultralight models often also have small adzes, which are another true compromise, as this cuts down on the model's overall versatility.

John Yarnall near the Summit of Mt. Challenger  Northern Pickets  WA
John Yarnall near the Summit of Mt. Challenger, Northern Pickets, WA

All the ultralight models we tested are still CEN-B/Type 1 rated, meaning they pass the minimum strength requirements for the UIAA to consider them safe for mountaineering. Generally speaking, this is a good thing. Ultralight axes are best for early season hikers, ski mountaineers, alpine rock climbers, or other folks who are into very basic mountaineering or scrambling routes. The heaviest ultralight model we tested was just over 12 ounces, which certainly overlaps in weight with fully featured general mountaineering axes.

Ultralight options often make small sacrifices in performance or design to save weight. For example  several ultralight models don't feature real spike or at most  a fairly minimal one. They may only come in shorter lengths or sport a smaller-than-average and thus less functional adze. They are geared towards more moderate snow climbs  ski-mountaineering  and backpacking. Here Jussi Tahtinen uses a Petzl Glacier Literide on a ski-mountaineering trip near Chamonix France.
Ultralight options often make small sacrifices in performance or design to save weight. For example, several ultralight models don't feature real spike or at most, a fairly minimal one. They may only come in shorter lengths or sport a smaller-than-average and thus less functional adze. They are geared towards more moderate snow climbs, ski-mountaineering, and backpacking. Here Jussi Tahtinen uses a Petzl Glacier Literide on a ski-mountaineering trip near Chamonix France.

Our general mountaineering category includes models that are all fully-featured, and will work well for a wide range of applications. They are generally not specialists and are heavier than the ultralight models but make up for it by being far more versatile. General mountaineering axes will work in any situation that an ultralight model could be taken on, but are typically heavier. General mountain axes are ideal for all but the most complex routes, routes that are very firm, or climbs that are steeper than 50 degrees.

General mountaineering models are much more versatile than ultralight ones. They will commonly work for all the applications that an ultralight model will work for they'll often just be heavier. General mountaineering models work best for glacier mountaineering routes and most steep snow routes. Phil and Walt Wadlow ascending the Couloir below Forbidden Peak with a Petzl Summit Evo and a Petzl Glacier.
General mountaineering models are much more versatile than ultralight ones. They will commonly work for all the applications that an ultralight model will work for they'll often just be heavier. General mountaineering models work best for glacier mountaineering routes and most steep snow routes. Phil and Walt Wadlow ascending the Couloir below Forbidden Peak with a Petzl Summit Evo and a Petzl Glacier.

Our final category is Modular axes, which feature interchangeable picks and/or an interchangeable adze/hammer. All of these models sport a curved shaft for steeper routes, and many have features that make climbing steeper terrain easier, like a rubber grip or slidder pommel for hand support. These products will do almost anything that a general mountain axe will do, but are typically heavier and more expensive. Modular axes are most at home on complex glaciers and steep snow and ice routes.

They work on moderate waterfall ice, but you have to work harder than you would with a traditional ice tool. For example, depending on the model, we didn't feel there was much of a difference between climbing a WI3 route with a modular ice axe or an ice tool. However, there was a noticeable difference while climbing a WI4 and a rather larger difference leading a WI5, which took significantly more work than a traditional ice tool would.

Modular options are relatively newer to field but have gained a huge amount of popularity over the last five years. These options feature interchangeable  often technically oriented  picks and sometimes a modular hammer/adze. These options also frequently carry CEN-T rated meaning they are stronger and designed for technical use. Modular options are great for difficult or complex mountaineering routes because they climb steep snow and moderate ice well. Some of these options may climb nearly as well as a traditional ice tool.
Modular options are relatively newer to field but have gained a huge amount of popularity over the last five years. These options feature interchangeable, often technically oriented, picks and sometimes a modular hammer/adze. These options also frequently carry CEN-T rated meaning they are stronger and designed for technical use. Modular options are great for difficult or complex mountaineering routes because they climb steep snow and moderate ice well. Some of these options may climb nearly as well as a traditional ice tool.

Pick Manufacturing


There are three primary ways to make the head and specifically the pick and the adze of an ice axe. The strongest and best-performing way to produce an ice axe head is to hot-forge it. This process not only makes a stronger pick but also lets manufacturers create a pick that is 15-25% thinner (again while still being as strong or stronger than other construction methods). A narrower, stronger pick does everything better; it performs better while self-arresting and climbing steep snow, and is also the most durable.

Hot-forging a pick is the strongest and best way to produce a pick. Hot-forged picks are can be built thinner  but still equally strong as picks manufactured with other construction methods.
Hot-forging a pick is the strongest and best way to produce a pick. Hot-forged picks are can be built thinner, but still equally strong as picks manufactured with other construction methods.

Hot-forging also gives the manufacturer the most control in the shape and subtle details of a pick. Examples include the Grivel Evolution, Black Diamond Swift, Petzl Summit, Petzl Sum'tec, and Petzl Summit Evo. You are probably like "it sounds better, why doesn't everyone hot-forge their picks?". As you might imagine, it's also expensive; on average, it costs 50% more than non-hot forged versions.

Besides being stronger and overall better performing; hot-forging also gives the manufacturer a tremendous amount of control in the design and is able to build a pick down to the most specific detail. Look at any hot-forged pick compared and compare it to models that use other construction methods and you'll easily see the difference in the level of detail of the pick shape as a whole  tooth shape  and even the manufacturer's name. Here the Petzl Summit Evo (top) has a hot-forged pick and the Petzl Glacier below does not.
Besides being stronger and overall better performing; hot-forging also gives the manufacturer a tremendous amount of control in the design and is able to build a pick down to the most specific detail. Look at any hot-forged pick compared and compare it to models that use other construction methods and you'll easily see the difference in the level of detail of the pick shape as a whole, tooth shape, and even the manufacturer's name. Here the Petzl Summit Evo (top) has a hot-forged pick and the Petzl Glacier below does not.

The next best way to manufacture ahead of an axe is to laser cut it. This method requires the pick to be fatter, which typically means its performance is not as ideal on steep snow and is comparably less strong. The advantage of this method is mostly that it is less expensive, with examples being Black Diamond's Raven series. The least expensive construction method is to stamp it, which is the weakest, least performance-oriented, and heaviest method, but also the cheapest.

Not all picks are created equal and each axe's pick design  materials used  and manufacturing technique will have the greatest impact on self-arresting performance and steep snow and ice climbing ability.
Not all picks are created equal and each axe's pick design, materials used, and manufacturing technique will have the greatest impact on self-arresting performance and steep snow and ice climbing ability.

Pick Design


There are three primary pick designs.

Neutral, where the pick is fairly straight out from the head with no downward droop. This design offers solid self-arresting, but very poor steep climbing performance. Very few models these days are truly straight across neutral, and no model we tested is a true neutral design, as even a little downturn adds a tremendous amount of security while in steeper terrain. While we didn't have any true neutral picks, there were a handful of models that weren't far from it.

Almost no modern axe uses a neutral (no downward turn) pick. The closest in our review was the Grivel G1 but it doesn't sport a true natural design. Models with a close-to-neutral pick self-arrest very smoothly but don't typically climb steep snow and ice as well as other designs.
Almost no modern axe uses a neutral (no downward turn) pick. The closest in our review was the Grivel G1 but it doesn't sport a true natural design. Models with a close-to-neutral pick self-arrest very smoothly but don't typically climb steep snow and ice as well as other designs.

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 works well for steeper snow and very moderate ice but is harder to clean (remove) if you are in terrain, where you're swinging your axe above your head.

A positive curve design as seen on this Petzl Summit still work very well for self-arresting but are far better at ascending steep snow than their neutral counterparts. Most models in our review feature a design similar to this because it's the most versatile.
A positive curve design as seen on this Petzl Summit still work very well for self-arresting but are far better at ascending steep snow than their neutral counterparts. Most models in our review feature a design similar to this because it's the most versatile.

Reverse curve or reverse positive, which feature two bends, and rightly so, appears the most aggressive looking. This design is okay for self-arrest but is less smooth compared to 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 the superior clearance on steeper ice and because it is the easiest to remove when swung into ice or firm snow.

A reverse curve pick  as seen on this Petzl Sum'tec  is the best for steep snow and ice climbing. They work for self-arresting but aren't as smooth  especially in firmer conditions.
A reverse curve pick, as seen on this Petzl Sum'tec, is the best for steep snow and ice climbing. They work for self-arresting but aren't as smooth, especially in firmer conditions.

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 some sort of curvature to their shaft. These bends are not nearly as much as what you would see in a traditional ice tool that is designed more specifically for vertical ice climbing. This slight bend helps with swinging the axe on steeper routes and while low and mid daggering on more mid-angled routes (40-60 degrees), where the user's hand is lifted slightly out of the snow. After extensive side-by-side testing, we preferred axes with a slight bend in the shaft for self-arresting; we felt it gave us more leverage on the pick and created superior self-arresting power.

Comparing different curved shaft designs of various products in our review. Overall our testers preferred models with a slight bend in their shaft for both the increased leverage during a self-arrest and for superior steep snow performance.
Comparing different curved shaft designs of various products in our review. Overall our testers preferred models with a slight bend in their shaft for both the increased leverage during a self-arrest and for superior steep snow performance.

Materials


Material plays a big role in an axe's 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, none of which are reviewed here) and the head, pick, and adze are made of aluminum or steel.

The head  pick  and adze of the CAMP Corsa are all constructed with 100% aluminum. Along with the CAMP Corsa Nanotech  it is the only such model in our review (all the other models use a steel head). While aluminum-headed models are lighter weight  their picks must be wider to make up for lack of strength  and thus they don't work as well in firmer conditions.
The head, pick, and adze of the CAMP Corsa are all constructed with 100% aluminum. Along with the CAMP Corsa Nanotech, it is the only such model in our review (all the other models use a steel head). While aluminum-headed models are lighter weight, their picks must be wider to make up for lack of strength, and thus they don't work as well in firmer conditions.

In the case of the Camp Corsa Nanotech, the pick and the spike use some of both. Aluminum is lighter weight but is significantly less durable and can't be made as narrower and thus can't penetrate firmer snow conditions as easily. Generally speaking, steel is heavier, but provides better security on firm slopes and is significantly more durable.

Aluminum models are lighter but aren't near as durable as steel models nor as versatile overall. They can be sweet for certain applications like ski-mountaineering or alpine rock climbing and can be half the weight of an all-mountain axe but are far less versatile. Photo Phil Wadlow on Mt. Shuksan.
Aluminum models are lighter but aren't near as durable as steel models nor as versatile overall. They can be sweet for certain applications like ski-mountaineering or alpine rock climbing and can be half the weight of an all-mountain axe but are far less versatile. Photo Phil Wadlow on Mt. Shuksan.

Sizing


Climbers today certainly use shorter models than the 1970s or even the 1990s and for good reason. Remember, the primary purpose of an ice axe is to aid in balance and security 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 is very easy to go too long. If your tool is too long, it will actually hinder, rather than assist the climber in balance while traversing or ascending a steeper slope. Why? Your uphill hand that is holding the axe will be too high and can raise a climber's center of balance, offering less overall security.

The primary purpose of an ice axe is to aid in balance and help provide security while climbing on snow. A common mistake is for folks to buy an ice axe so long that it acts as a walking stick. While this might be nice on flat ground or in very mellow terrain  it will actually hinder balance and make it more likely to fall in steeper terrain than a shorter axe in the same spot. Remember in reality   it's hard to go too short when selecting the appropriate length  but is very easy to go too long.
The primary purpose of an ice axe is to aid in balance and help provide security while climbing on snow. A common mistake is for folks to buy an ice axe so long that it acts as a walking stick. While this might be nice on flat ground or in very mellow terrain, it will actually hinder balance and make it more likely to fall in steeper terrain than a shorter axe in the same spot. Remember in reality, it's hard to go too short when selecting the appropriate length, but is very easy to go too long.

On very low angle terrain, a longer design can be nice, so it can be used as a cane, but the problem with this is it won't assist in balance nearly as much 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 in the other.

An ice axe is a fundamental piece of gear for most mountaineering and buying the right one for your needs and the correct size is crucial to enjoying your time in the mountains. Ian Nicholson testing in the BC Coast Range.
An ice axe is a fundamental piece of gear for most mountaineering and buying the right one for your needs and the correct size is crucial to enjoying your time in the mountains. Ian Nicholson testing in the BC Coast Range.

Ian Nicholson