Picking the Best Ice Axe of 2020
Best Overall Ice Axe
Petzl Summit Evo
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
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
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
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 ounces and under category. While the Ride faced some fierce 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
Why You Should Trust Us
Ian Nicholson is a professional guide, snow expert, and mountain climber extraordinaire. He and his team bring this review to fruition with their years of experience and expertise in a niche field. Ian is an IMFGA guide (the best there is) and guides snowy mountain summits and descents in Alaska, Washington, and California. He regularly uses ice axes while climbing up steep couloirs with skis strapped to his back, and while tackling more mellow mountaineering objectives. His expertise and nerdy gear obsession are unrivaled in the field. His commitment to in-depth research and heavy testing is what makes this review the best that you'll find on the internet. He spends hours hacking away at waterfalls, digging snow pits, and teaching self-arresting in a number of his outdoor education classes.
Our testing process begins after spending hours researching the newest and best ice axes on the market. We selected 10 of the most current and up-to-date options. After ordering each at retail price we put in the muscle to test them side-by-side. We hike up snowfields, dig snow pits, hack at technical water ice falls, self-arrest while guiding, teaching, and exploring the Washington North Cascades. All axes are put to the test while climbing alpine rock, ski-mountaineering, and embarking on snowy backpacking trips. Over a dozen guides specializing in alpine guiding have contributed to this review.
Related: How We Tested Ice Axes
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.
Related: Buying Advice for Ice Axes
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 reasonably 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.
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.
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.
Use As Improvised Snow Anchor
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 models that meet both of CEN-B and CEN-T ratings 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. Here, we look at how each ice axe fares as a snow anchor as well as a hacking tool.
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 endure 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.
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 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.
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.
Steep Ice and Snow Climbing
Steep snow and ice climbing performance are some of the most essential 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. To test this, we climbed snow and steep ice to test functionality.
The thickness and design of a model's pick have 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 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 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.
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.
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 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, it's killer for steep snow and moderate water ice.
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.
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.
The Petzl Summit performed nearly as well, featuring an identical pick (just a slightly differently shaped shaft) compared to the Summit Evo.
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.
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.
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 suffered.
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.
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.
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.
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 use in self-arrest position. Petzl removed all the inner teeth on their picks, dramatically increasing comfort in this position.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
— Ian Nicholson