What is an Ice Axe?

Jeff Petersen
Jeff Petersen

An ice axe is a specialized pick axe used in mountain climbing when the conditions are icy or snowy. It has a strong metal head, with a sharp, angled pick and a shorter adze, which is often flat and squared off. The handle of a modern ice axe is made of light, tough material such as aluminum or Kevlar®, and often includes a wrist strap. The end of the handle comes to a sharp, metal point, which can server a number of purposes.

An ice axe may be used by mountain climbers when conditions are icy and snowy.
An ice axe may be used by mountain climbers when conditions are icy and snowy.

The head of an ice axe is usually made of a steel alloy, making it very hard and resistant to breaking, and allowing it to be sharpened to a fine point. The pick of the axe angles down fairly sharply, so that it more easily bites into the ice when a climber swings it. The angle of the pick also causes it to more effectively dig into the snow in the event of a fall, when a climber would use the ice axe as an anchor to save herself. Opposite the pick, the head generally flattens out into the adze, a shorter, flatter blade which can be used to cut hand and footholds into the ice or snow.

The head of an ice axe is made of steel alloy with the purpose of making it resistant to breaking.
The head of an ice axe is made of steel alloy with the purpose of making it resistant to breaking.

The handle of an ice axe varies in length depending on its intended purpose. Climbers scaling sheer, ice covered walls, or even frozen waterfalls, often prefer a shorter handle, just over one foot in length. The short handle allows easy maneuvering and swinging, and provides for a lighter axe. Climbers who will do more hiking and will spend more time upright often prefer an ice axe up to three feet in length. The longer version can be used as a hiking stick, and the shaft can be used to probe the snow for unseen dangers. The end of the handle comes to a sharp, metal point, allowing it to be used as an anchor, or a tool for cutting into the ice and snow.

The more extreme the conditions people find themselves exploring, the more specialized the tools they need. An ice axe allows climbers to scale sheer, icy ledges, climb snowy peaks, and save themselves from sliding off the side of a slick mountain. Of course, it takes an expert climber to attempt these dangerous feats, but without their trusty ice axe, they wouldn't get nearly as far.

Jeff Petersen
Jeff Petersen

Jeff is a freelance writer, short story author, and novelist who earned his B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Creighton University. Based in Berkeley, California, Jeff loves putting his esoteric knowledge to good use as a wiseGEEK contributor.

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Discussion Comments


I am definitely a novice as far as mountain climbing goes and I am wondering if anyone has some climbing strategies that I can use while climbing. I really want to go climbing, but am reading all these posts about the dangers of using an ice axe to climb an ice wall.

What I am wondering is if there is something besides an ice axe that can be used in order to propel oneself up an ice wall.

I am also wondering if there is a use for an ice axe besides climbing and ice wall or if it something that only serves one purpose? If this is the case I really do not need the ice axe if I choose to simply climb a mountain that does not have an ice wall I am forced to climb.


@jmc88 - I agree with your assessment and that is why the ice axe is only used as a tool to climb up the ice wall and not necessarily as something to use to climb one one's own.

Although there are some people that are dare devils, or may have a death wish, that free climb ice walls using only an ice axe, it is something that is rare and definitely not a normal thing that climbers do.

Most of the time a person will climb an ice wall with a harness already in place and the ice axe is only used to propel one up. There is always danger in doing this and in some rare cases one may be forced to free climb an ice wall first to set the line for others to follow, but it is rare and something that is dangerous and is only done in specific circumstances and when necessary unless one wants to be a dare devil.


@Emilski - I have to say that I do not see climbing up a mountain with an ice axe as a very safe way to climb up a mountain. I see it as something of a last resort for someone to use to climb up as one could easily fall by simply using an ice axe to climb.

Although safety measures are taken to ensure that one does not fall, but accidents can happen and ice is a very unpredictable thing to deal with.

I once saw someone on television climb a mountain with an ice axe and a one hundred pound piece of ice fell and hit him in the chest. Luckily he was fine, but this occurred because he stuck his ice axe in an unstable part of the ice, which sometimes can be impossible to tell.


It seems to me like and ice axe is a valuable tool that can be used by climbers to ensure they simply climb up their side of the mountain.

I have always wondered about mountain climbers and how one can climb a giant slope that is too steep to simply walk up. I always figured that once one figures out their best possible way up they decide how exactly to climb that large expanse.

I feel like that it would be difficult for someone to simply climb up a mountain that is rock as they must set their line at some point to get up. By using the ice to their advantage they can simply climb up a rather difficult portion of the mountain that they would otherwise see as being impossible to climb.

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