How to Use an Ice Axe

Summer Mountaineering in Whistler and the Coast Mountains will almost always include travel on snow and ice.  This can make the terrain very difficult to navigate if you do not have the proper equipment.

While other equipment is also necessary, one of the most important tools that you can have with you is an ice axe.  The ice axe is a versitile tool that allows you to anchor into the ice or snow with ease, giving you stability through your hands.

Parts of the Ice Axe
While the Ice axe is a simple tool, it has several parts that perform different operations.

There are a multitude of uses for the ice axe, and each situation might demand a different method of use at that time.  But here is a brief rundown of the primary scenarios in which you would use the ice axe:

1. Walking
Depending on the length of your axe, you can use it to help support you on long gradual ascents on both snow and ice.  The spike on the bottom will allow you to get a firm grip on the surface beneath, regardless of how hard or soft it is beneath you.  Simply hold the middle of the axe with your palm facing down and use the axe as you would a cane.  It will provide extra support in case your feet slip out beneath you.

2. Self Arrest
Sometimes you slip, and if you are on a giant glacier, the momentum will carry you downhill for longer than you will enjoy.  The best way to stop yourself if you begin sliding is to employ the self arrest with the ice axe.

The grip is easy to learn, but you should still practice to make sure it is second nature in a moment of crisis.  Hold the axe with the pick out, dominant hand gripping the head of the axe with thumb pointing toward the adze.  With your non-dominant hand, hold the shaft in the middle.  Keep the axe close to the body, with your dominant hand close to your opposite shoulder.

Once you start moving, turn your body face down.  Keep your feet up if you have crampons on to avoid them catching the ground and sending you tumbling.  At that point it is a matter of thrusting your body toward the ground beneath you and digging the pick in, allowing you to come to a safe stop.

Here is a great video demonstrating the technique:

3. Step Cutting
The beauty of snow and ice is their ability to take whatever shape you want.  This is a very good thing when you are climbing a steep slope and wish you could have just “taken the stairs”.  With the step-cutting technique, you can!  Simply use the adze to make a sideways sweeping motion on the ground in front of you.  Depending on how firm the surface is, it might take several passes.  But once you have the rhythm down you will be able to get a natural flow whereby you cut, step, cut step, etc…

Here is a video showing one of the ways to step cut.

If you want to put these skills to practice, come out with us someday to enjoy a glacier hike.  Even better, make a weekend of it and take the Mountain Travel Fundamentals course.  You’ll learn a whole host of other skills to help you get on the right foot (with our without crampons) for a lifetime of exploration in the mountains.

See you soon!