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Which Ice Axe, mountaineering 

Here is a simple guide when thinking about getting an ice axe ahead of a Scottish winter. This looks at the best axe for general winter mountaineering. General mountaineering means to me walking, easy gully's and mixed ridges. I don't put a climbing grade to this ground.

Which tool?

If you head into any DIY store looking for a hammer to bang in some nails you will find there are hundreds of types of hammers from tiny tack hammers to sledge hammers, the important thing you need to know is how big the nails you want to bang in are so you know which hammer to buy. Ice axes are just the same and have a wide range of uses and different tools for different applications. As such you want to know what your going to do with it in order to get the right one. This article is taking a look at which axe is best for general Scottish winter mountaineering. General mountaineering means to me snow gullies, snowed up rocky ridges and a good deal of walking. It also means one axe rather than carrying two axes typically seen for winter climbing. Ive heard in some shops people quoted as saying ‘should be fine up until grade X’ this is rather misleading to be honest. I don't think largely its the axes that decide the grade you climb. I may struggle on a steep icy grade 2 with one axe where as Leo Holding would probably be fine on Point 5 with one axe so I think what ground people are comfortable on with regard to what tools they have is very personal. 

So we want an axe which is fine for winter walking and also slightly more technical ground such as ridges, gullies and steep snow slopes. 



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Nomic climbing axes (picture above left)

These are to aggressive for general mountaineering. They also have a fairly ineffective spike at the foot which doesn't tend to have an easy grip on the snow. Another notable difference would be if it was used to self arrest, the bite would be very aggressive with the potential for it to grab the snow very sharply possibly leading it to be snatched clean out the hands. 

Typical mountaineering ground (picture above right and right) 

Snowed up rock and frozen turf is a very common medium to be moving on. Icy bluffs and frozen windswept ground all come into a day in the winter mountains.

The main features to look for are a good spike at the foot of the axe, shaft, with a good pick and adze to the rear. There wants to be a good spike at the foot of the axe as this is probably going to be the point that is on the snow the most so a good sharp point is essential.

Shaft wants to be the right length (see below for sizing) with ideally a rubber grip. Some do and some don't, if you find your gloves iced up and the shaft of the axe covered in an icy layer then you may wish you had one. A straight or slightly curved shaft is fine. 

A good pick of which there are three distinct types. A walking pick which is flat, an alpine pick which has slight bend and a banana pick which is heavily drooped for climbing. The Alpine pick is the one which is best suited to general mountaineering.

Weight is important. There are plenty of axes out there which are super light. These are great for treks or ski tours where they won’t be used that much. For stomping around the highlands it wants to have a little weight for the sometimes punishing hits on hard snow, rock and turf. 

Size, the old adage of standing upright holding the axe by the head shaft down your leg it was that the spike should be at about the top of your boot. This is largely correct but there can be some variance in this. If you are planning on walking  more than anything technical then longer is better, perhaps standing the recommended way and the spike is almost on the floor. Largely a walking axe is a walking aid which is giving you some stability and balance while walking on snow so stooping over a shorter technical axe is going to put you in a less stable position. If your aiming towards walking and more technical ground then shorter is better as per the boot top length. 

The adze, this is the curved section behind the pick. Very useful for digging, cutting steps and stances. This will be a feature on all walking and mountaineering axes. Some are more effective than others. Climbing axes traditionally come with one adze and one hammer. It is possible if you thought that you might quite quickly be on steeper ground and gullies that some general mountaineering axes have a partner axe with a hammer. The Petzl Sumtec axes are a good option here. 




A new axe will come with a leash attached to it. Usually a simple strap attached to the head with a wrist loop. When I run a winter skills this come up as a question, should we use it? Its an interesting one which is taught generally as no as we make our way up and down slopes we want that axe to be in the uphill hand so having the axe ‘clean’ of the leash means its easy to do so. However don’t get rid of it. I had one very close call climbing in the Alps which had it not been for the fact I had a leash on there was a high chance two people would have died. Descending from the summit of the Argentiere we made it safely off the steeper slopes onto the Milieu glacier which still had some considerable steepness to it. We adjusted our rope for glacier travel (to early) and carried on down the slope slowly as it was still very steep, I was ahead and a rushing sound quickly caught my ear as I looked up my climbing partner was falling at some speed and flew past me. I quickly got into an arrest position but as soon as I had I was no sooner exploded into the air loosing my axe. I had the leash on, my climbing partner didn’t and we never saw his axe again. I managed to get back in my hands and wrestled into an arrest stopping us both. I had stopped my partner about five metres short of a huge black hole. We would certainly have disappeared for good had we not stopped. I had a black eye, badly bruised ribs and a bloody cough for a few hours. I remember this moment well and as a result teach that you should have your leash to hand. Mine is in the top pocket of my sack with a mini BD metal carabiner. If the ground is serious and steep, or if climbing and dropping it would be a major issue I can put it on.  

Axes to have a look at for Scottish winter mountaineering. I highly recommend the Black Diamond Raven I think this a great axe and a good weight. There is the Raven Pro which has a slight bend in the shaft. The Petzl Summit and the DMM Cirque are also great options. These are all in the image at the top!


We run and deliver Scottish Winter Skills and guided mountain journeys including Ben Nevis. To find out more click here. 


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