Evolution of ice axes length

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Evolution of ice axes length

by rdo » Mon Jun 04, 2012 3:17 pm


I'm currently looking into buying an ice axe and have some thoughts about lengths of ice axes. Since invention of the ice axe the length and methods how to determine appropriate length of ice axe have been constantly changing. In the past, it was very long and used mostly as a walking cane. Then manufactures started to produce shorter ice axes with suggestions that ice axe should be of the length to touch the ground with the arm alongside the body.
Subsequently, "next generation" of ice axe was of length few centimeters shorter then the gap between hand and ground, perfect-fit: no longer then ankle.

Now, some people are suggesting even shorter sizes. Many manufactures are also producing max 66-68cm ice axes. Of course it's still possible to buy sizes like 70,75cm but there are more ice axes models which are not produced in that size. Does it mean they are completely ignoring tall people (66cm will never fit into "ankle method") or the approach changed again into shorter ice axes? I'm not talking here about technical ice axes for very steep and vertical walls, rather general mountaineering: glacier, moderate slopes, etc.

So what is your opinion about it? What ice axe length do you have and how tall are you?
Probably based on the answers I will decide if I should go with 66cm ice axe or better look for something longer. I'm 190cm / 6'3 tall.


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Re: Evolution of ice axes length

by ExcitableBoy » Mon Jun 04, 2012 3:28 pm

Ice axes for general mountaineering purposes are not intended as walking aids, that is what trekking poles are for. Ice axes are used for security on steeper slopes, perhaps > 20 degrees up 50 degrees for advanced climbers. Generally speaking, steeper slopes than that require a second tool, usually a hammer or two technical 'ice tools'. If you have a long ice axe, it takes far more effort to lift it out of the snow and plunge as you ascend than a shorter axe while using it in piolet cane position. A long axe is also more unwieldy than a shorter axe in piolet traction position. I personally use a 58 cm ice axe for general mountaineering and I am 5' 9". For a tall fellow such as yourself you could go as long as 66 cm, but I wouldn't go much longer. For low angle glaciers I will often use a trekking pole and an axe in my dominant hand, ready to drop the trekking pole if I have to arrest a fall. Hope that helps.

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Re: Evolution of ice axes length

by Damien Gildea » Mon Jun 04, 2012 4:36 pm

I'm 6'7" and have a variety of axes, in addition to technical ice tools. The axe I use most nowadays is a 66cm Grivel Airtech Evolution, with a slight bend in the upper shaft. Mine is the original style (2005?), yellow with no rubber grip at the bottom.

It's maybe just a bit short, but I have other longer axes too. If all the terrain is going to be really easy angled glacier / snow terrain then at my height a longer axe might be OK, which is what they used to recommend for my height, probably up around 75-80cm. But the problem is when the angle increases and you are plunging the axe into the slope beside you, such a long axe becomes unwieldy and you have to lift your arm up higher each time to plunge it in and draw it out. Most worthwhile routes will have some such terrain (or steeper).

A longer axe is generally a bit unwieldy and more work on your wrist - I do have a 90cm axe and it's just ridiculous, I never use it. On the other hand I have an older Grivel AirTech Racing that is only about 60cm and it's clearly too short for me for general climbing. I have to bend over too far to use it, which affects my balance and makes for hard work. For many years I used a (UK) Mountain Technology axe of about 70cm and that was very good, but I find the shaft curve and more aggressive pick on the Grivel Evo means I can use it better on slightly steeper ground, maybe in conjunction with a second tool.

I climbed the bottom half of this route below (south face of Mt Epperly) with just a 75cm Petzl Snowalker axe, before using a second tool higher up.


But since then I've used the Grivel Evo. Last year I used it and a Petzl Aztarex hammer on the headwall on Ausangate, which is around 600ft of 50 degree alpine ice.


People might look at such routes and think you need two technical tools, but the variety of terrain on a big mountain means such tools are not the best option, much of the time.

A trekking pole(s) can often replace a long axe on very easy angled terrain, but you need to be careful and good on your feet, as if the terrain kicks up a bit and gets icy you've got no purchase for your hands. This is how accidents happen on some big mountains where most of the terrain is easy, but there's one short steeper icy bit that sees falls. The classic location is on the traverse above 17K camp on Denali, up to Denali Pass. Happens on Cho Oyu too. In such cases just one long-enough axe would have been safer.

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Re: Evolution of ice axes length

by mountainsandsound » Mon Jun 04, 2012 7:57 pm

I like them a bit longer than some folks do. I'm 6'2 and use a 73 cm grivel. It reaches to my ankle. I had a shorter one before, but on moderate slopes it was a pain to reach down and plunge it in the snow while in cane position. Sure, I could have used trekking poles, but they don't do self arrest and I just prefer the security of working with an axe rather than a pole. Some people might say to get better at balance and have a shorter axe dangling by your side. To each their own, I'm just not into that setup as much.

For the gentle and moderate slopes (less than 45 degrees or so) I usually tackle, I have liked a longer axe. Even on some of the steeper slopes where I used it in low dagger position the longer length was not really a hindrance, but a shorter one would have been better if the whole route was as steep. The longer axe is a pain in the butt poking out and snagging on brush during approach hikes sometimes, but that's about it in my experience.

Get one at REI or somewhere else you can return it so you can experiment a bit. You could read forums all day but the only way to settle it for yourself is to get out and try different lengths on the slopes you will be traveling on. I think ice axe length is really one of those "whatever works best for you" type of things in climbing.

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Re: Evolution of ice axes length

by spiritualspatula » Wed Jun 06, 2012 3:16 am

I'm not really going to vary much from what others have said already, but my typical climbs max out at maybe 65 degree snow/light ice & a tiny bit of mixed.
I'm 6'1-6'2 with my boots on and my first axe was a 65cm BD Raven Pro. That length worked great for general lower angle stuff and is awesome for spring/fall patches of somewhat mushy snow to stabilize myself /self belay, but gets unwieldy for plunging once it gets around 50 degrees. It also sucks for driving the head if things start to change from snow into borderline ice because it is very light and relatively long.
So, then I got a 50cm Venom Adze (w/ technical pick), which works great on steeper stuff, is very solid and drives excellently. The curve in the shaft and the tech pick work great for swinging and also release nicely. The short length sucks for descending steep terrain though.

I prefer the Venom for 'climbs' and the Raven for 'slogs' or if I'm descending a lot. I'll bring both if I need to, since I could use the Raven as a backup (though it's a lesser substitute, it's better than nothing) should I suffer a dropped axe. When I do bring both, it isn't unusual for me to prefer one or the other for different conditions on the same climb.

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Re: Evolution of ice axes length

by drpw » Wed Jun 06, 2012 8:05 am

keep in mind, shorter means lighter.

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