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How to Choose an Ice Tool

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Straight Shaft

Straight shafts are for mountaineering, where you’ll want an axe that can plunge vertically into snow, be used for self belay or to construct a snow anchor. Climbing steep ice with straight-shaft tools is, of course, possible, but has become somewhat obsolete due to so many well-designed bent-shaft tools. Some straight shafts are outfitted with rubber handles, which dampen vibrations and are easier and warmer to grip than metal. Rubber handles do not plunge quite as well as their metal counterparts. And with repeated plunging over time, the rubber will often wear. With straight-shaft axes and tools, get one with a good metal spike to plunge through hard, crusty snow and ice.

Bent Shaft

Whereas a good stick with a straight shaft requires an exaggerated wrist snap, a bent-shaft tool swings much more naturally. Bent shafts are much easier to place into steep ice because their shape naturally creates a secure, slightly downward blow into the ice. Some shafts are bent near the bottom to protect your hand better, while some are bent near the head to allow for better clearance. Some shafts are curved continuously; this is the most versatile design, taking the best of both the straight- and bent-shaft worlds.

Usually, the steeper the climb, the more bend you want in the shaft. Tools meant for radically overhanging dry tooling such as you can encounter in a cave, are bent nearly in a “C” shape, so your hand position is nearly aligned with the tip of the pick.

Leashless

Going leashless is both trendy and old-fashioned. Climbers once climbed without tethers between hand and tool simply because they hadn’t thought of them yet. When climbers began using leashes, some purists such as Henry Barber eschewed them for style points. Now, like Chuck Norris, leashless climbing has not only made a comeback, it’s here to stay due to vast improvements in ergonomics and tool design. Today’s leashless tools have offset, square-cut, easy-to-hold rubber grips, with a second grip mid-shaft for matching hands.

Simply put, the new leashless tools have reinvented previous techniques and methods once labeled “textbook.” They make both mixed and technical ice climbing significantly easier. Whereas mixed climbers once had to contrive sequences and rely on sketchy pick matches, they can now match hands on a tool to pull through tricky crosses, etc. On ice, you can shake out and re-warm your hands and place gear much quicker without fumbling with leashes. Leashless tools have several problems, however. They are very specific to steep climbing and have no place self-arresting on snow slopes. Also, the leashless revolution has added another objective hazard for belayers—it’s easy to drop tools on a route or during a fall. It can be pumpier to hang onto leashless tools, but not significantly, since it’s so easy to shake out.

Clip-on Leash

These leashes cinch your hand into a padded piece of webbing attached mid-shaft by some metal clip. The idea is that leashes add security on ice, and their only drawback is that detaching oneself from a tool, like slab climbing, is time-consuming and requires patience. With clips, your wrist remains snugly attached to the leash, and a simple hand motion unclips yourself to place an ice screw or whatever

The drawbacks are that, in this position, it is awkward to hold the tool as you would to plunge it into snow. Other mountaineering tasks are likewise fumbly while attached to the clip-in point. Clip-on leashes can require a lot of precision to get the hook clipped to the tool—sometimes difficult when you are pumped stupid. Ultimately, however, for steep ice, these leashes are a vast improvement over traditional ones and they do prevent you from the disaster of dropping a tool.

Traditional Leash

This set-up, where a strand of webbing attaches to the head of an axe or tool and, at the other end, attaches to your wrist via a simple loop, is ideal for general mountaineering. However, the vanguard has made this design, with a few exceptions, less appealing for steep, technical ice. Some traditional leashes required you to use your mouth to release your hand from the system. The most popular design right now, however, is a leash that is essentially a sexed-up slipknot, where you pull your hand up and away from the tool at an angle, which releases the tension of the wrist loop. This design is the best old-fashioned leash, but has one disadvantage: Undoing the leash torques the tool at an oblique angle, which could yank it from its placement. The cheapest and best leashes for mountaineering are made from a one-inch piece of webbing—these leashes simply exist to provide some security on the steeps, and to keep you from losing your axe on the slopes.

Picks

Picks have evolved from straight and toothless to reverse-curved designs, replete with teeth that “crimp” rock edges. Most tools come with modular picks, meaning you can replace it if it breaks, a plus for mixed climbing, which can wear through a set of picks in a matter of weeks. The classic pick has a slight downward droop for self-arrest, and is most appropriate for mountaineering. The reverse-curved pick is the most popular, and useful, pick shape and the only one you will likely use for vertical ice and mixed conditions. The shape eases placements because it follows the natural trajectory of a swinging arm. The most specialized pick design is thick for durability and has teeth angled to hook onto rock edges. These are mostly meant for dry tooling, with only occasional ice placements. Generally, the thinner the pick, the better it is for ice, as the pick’s thinness lets it penetrate brittle ice with less fracturing.