How to Use an Ice Ax

How to Use an Ice AxIce axes are a tool that are centuries old and although their designs have changed, their main purpose has not. Ice axes, also called a piolet in French, are an aid for mountaineers in snow, ice and glacier travel. Among the uses of ice axes are as a trekking tool to aid in walking, for stopping a fall (self-arresting) and for clearing areas of ice. Using an ice ax is not hard, but one should always practice using one before embarking on their first icy expedition.


Difficulty: Moderate

How to Use an Ax

Things You’ll Need:
  • Ice ax
Step 1
Hold your ice ax by the head when using it as a walking aid. This is the default hold for when you are trekking before the snow line as well as on a roped glacier team. In this way you can use the ax to help ascend or descend slopes by using it like a hiking staff for balance and the spike on the end of the shaft for traction. When walking with the ax but not using it as a walking aid, carry it by holding the shaft (horizontally) with the pick facing down and the bottom spike pointing the way you are walking.
Step 2
Carry your ice ax carefully at all times no matter what you are using it for. Its sharp pick and adze can be harmful to yourself or others. Mostly, be aware of where its sharp points are in relation to your clothing so they don't catch and rip.
Step 3
Stow it safely on the back of your pack when you don't need it. Some packs are equipped with ax loops but if yours is not you can slip it between your pack and your back. In this way the pick and adze will not fall through because the pick and adze will rest over the packs arm straps.
Step 4
Hold your ice ax for a self-arrest by grabbing the head of the ax with your thumb under the adze and your palm over the top of the pick. The pick should be facing forward, ready to dig into the snow or ice on the slope you are falling down.
Step 5
Hold your ice ax for a self-belay by grabbing the head of the ax with your palm resting on top of the adze, your middle, ring and pinky fingers below the adze and your thumb and forefinger under the pick. The pick should be facing forward. As 'Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills' 7th edition, points out, some people choose to hold their ax in the self-arrest position all the time if they uncomfortable switching between the two smoothly.
Step 6
Stop a fall by digging the pick of the ax into the slope. No matter if you are falling head first or head uphill or on your back or stomach, you must begin digging that pick into the terrain as quickly as possible and roll or rotate so that you get into a stopping position. You should end up with your stomach facing the slope, head up, ax pick dug into the snow or ice right below your shoulder area (one hand on the head and one at the bottom of the shaft) and your feet a shoulder length apart and dug into the snow. Do not try to dig the spike on the bottom of the shaft into the snow to stop yourself as the ax may be wrenched from your hands.

Article Written By Naomi Judd

Naomi M. Judd is a naturalist, artist and writer. Her work has been published in various literary journals, newspapers and websites. Judd holds a self-designed Bachelor of Arts in adventure writing from Plymouth State University and is earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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