[pct-l] pct-l Digest, Vol 35, Issue 22

Matt Geis mgeis at yahoo.com
Thu Sep 21 12:52:00 CDT 2006

Given that an ice axe is a safety device, think about how it's used.  You would carry it generally when on an incline, on the uphill side.  This means it should be of a length that you can hold it comfortably and in a manner that will allow you to quickly get into a proper self arrest position should you slip and/or fall.

The most common mistake I see, sometimes on the mountains but more frequently among hikers who lack experience with an axe is that they treat it like a walking stick.  That's to say they get one that goes darn near the ground.  However, once they're on an incline, the head of the axe is so high that their upper arm has to be almost perpendicular to the body just to hold it.  The axe should be able to be held low enough that you can put weight on it, to allow yourself two points of contact at all times (two feet, or one foot and the axe).

[on a side note, in 2002, The Greatest Hiker in the World -- not his real trail name, but a moniker thoughtfully bestowed on him by Yogi in order to protect his real identity -- decided to go the *opposite* way, and shorten the axe, in order to save weight.  His 'ice hammer' was light, but did absolutely nothing to prevent what I heard was a pretty rough fall in which he got banged up quite a bit.  The axe is far more effective, once you get the pick into the ice, when you can pull up on the shaft (it creates a lever that drives the pick further in, giving you more braking power).  Additionally, in a real fall, once you are in the proper arrest position, you'll want to hold the axe to your body and bear down on it with all your weight, with your knees on the ground -- the best you could manage with such a hammer would be to grip it in your hands and hang on for dear life]

As a guideline, I'm 5'11", and I *prefer* a 65cm axe.  That's my preference, and a longer or shorter axe might work better for a different person of the same height.

If you scroll back through the archives of this list, you'll find many posts and many opinions, and more than a few flame wars.

The best advice I could give is: go learn how to use an axe before you buy one (rent one and take a basic mountain safety course).  Try several different lengths, then purchase one of the length that offers you the best safety.

>>How do you pick the correct ice ax? Style? Size? 
>>  For a PCT thru-hike starting in late April at the Mexico boarder.

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