Learn How to Use an Ice Axe

Master these skills to make your axe a tool—not a toy.

Rainier. Shasta. Olympus. To climb these tall peaks, tackle the Catskills in winter, or nab a high, early-season hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, you'll need to add an ice axe to your gear arsenal. This wicked-looking tool can carve steps, anchor you on steep slopes, or, if gravity takes over, arrest your fall. Here's how to buy, store, and use one.

In the Store

Focus on the fit and feel of the tool in your hand.

Check length While wearing mountain boots, rest your arm against your side and measure from the tips of your fingers to the floor. The ice axe should fill that gap.

Grip the head This bridge connects the pick and the adze (the hoelike chisel). You'll hold it more often than you hold the shaft, so make sure it fits securely in your hand.

Tweak the leash Wear winter gloves when trying out axes so you can size the wrist loops.

At Home

Keep it clean and its points concealed.

Maintain it Ward off rust by wiping off the head after use and applying a thin film of WD40.

Protect the point Cover the spike to prevent punctures; use the axe guard, or an old sock and rubber band.

Attach it to your pack First, slide the shaft down through the axe loops (with the pick pointed inward toward the pack's center). Then flip and twist it 180 degrees so the pick is facing the opposite direction. Secure the shaft with straps.

In the Field

Master these skills to make your axe a lifesaving tool.

Self-arrest grip Hold the axe head with your uphill hand, adze forward. Place your thumb under the adze, and your palm and fingers around the pick. If you start slipping, grab the lower shaft with your free hand, raise the axe with the adze just above your shoulder, then plunge the pick into the snow by throwing your weight over it.

Step-cutting With your side to the slope, and grasp the axe with your uphill hand. Use the adze to skim away the snow to make a level platform large enough for a boot or a weary backside. With practice, you'll be able to work the swings into your natural gait: swing, step up; swing, step up.

Crevasse sweep To check for chasms, poke the snow in a 180-degree arc in front of you. Sagging snow is a clear indication of danger, as are differently shaded pockets and seams. Scan with your eyes before you check with your axe.

Snow anchor Sink the axe into the snow up to its head, and tailor the shaft's angle to the steepness of the slope. On a shallow incline, angle the axe a few degrees away from the direction of the pull. On a steep slope, the shaft should lean back to within 45 degrees of the snow.