by G. Jeff Golden
CMC Marketing Manager
As cool and shiny as a brand-new ice ax looks strapped to the back of your hiking pack, occasionally you’ll have to take it off and actually put it to work. Like any tool, it’s only an asset if you know how to use it. There are many techniques and methods for employing an ice ax to aid progress in the mountains, but let’s start at the beginning: the two basic grips.
The most obvious benefit of this grip is that the ax is already in the correct position to self-arrest in case of a dangerous slip. Every millisecond matters in a real-world self-arrest scenario, as you’re fighting desperately against gaining too much downward momentum. Having your hands already in place saves crucial time. It also minimizes the chance of dropping and losing your ax trying to shift your grasp.
The self-arrest grip is achieved by grabbing the top of the ice ax with the adze facing forward and the pick pointing behind you. Wrap your pinky, ring and middle fingers around base of the pick, between the pick and the shaft. The teeth on the bottom of many mountaineering ice axes stop a few inches short of the shaft to accommodate this finger position. Point your index finger straight down the shaft and place your thumb on the adze side of the shaft. Your palm should be resting on the thin upper part of the pick.
In a self-arrest scenario, all one has to do while using this grip is center the ice ax on the chest, grab the lower part of the shaft with their off hand and roll over. The grip doesn’t need to change at all. The biggest downside of the self-arrest grip is that it can become uncomfortable. Repeating plunging while resting weight on the narrow pick often leads to a sore palm. One way to combat this is to wrap the head of the ax with foam and duct tape, which also adds insulation against the cold metal.
The self-belay grip is the same as self-arrest, just in reverse. Simply rotate the ax 180 degrees. The palm is now resting on the broad, flat adze instead of the pick. The biggest advantage to the self-belay grip is comfort, and it’s often used on terrain where the consequences of a fall are lessened.
In case of a slip on soft snow, a self-belay – pushing down on the ice ax and plunging it into the snow to the hilt – is the first line of defense. A self-arrest only becomes necessary if a self-belay fails and the climber is sliding unchecked down a snow slope. Therefore, in many situations, climbers on lower-angle slopes will prefer the diminished impact and natural comfort afforded by the self-belay grip. In hard snow conditions where a self-belay would be unlikely or impossible, the self-arrest grip is recommended.
Newer climbers should gravitate toward and practice with the self-arrest grip. A self-belay, of course, is still possible from this position. It’s simply less comfortable. With a self-arrest needing to be reflexive in a real-world scenario, minimizing the required steps is a good idea. That’s doubly true for beginners. The self-belay, however, is a great option for experienced climbers on easier terrain in the right snow conditions.
Want to learn more about snow climbing? The Colorado Mountain Club offers several courses across the state that teach these skills, including Basic Mountaineering School, Wilderness Trekking School and Basic Snow Climbing.