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Essential Techniques: Using An Ice Axe In Mountaineering


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Adrian Greenlee



Mountaineering is a thrilling and challenging adventure activity that allows people to explore the majestic beauty of mountainous regions. It requires physical strength, mental endurance, and proper knowledge of various techniques. One of the essential pieces of equipment in mountaineering is the ice axe.


An ice axe is a versatile tool that serves multiple purposes during a climb. It provides stability, balance, and security while navigating through icy and challenging terrain. Understanding how to use an ice axe effectively is vital for the safety and success of any mountaineering expedition.


In this article, we will delve into the essential techniques of using an ice axe in mountaineering. We will discuss safety considerations, choosing the right ice axe, proper grip and handling, basic techniques for climbing steep slopes and descending, utilizing the ice axe as an anchor, and the essential self-arrest technique.


Whether you are a beginner or an experienced mountaineer, mastering these techniques will enhance your confidence, improve your control over the ice axe, and ultimately make your mountaineering experience safer and more enjoyable.


Safety Considerations

When venturing into the world of mountaineering, safety should always be the topmost priority. Here are some crucial safety considerations to keep in mind when using an ice axe:

  1. Proper Training: Before attempting any mountaineering activities, it is essential to undergo proper training to learn the techniques and safety measures. Joining a reputable mountaineering course or hiring a certified guide can provide invaluable knowledge and hands-on experience.
  2. Equipment Inspection: Regularly inspect your ice axe for any cracks, chips, or other signs of damage. Ensure that the grip is secure and the pick is sharp. Faulty or worn-out equipment can compromise your safety during a climb.
  3. Route Evaluation: Before starting a climb, thoroughly evaluate the route you intend to take. Check weather conditions, avalanche risk, and the stability of the terrain. Avoid areas with an increased chance of rockfall or ice collapse.
  4. Communication: Establish clear communication with your climbing partners. Use hand signals or predetermined verbal commands to ensure efficient and effective coordination. Maintain constant communication to keep each other updated on any potential hazards or difficulties.
  5. Proper Use of Safety Gear: In addition to an ice axe, ensure you have other necessary safety equipment like crampons, helmets, harnesses, and ropes. Learn how to use them correctly and familiarize yourself with their functionalities.
  6. Buddy System: Always climb with a partner, especially in hazardous or challenging terrain. The buddy system provides an extra level of safety, as you can assist each other during an emergency or difficult situation.
  7. Awareness of Surroundings: Constantly assess your surroundings and be aware of any potential hazards. Pay attention to changes in ice or snow conditions, as well as fellow climbers on the same route.
  8. Self-Evaluation: Be honest with yourself about your capabilities and limitations. Do not push beyond your skill level or ignore signs of fatigue or altitude sickness. Stay hydrated, well-rested, and listen to your body.
  9. Emergency Preparedness: Carry a first aid kit and know how to administer basic medical aid. Familiarize yourself with the procedures for self-rescue and be prepared to call for emergency assistance if necessary.

By following these safety considerations, you can significantly reduce the risks associated with mountaineering and ensure a safe and enjoyable experience while using an ice axe.


Choosing the Right Ice Axe

Selecting the right ice axe is crucial to ensure optimal performance and safety during your mountaineering adventures. Here are some factors to consider when choosing an ice axe:

  1. Type of Climbing: Determine the type of climbing you will be doing. For general mountaineering, a basic mountaineering ice axe with a straight shaft and a slightly curved pick is suitable. For technical ice climbing, consider a more specialized ice axe with a curved shaft and a more aggressive pick.
  2. Length: The length of the ice axe depends on your height, climbing style, and the terrain you will be navigating. As a general rule, the ice axe should reach to your ankle or just above it when held with your arm extended downward along your side.
  3. Weight: Consider the weight of the ice axe. Lighter ice axes are advantageous for long approaches and alpine climbs, while heavier ice axes offer more stability and durability.
  4. Shaft Material: Ice axe shafts are usually made of aluminum or steel. Aluminum shafts are lighter but less durable, while steel shafts are heavier but more robust. Choose the material that best suits your climbing style and preferences.
  5. Pick Design: The pick is the curved metal point at the head of the ice axe. Look for a pick that is sharp, durable, and suitable for the type of climbing you will be doing. Modular picks are preferred as they allow for easy replacement.
  6. Grip: Consider the grip design and material. Look for a comfortable grip that provides a secure hold, even in wet or gloved conditions. Rubberized or molded grips often provide better traction and insulation.
  7. Leash or Leashless: Decide whether you prefer a leash or a leashless ice axe. Leashes are attached to your wrist, preventing the ice axe from being dropped. Leashless ice axes offer more freedom of movement but require additional skill and control.
  8. Price: Set a budget for your ice axe purchase. While it is essential to invest in a high-quality ice axe, there are options available to fit different budget ranges.

Ultimately, choosing the right ice axe is a personal decision based on your climbing goals, preferences, and budget. It is recommended to try out different ice axes before making a purchase to find the one that feels most comfortable and suits your specific climbing needs.


Proper Grip and Handling

Having a proper grip and handling technique is essential for effectively using an ice axe in mountaineering. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Basic Grip: When holding the ice axe, position your hand through the head of the axe and wrap your fingers around the shaft. Place your thumb on top of the shaft for added control. This grip allows for a secure hold and easy manipulation of the ice axe.
  2. Hammer Hand Position: The “hammer” hand position is commonly used when traversing or walking on flat terrain. Position your hand on the head of the ice axe, with your thumb in front of the pick and your fingers wrapped around the shaft. This grip provides stability and support.
  3. Pick Hand Position: The “pick” hand position is used when ascending or descending steep slopes. Grip the shaft of the ice axe with your hand underneath the head, firmly grasping the shaft above the pick. This position allows for better control and precision.
  4. Switching Hands: Practice switching your grip from the hammer position to the pick position and vice versa. This skill is essential for adapting to different terrain and maintaining a consistent grip on the ice axe.
  5. Wrist Rotation: Rotate your wrist to adjust the angle of the pick. This allows you to maintain maximum penetration in the snow or ice and provides better control when self-arresting or performing technical maneuvers.
  6. Balance and Stance: Maintain a balanced stance while holding the ice axe. Distribute your weight evenly between your feet and adjust your body position based on the slope and terrain. A stable stance provides better control and reduces the risk of sliding or falling.
  7. Practice: Regularly practice different grip positions and handling techniques to improve your skills and familiarity with the ice axe. Practicing in controlled environments, such as a climbing gym or on a gentle slope, allows you to refine your technique before venturing into more challenging terrain.

Remember to always maintain a firm grip on the ice axe, keeping your movements controlled and deliberate. Regular practice and honing your grip and handling technique will increase your confidence and efficiency when using an ice axe during mountaineering activities.


Basic Ice Axe Techniques

Mastering the basic ice axe techniques is fundamental for safe and efficient travel in alpine environments. Here are some essential techniques to learn:

  1. Piolet Cane Technique: This technique is used for general walking and balance on moderate terrain. Hold the ice axe with the pick facing backward, placing the spike of the axe in the snow or ice ahead of you. Push down on the spike for stability as you move forward.
  2. Self-Belay Technique: During a traverse or while ascending an angled slope, make use of the self-belay technique. Plant the shaft of the ice axe into the snow or ice and lean inward, allowing the pick to provide a self-arrest if you slip. This technique adds an extra level of security and can prevent a fall.
  3. Step Cutting: When ascending a steep slope, use the step-cutting technique to create footholds. Dig the pick of the ice axe into the snow, creating a platform for your foot. Repeat the process as you move upward, ensuring stable footing with each step.
  4. Traverse Technique: The traverse technique is useful when moving horizontally across a slope. Plant the ice axe firmly into the snow or ice on the uphill side, with the pick facing uphill. Use the axe as a support and move your feet sideways along the slope before repeating the process.
  5. Kicking Steps: When climbing a steep slope without stable footholds, kick steps into the snow or ice using the front of your crampons. As you ascend, kick the toes of your boots into the steps to gain traction. The ice axe can be used for added stability and balance.
  6. Glider Technique: In icy conditions, the glider technique can be effective. Plant the pick of the ice axe into the ice, using your body weight to “glide” yourself forward. This technique requires skill and practice to maintain control and balance.
  7. Downhill Technique: When descending a steep slope, face downhill and hold the ice axe with the pick facing uphill. Plant the ice axe into the snow or ice to control your speed and provide stability. Make sure to maintain a balanced position and avoid leaning too far forward or backward.
  8. Resting Technique: Take breaks during your climb by using the ice axe as a support. Plant the spike of the axe into the snow or ice and lean on it to relieve fatigue and redistribute weight. This technique helps conserve energy during long climbs.

Mastering these basic ice axe techniques will significantly enhance your ability to navigate various terrains and ensure a safer and more enjoyable mountaineering experience.


Self-Arrest Technique

The self-arrest technique is a critical skill that every mountaineer should learn. It is used to stop a fall and prevent sliding down a slope. Here’s a step-by-step guide to performing a self-arrest:

  1. React Quickly: As soon as you begin to slip or lose control on a slope, react immediately by getting into the self-arrest position. This technique is most effective when initiated early in the fall.
  2. Flip Onto Your Stomach: Roll onto your stomach and twist your body to face downhill. Orient yourself to gain control and prepare for the arrest.
  3. Plant the Pick: Firmly grip the ice axe, placing your hands over the head of the axe with the pick facing up. Lean forward and forcefully plant the pick deep into the snow or ice, aiming for maximum penetration.
  4. Weight Distribution: Shift your weight onto the ice axe by pushing down on the shaft. This anchors the pick into the snow or ice and creates friction, slowing down your slide.
  5. Position and Control: Extend your legs downhill and keep them slightly apart to create stability and control. Keep your body low and close to the surface to reduce the risk of injury from obstacles.
  6. Slowly Stop: Gradually increase the pressure on the ice axe to slow down your slide. Avoid abrupt movements that may cause loss of control. Once you come to a stop, maintain the self-arrest position until you are confident that you can safely stand up without sliding further.
  7. Practicing: Regularly practice the self-arrest technique in controlled environments or with a professional guide. Simulate falls on gentle slopes to reinforce muscle memory and build confidence in executing the technique correctly.

Remember, learning the self-arrest technique is valuable, but prevention is always the best approach. Avoid situations that could lead to a fall, such as unstable terrain or icy slopes, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. However, should a fall occur, being proficient in the self-arrest technique can be a lifesaver.


Techniques for Climbing Steep Slopes

Climbing steep slopes in mountaineering requires proper technique and skill. Here are some essential techniques to help you navigate challenging terrain:

  1. Front-Pointing: Front-pointing involves kicking the front points of your crampons directly into the slope. This technique provides excellent traction on steep ice or hard-packed snow. Space your feet hip-width apart and use the ice axe for balance and stability as you climb.
  2. French Technique: The French technique is useful on moderate slopes. Plant the head of the ice axe into the snow or ice with your hand near the head, and hold the shaft diagonally across your body. Use it as a support and push down on it with each step to maintain balance and prevent slipping.
  3. German Technique: The German technique is suitable for less steep slopes. Hold the shaft of the ice axe near the head, across your chest or over your shoulder. Swing the pick of the ice axe into the snow or ice for additional support and use it to pull yourself upward as you climb.
  4. Switchbacks: When faced with a zigzagging or traversing path on a steep slope, create switchbacks. Ascend diagonally across the slope and then cut back in the opposite direction, gradually gaining elevation as you make your way up. This technique helps maintain stability and allows for a more controlled climb.
  5. Rest Step: Conserve energy by utilizing the rest step technique. With each step, pause briefly and lock your uphill leg straight, transferring your weight onto that leg while relaxing your downhill leg. This method minimizes muscle fatigue and allows for efficient climbing on long and arduous ascents.
  6. Avoidance of Overhangs: Steep slopes sometimes have overhanging sections, which can pose a significant risk. Stay vigilant and avoid these overhangs, as they can collapse or release avalanches. Assess the stability of the slope and choose a safer line of ascent.
  7. Use of Ice Screw or Snow Anchor: In extremely steep ice or hard-packed snow, consider using an ice screw or a snow anchor to provide additional protection. These tools can be placed into the slope and attached to a rope for added security when climbing challenging sections.
  8. Continuous Assessment: Continuously assess the slope, snow conditions, and weather. Look for signs of instability, such as recent avalanches or loose snow. Make adjustments to your climbing technique or route based on the current conditions.

Mastery of these techniques, combined with experience and judgment, will enable you to climb steep slopes with confidence and efficiency. Always remember to prioritize safety and choose routes that are appropriate for your skill level.


Techniques for Descending

Descending steep slopes in mountaineering requires careful technique and control. Here are some essential techniques to help you safely navigate the descent:

  1. Face Forward: While descending, face forward and keep your body weight centered over your feet. This position allows for better balance and control.
  2. Heel-Plunge Technique: In this technique, dig the heel of your boot into the slope, using the heel as a brake to slow down your descent. You can also use your ice axe as an additional brake by planting the pick into the slope.
  3. Glide Technique: The glide technique is useful on soft snow or gentle slopes. Shift your weight back slightly and allow yourself to slide downhill using the texture of the snow to control your speed. Use your ice axe or trekking poles for balance and stability.
  4. Side-Stepping: Side-stepping is effective when descending traversing slopes. Face the slope diagonally and take small steps sideways, keeping your body facing uphill. This technique provides stability and control as you make your way down.
  5. Plunge-Step Technique: For very steep descents, the plunge-step technique is ideal. Facing directly downhill, take a large step forward, driving the front points of your crampons or the edge of your boot deeply into the slope. This technique allows for controlled, controlled descent on steep terrain.
  6. Use of Short Ropes: In technical descents or on challenging terrain, employing short ropes connected to your team members can provide an added sense of security. This ensures that everyone stays connected and can support each other during the descent.
  7. Continuous Evaluation: Continuously assess the conditions of the slope as you descend. Look out for signs of potential hazards, such as loose rocks, cornices, or unstable snow. Adjust your route or technique accordingly to minimize risks.
  8. Go at Your Own Pace: Descending steep slopes can be physically and mentally demanding. Take breaks as needed and descend at a comfortable pace. Rushing can lead to errors or loss of control.
  9. Keep Your Focus: Maintain focus and concentration while descending. Pay attention to your foot placements and be aware of changes in slope angle or conditions. Avoid distractions that can compromise your balance and safety.

Remember that descending can be just as challenging as ascending in mountaineering. Practice these techniques in various terrain and conditions to build confidence and proficiency. Always prioritize safety and make informed decisions based on the current conditions and your skill level.


Using the Ice Axe as an Anchor

The ice axe is not only a tool for climbing and self-arrest, but it can also be used as an anchor in mountaineering. Here are various techniques for using the ice axe as an anchor:

  1. Belaying: In a belaying situation, you can use the ice axe as an anchor by burying the pick in the snow or ice and attaching a rope to the shaft. This creates a secure point to protect your partner during a climb or to create a fixed line for a rappel.
  2. Deadman Anchor: In soft snow or loose terrain, a deadman anchor can be constructed using the ice axe. Bury the axe perpendicular to the slope, leaving the head exposed, and create a strong attachment point by securing the rope around the axe head. This type of anchor can provide reliable support in certain conditions.
  3. Snow Fluke: A snow fluke is similar to a deadman anchor but is specifically designed for use in snow. Insert the ice axe into the snow at a slight angle to create an anchor point. The shape and placement of the axe help to create resistance and prevent it from being pulled out easily.
  4. Ice Screw Backup: When using an ice screw as the primary anchor, the ice axe can serve as a backup or secondary anchor. Place the axe in a secure position nearby, in case the ice screw fails. This provides an additional point of support and safety during climbs or belaying.
  5. Protecting a Crevasse Fall: If you are travelling on a glacier and someone falls into a crevasse, you can anchor the ice axe into the snow or ice at the edge of the crevasse. Use it as a secure point of attachment to prevent the faller from sliding deeper into the crevasse while a rescue is initiated.
  6. Building Snow Anchors: In situations where you need to construct a snow anchor, the ice axe can be used as a digging tool and a handle for packing snow around other anchor points. This can be useful for creating solid anchors in soft snow or when constructing a snow shelter.
  7. Using the Shaft for Protection: In icy or rocky sections, you can hold the ice axe by its shaft and place it between your body and any potential hazards. This provides an additional layer of protection against falling rocks or ice.

It is important to note that using the ice axe as an anchor requires proper knowledge and understanding of anchor building techniques. Seek guidance from experienced climbers or take a mountaineering course to learn these skills and ensure your safety.



Using an ice axe effectively is essential for a successful and safe mountaineering experience. The techniques and skills discussed in this article provide a foundation for navigating various terrains and ensuring your safety on the mountain.


Starting with safety considerations, including equipment inspection, route evaluation, and proper training, is crucial to minimizing risks in mountaineering. Choosing the right ice axe based on the type of climbing, length, weight, and grip is vital for optimal performance and comfort.


Understanding proper grip and handling techniques, such as the hammer and pick positions, allows for a secure hold and better control on the ice axe. Mastering basic ice axe techniques, like the piolet cane technique and self-belay, enables you to traverse slopes and climb steep terrains with confidence.


Learning the self-arrest technique is a critical skill for preventing falls and stopping slides on icy or slippery slopes. Employing techniques for climbing steep slopes, like front-pointing and rest stepping, ensures stability and efficient progress.


When descending, techniques such as the heel-plunge and glide are used to maintain control and reduce the risk of slipping or sliding. Additionally, the ice axe can be utilized as an anchor in different scenarios, providing security for belaying, constructing snow anchors, or protecting against crevasse falls.


Remember, proper training, practice, and continuous assessment of the conditions are essential for the successful application of these techniques. Mountaineering always carries inherent risks, and it is crucial to prioritize safety and make informed decisions based on your abilities and the current environment.


By implementing these techniques and incorporating them into your mountaineering repertoire, you are equipping yourself with the skills necessary to tackle a wide range of mountainous terrain and enjoy the exhilaration and beauty of the adventure safely. So, grab your ice axe, put your knowledge into action, and embark on an unforgettable mountaineering journey!