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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Friday, February 7, 2014

Two basic axes..two cultures

A tale of two ice axes
by Bruno Schull

This is a tale of two ice axes.  Or two cultures, or two climbing styles, or two ways of dealing with danger in the mountains.  Can we draw cultural conclusions from ice axes?  Many aspects of climbing vary in generally recognizable ways from place to place, for example, rating systems, environmental ethics, techniques and so on.  Why not ice axes? 

The two axes I would like to discuss are the Raven, produced by Black Diamond, based in the Rocky Mountains, and the Bluebird, produced by Blue Ice, located at the foot of Mont Blanc.  The two axes appear similar.  They both have straight aluminum shafts, simple spikes, and forged steel heads with classic picks.  Nonetheless, they are very different.

There are differences in form.  The Raven is refined object, each detail perfectly finished, from the twin lines that trace backward from the cut-out in the adze, to the seamless transitions between steel and aluminum.  The Bluebird is a rough tool.  The head bears remnants from the forging process, and you can see exactly how they ground and shaped the metal.  

There are differences in function.  The Raven is a general mountaineering axe.  The weight is balanced between the head and the shaft, and the pick is not aggressive.  It would be perfect for climbing 14,000 foot peaks, ascending volcanoes, and exploring the kind of rugged wilderness found throughout the American West.  The Bluebird is more specialized.  The head is substantial, and the pick is designed for hard ice.  It would perform well on steep couloirs, easy mixed ground and complicated ridges in the French Alps.

In this sense, each axe does reflect the region where it was produced.  But I am interested how the shape of the head makes you hold each axe.  

The head of the Raven is defined by a smooth curve which runs from adze to pick.  The curve fits into your palm, and large surface supports your weight.  Beneath the pick, the head is flattened for your fingers, and there is a large indentation above the shaft for your hand.  These features make it comfortable to hold the axe with the pick facing backward in the self arrest position. 

The head of the Bluebird is marked by a prominent crest above the shaft.  The crest fits the web of skin between your thumb and forefinger, and the sloping adze support your palm.  The top of the shaft has also been cut away at an angle so that your fingers lie naturally along the sides of the pick.  These features make it comfortable to hold the axe with the pick facing forward in the dagger position. 

Of course, you can hold the axes any way you want, but they have clearly been designed with a specific position in mind.  You can test this by holding each axe the opposite way; if you hold the Raven in the dagger position, your hand slides forward along the smooth head, and if you hold the Bluebird in the self-arrest position, the sharp crest bites into your palm. 

Which position is best?  This question is frequently debated, like how to rack gear or tie in for glacier travel.  Briefly, if you hold an ice axe with the pick facing backward, you undoubtedly eliminate one movement during the difficult process of self-arrest, and if you hold an ice axe with the pick facing forward, you may be able to move more securely and prevent a fall from happening in the first place.

Without committing to one point of view, we can ask if there are cultural differences between these two techniques.  Is there something particularly American about the self-arrest position, or distinctly French about the dagger position? 

It’s probably fair to say that most aspiring alpinists in the United States learn the basics of self-arrest, and dutifully practice the maneuver from a variety of positions, while few climbers in France hold their ice axes in the self-arrest position, and prefer the dagger position.  Imagine an American climber, balancing on a steep slope, convinced that if they do not hold their axe with the pick pointing backward they will meet certain death, or a French climber, daggering up easy ground, proclaiming casually, “I do not need to self-arrest because I will not fall.”  The self-arrest position does have a certain utilitarian pragmatism, which seems American, and the dagger position is more elegant if daring, which seems French. 

There are American climbers who prefer the dagger position, and French climbers who prefer the self arrest position, so perhaps it’s more appropriate to consider cultural differences based not on geography, but on larger questions of how we approach climbing. 

I am reminded of the familiar risk equation, formulated as the product of the likelihood and consequences of an accident. 

There are situations with low likelihood and high consequences, like walking across a wide granite ledge above a steep face, and situations with high likelihood and low consequences, like reaching for a tiny hold on a granite boulder in the middle of an alpine meadow.  Risk assessment in these situations is relatively straightforward, while the gray areas in between are more difficult to navigate.  We usually take steps to reduce the likelihood of accidents, such as wearing crampons, and steps to reduce the consequences of accidents, such as wearing helmets.

How does this relate to the Raven and the Bluebird?  The Raven would be the choice for those seeking to reduce the consequences of a fall, while the Bluebird would be the choice for those seeking to reduce the likelihood of a fall.  The axes, then, reflect different ways to manage risk in the mountains. 

Alpine climbing forces you to constantly make decisions about danger.  When should we climb?  What route should we follow?  How much gear should we bring?  These are important questions with real consequences.  That is why I am interested in how to hold an ice axe, and the design of the Raven and the Bluebird. 

To be honest, my favorite design is a third axe, which allows you to easily switch between positions.  The larger truth, I think, is that no one position is best, and it’s important to be able to move fluidly between techniques.  Likewise, I would say that we should strive whenever possible to address both sides of the risk equation, and limit the likelihood and consequences of accidents.  Perhaps, if there is one, this is the moral of my tale.  Seek the middle way. 

I own both a Raven and a Bluebird.  Each is beautiful in its own way, and I enjoy turning them over in my hands, studying their features, considering the questions posed by each design.  

Then again, I do hope to use them in the mountains.  I bought the Raven in a longer size, and the Bluebird in a shorter size, because that seems appropriate for how they are designed.  But that’s just my perspective.  Which axe would you bring with you on your next climb? 

More here:


AlanL said...

Having been a pure rock climber for years, I asked an Austrian guide last summer what current doctrine is regarding self arrest versus dagger position on low angled ground. He said one way on ice, the other way on snow. Sadly I promptly forgot which was which.

Bill N. said...

Hey Bruno!
Interesting observations, I think you are on to something. I think of the Raven as a tool for snow, plunging the shaft, but rarely using the pick for anything other than self arrest. The Blackbird looks like the pick is designed more for use in neve and ice for steeper climbing. It seems more versatile to me. I remember discussing the Raven vs Air Tech, and the merits of each axe. This new Blue Ice tool looks sweet. If it is as well designed as their packs, I'm sure it will be a success!

Bill N. said...

You can self arrest on thin ice over rock? Wow.

Dane said...

Sorry this got deleted by mistake...and what Bill is responding to above.

Anon said,
"The head on the raven is "refined", "perfectly finished" and has "seamless
transitions" only because the head is investment cast stainless steel, not hot forged carbon steel. Stainless is less malleable and more likely to
fracture... you would NOT want to self-arrest on thin ice over rock or even on thick hard-ice using the cast stainless pick as it is prone to the same fracture problems that have plagued Black Diamond's stainless steel
crampons. This sort of tool is reliable for walking on snow but anything firmer is done at your peril. But it sure is shiny."

Dane said...

Anon, Feel free to re-enter your original comment and I'll credit it accordingly. My apologies. I think it is a worthy comment.

Jon Rhoderick said...

Terrific article, I've always wondered about the arrest/belay positions. I asked a guide once and he said the pick forward position can also provide a quick arrest if you sort of dive into a high dagger position. This blue ice axe reminds me of my DMM Cirque, it can self arrest but is more comfortable in the pick first orientation, and with the T rated pick it's great in ice.
Your article "the case for the traditional ice axe" is one of my favorite cold thistle article, this is a wonderful addendum to that article.

Bruno Schull said...

Hi Everybody,

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad my random thoughts are of at least some interest to others! To Alan: the Austrian guide almost certainly meant self arrest on snow, and dagger on ice. Self arrest is notoriously difficult even in good conditions. That said, it worked once for me (although it was not easy and took longer than I thought). To Bill: Maybe we'll use the Bluebird on the Biz Bernina this summer? To Anon: point taken about relative merits of different metals. You would not want to swing the Raven into hard ice or rock, but that's not what it's designed for. Then again, I don't think any of use know enough about the metallurgy of both axes to make conclusions about their durability or strength. What I can tell you is that the head of the Bluebird is really substantial, much thicker and heavier than I thought. I mean that in a good way. It swings very well overhead. But is is almost a technical axe, perhaps more of a tool than the Grivel Air Tech. Another thing I can add is that the Raven really is so well-done. The level of craft and finish that you get for the price is impressive. It is a mature design, each detail considered and slowly improved over time. A worthy successor to a legacy of piolets. Easy to dismiss the Raven. Less obvious to appreciate what it represents.

Bruno Schull said...

One more thing: I wrote about the Raven, but there's actually a Raven family, which includes the Raven, the Raven Pro, and the Raven Ultra. Each axe is slightly different. The Raven Pro and the Raven Ultra have a different head compared to the Raven. First, the head of the Pro and Ultra is polished, while the head of the Raven is dull gray. Second, On the Pro and the Ultra, the flattened support under the pick is even longer, and the indentations above the shaft are less severe. I would say that everything I wrote about the Raven applies equally or more so to the Pro and the Ultra. The Raven Ultra--the perfect ski mountaineering axe?

Grant said...

A great total review of these designs. Sophisticated, insightful, and fun. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

brian p. harder said...

All this detailed talk of such a basic tool made my mind drift back to my favorite directive when guiding clients on snow...."follow right behind me and plunge your shaft into my ax hole." Hilarious.

Nicolai Michel said...

Last summer some Chamonix guides kept telling me I should cut off my 75 cm Raven Pro, and they thought having any kind of leash was ridiculous.

Bruno Schull said...

To Brian: yes, it's true, I'm a gear nerd. Your advice to your clients sounds good :)

To Nicolai: the right length for a basic ice axe depends on how you want to use it, your skill level, and your size. 75cm for most people would be a long "cane" style axe for general snow hiking and exploration. For more technical climbs a shorter axe would certainly be appropriate. And I agree with your guides: in most circumstances, a leash does not make sense for a basic axe.

underbelly said...

It's interesting that your read the Raven as being designed for holding with pick pointed back. I have a Raven (pro) and never considered using it this way. I'll have to try it out.

The Ravens seem based pretty closely on Chouinard's classic designs, and if you read his old instructional chapters from back in the day, he's unambiguously pro-dagger, anti-everything-else.

I paraphrase: "point the pick forwards, or yer gonna die!"

(YMMV. Not sure he still feels so strongly. And of course, he sold the company.)

Dane said...

Chouinard left years prior to the BD the Raven being designed. It is not a classic axe IMO. My Bruno (the author) will stop in and give you his.