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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

45cm ice axes for self-arrest?


Everyone starts somewhere.   The start of a skimo adventure circa 1970 :)

I've been lucky to ski a good bit this winter.  Great fun with a record year for snow fall.  Hang out with enough skiers and gear always gets discussed.   Everyone has an opinion.   Worth paying attention to see if your goals match up with the suggestions you get.  I have a number of comments I'd like to make instigated by recent conversations, but I'll start with the topic of "ice axes".  There is more, but I'll start here.

10+ years ago Bruno wrote what I still think is a pretty good description of and use for a traditional axe.
I'll try to address that same reasoning to a traditional SkiMo outing today.  Some may want to label me a troglodyte.  That's OK.  

But let me cut to the chase up front.  Up to and including WI 4 ice climbing there nothing a 60cm traditional, steel headed ice axe can't climb easily, if you have the skills to climb ice.

There are many uses for an axe in mountaineering and ski mountaineering.  The first is likely the most obvious.  The axe gets used as a cane, holding onto the head and using the shaft for support.   It doesn't take much of an axe to get that done.  I've used a dead tree branch and I've used a old school, one piece, ski pole for the same effect many times over.

Man, the tool user.

There is a reason a "ice axe" is designed as they are.  First choice is the pick and then the adze to chop steps.  Seems like it would be the other way around but it isn't.  The pick is simply more efficient for cutting steps quickly.  Often times the pick is the preferred tool to chop steps in hard snow and maybe the adze to follow up and clean the step up.   Two strikes and you're done.   These days most will put on crampons rather than cut a step.  Too bad.  Cutting steps is a very useful skill in the mountains.  And often as not may be faster (and safer) than putting on crampons in an awkward position.   (More on the awkward position. As in, "you could die here easy enough!", below)

Die, you say?!  Did that get your attention?  The most obvious use for a mountaineering axe is self-arrest.  You know, the skill you practice until it is automatic, that skill that keeps you from stopping your fall before you hit the nearest flat spot, if there is one?

If you have done much self-arrest practice, a couple of things you'll note very quickly.  Not that easy to get stopped.  Stopping gets harder yet as the snow gets harder.  When you eventually hit water ice all bets are off.  Generally, the bigger the head/pick and the longer the shaft the easier it is to use the axe in self-arrest position and get stopped.   The added physical size of the axe gives you physical leverage and that really helps you get stopped in a fall.    The harder the snow, the harder (and slower) it is to get stopped no matter the axe designs.  But the only thing that really helps is having enough leverage on the axe to get the job done.

"For most, any axe under 55cm is simply a more difficult tool to sue as intended, getting stopped on hard snow."

A 45 cm axe of any sort might not be the best answer for the majority of skimo uses.  Sure, a 45 cm axe packs easier.   I'd rather have/carry the easiest tool to use as needed than the tool that is the easiest to carry.

Trying to stop a fall on steep, hard snow or iced, terrain or just as bad, steep soft snow will be rather educational with any 45cm axe if you are over 5'6" tall.  Really short axes are simply a very small tool (physically)  to work with.  

They are all tools.  Be sure to pick the right one for your objective.

The axes range from 65cm to 45cm. 

For my own skiing I have used most of what is pictured here.  Long Nordic poles for skiing some distance, so I use my arms poling.   Non-adjustable poles with long grips to save energy on side hill skin tracks.   Grip straps to support your hand and lower the fatigue when using your arms poling.  And of course the obligatory. "Whippet".  A ski pole with a short ice axe like head, used to get stopped or support yourself on a steep hard snow surface.

Before I get more into specific "axes" here is an opinion on the self-arrest poles of any manufacture.  I own a pair.  Have for well over a decade.  I am skiing more technical lines now than I ever have.  Occasionally skiing places you'll be lucky to survive a fall.  I have never used my Whippets.  Very likely never will.  Why?  Because if I ski into terrain when I need to self-arrest I want a proper ice axe to get that done.    Let's be honest.  If you are reading this bog, you very likely have no need for a Whippet.  Common sense and a little caution goes a long way to keeping you safe in the mtns.  First rule of skimo is, never-ever fall.  If you think there is a chance of that best to be somewhere else. 

There are other opinions.  Colin Haley for one, likes and uses the Whippet.
Another recommendation from a guy who has skied plenty of steep lines.

 I've carried the green Camp Corsa axe above (weight is 209g) while skiing on the Haute Route a couple of times and on most of the Cascade Volcanos.   Great axe for the right conditions.   It makes a good walking stick and will self-arrest on soft snow easily enough.  The right conditions for a Corsa?  "Soft snow".  

I've taken two falls in crampons in my climbing career.  One in soft snow that even a tradition 60cm axe with a long pick wasn't slowing me down on.  I had enough time to think about that fact, roll over and switch to my adze, which was a much better tool at getting me stopped.  I was doing well, until I thought I had slowed down enough.   It wasn't slow enough.  I caught a crampon point and was immediately ejected into space.  The result was a long walk out and a couple of dozen stitches in my shins hours later.  Luckily I didn't break anything  which is what usually happens with a snagged crampon in a fall.

The 2nd time?  I popped a crampon off soloing on some easy water ice 3, right at 1000' tall.  The only thing that stopped me?  Catching my partner's pick with my axe's pick as I went by, as I continued to rapidly gain speed.  Thankfully, no harm no foul there.   I got off the water ice and found my crampon in the snow.  Strapped it back on and finished the climb.   If I hadn't, by chance, hooked my partner's pick?  Or had his axe placement failed when I "hit" it?  I very likely wouldn't have survived the 600 foot slide. 

Point being?  If you need an ice axe to get stopped, buy a proper ice axe that will easily penetrate the kind of snow conditions you expect on your trips and learn to use the axe  adroitly.  The easiest slide to stop is, one that never gets started. 

"Penetrate the snow conditions?"   A steel headed axe might be what you need.  But it isn't just the steel head version, or titanium or aluminum that you need.  You need a properly shape head to penetrate hard conditions.   No one axe will likely be the right tool for every tour or  every climb for that matter.  

For things like this?
Falling is not an option.

I can't tell you how many times I have heard of guys dropping into lines from the top and finding out in short order that was a bad idea.  Snow changes to ice or the surface has slide away or the snow conditions simply aren't skiable.  It happens.  It happens to everyone eventually.  Everyone.  Doug Coombs and Trevor Peterson come to mind.

Boot it from the bottom or ski it from the top?   I'm lazy but I never take it for granted from either end and now, after scaring myself silly, just once, I carry a proper technical ice tool and the additional bits of gear to sort things out if needed for that kind of "fun".

Remember I mentioned  previous?  It may be faster (and safer) than pulling skiis and putting on crampons in an awkward position."

When it is time to bail on a ski line by climbing out, better to have crampons on your feet, than skis.  Better to have actual tools in hand than a pair of whippets.  And an umbilical tied to your harness may well be in order?

Can you pull your skis off?  How about your snowboard?  Can you put crampons on your boots?  You've got your harness on already right?

I personally know of more than one pair of skis lost in this kind of transition and a single snow board.
Bad day all around there.  Trust me.

Expect and be prepared for the worst.  Think ahead and have the proper gear easily at hand.  Never be afraid to bail upward on a ski line.  The question will be is it safer to ski down or climb out.  One advantage to booting in.  The answer is usually more obvious up front.

I have just about every tool imaginable as a choice fro any climbing or ski mission.   And I have done a lot more, hard ice climbing than I ever will on difficult skimo lines.

I want an easy to place, steel pick, for hard water ice and a shaft that I can plunge into soft snow.
This is what I still use.  I like a hammer to set anchors, if required.  I see no advantage of an adze here.   

This tool is also no longer available from Petzl.  

A replacement I have been using more recently, the Petzl, Gully, axe or hammer.  Both tools shown have handles wrapped to be used as a dagger.  And a hand rest that is movable on the shaft.  The idea with the dagger position is to never allow a slide to get started.  Pick weights added to my Gully tools to ease penetration on water ice.

But make no mistake, I don't want to use either to self-arrest with!
They are both 45s and both way, way to difficult to self arrest with IMO.

Pick the right tool for the job!
Ignore the fashion trends or get determined to get really good self-arresting with short axe.  Most anyone will have a hard time self-arresting with a 45 anything.   Always better to have the right tool and the skills to use them than the other options.  The mountains have no sympathy.

Yvon Chouinard is 5'8" tall.  The photo is from him teaching an ice climbing class in the '70s.  The axe is a 60cm piolet.  There is a hint there.  Even if the axe won't fit inside your pack.

Lots of handier ways to carry an ice axe than inside your pack.

Another look from my friend Dave Searle who lives and works, year around, guiding in Chamonix.

DPS Phantom more waxing!

 PHANTOM Glide At Home Application Instructions - YouTube

The back story for me?  Some time ago (years) I purchased and didn't use the original 2-part application of Phantom.   I was skiing a lot more this winter and some new skis to mount, so I finally added the older 2-part Phantom (one package) which allowed me to cover three pair of new skis.

The results were pretty impressive.  No more hot waxing my ski once a week.

This Spring there were more new skis in my shop.  And enough skiing that waxing was getting tiresome.  So, I bought the newest version of Phantom for the newest skis.  It is a much easier one-part application than the older stuff.   One of my big concerns was just how well my skins would stick to the surface for touring.  If you have ever had a glue failure on your skins, mid trip, you know the concern and how you can so easily have a really bad day.  But that was bad skin glue.  Not a bad base job.

Keeping the bases clean is a huge help to keep skins on as well as keeping the glue in good shape.

It took a couple of longer days skinning and in different conditions to make me comfortable with Phantom while using skins.  Once that was done the worry was gone.

But at $50 to $100 a packet, Phantom is not cheap.  The older 2-part application can be found on Ebay right now for $50.  I was able to easily coat 3 pair of 100+mm width x 180cm skis with that version.  The newer 2.0 version I get one pair of 100+ mm skis per package.  That is $95 per package and one pair of skis currently.  So, Phantom isn't cheap.

DPS says the Phantom coating will last the lifetime of the ski.  No reason to not believe that with the product now almost 10 years old.  But I can't verify that life cycle from my own use.

What I can tell you is I'll no longer be waxing my own skis.   I'm already planning on the skis I'll ditch at next Fall's swap.   Those would be the ski without Phantom that I am not willing to clean the wax from the old bases.   If I was still making a living on skis for half the year, Phantom would be a Godsend.  And worth every penny in my book.

I could "wax on" about how great the Phantom is on snow.  But I won't.  You wouldn't believe me if I did.  I wouldn't believe the experiences I have had with Phanton if I hadn't actually been on the skis with Phantom applied.  Midwinter blower to early Spring slush?   Phantom simply works.  It works better than any wax job I have ever used.  The one caveat so far is 45F+ air temps and lots of sun.  Phantom gets a little sucky there.  Wax might be better at the extreme of where you'll be in slush.   DPS says additional, traditional waxing won't hurt the Phantom.  And they claim the Phantom will make your hot wax adhere better and last longer.   Seems adding a warm weather wax (via a hot wax) as needed is a common technique to get the most out of the skis in really warm weather.  More when I get some better feedback off my own skis to offer up over the next couple of months.

And no more hot waxing messes to clean up in the shop.  If you can get a little sunshine, the new one-part application for the current Phantom is easy and quick.

This is simply a PSA.  This stuff was worth the initial buy in for me despite my original skepticism.  It just took a while to really appreciate the advantages Phantom offered to my own skiing.

Good luck!