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[pct-l] ice axes
I've just been researching this, though I have next to no hands-on
experience. Sometimes it helps to hear a non-expert hash stuff out, so I'll
share my own conclusions, and let more experienced folks comment:
(1) I've decided not to worry about positive vs. negative pick clearance. I
understand the argument for wanting a negative clearance on a general
purpose axe, but lots of people seem to have used both without any real
problems. My own axe, bought before I had ever heard of positive vs.
negative clearance has a positive clearance tip.
(2) There seem to be lots and lots of opinions on the best length for an
axe. The only consistency seems to be that if you will be using hiking
poles, then get a short, very light, general mountaineering axe. You do not
want an "ice tool"... they're used for climbing. Some mountaineers use an
axe as a hiking stick... obviously it would have to be longer for that
purpose. From listening to this list, I'd be willing to guess that not many
PCT trekkers go that route, though I might be tempted.
(3) You can get self arrest tops for hiking polls (Black Diamond), and you
can buy ice axes with telescoping poles (Advanced Base Camp). That wouldn't
be my personal choice today, but I tend to be conservative when I don't know
what I'm doing.
(3) The lightest axes have aluminum or titanium heads. Aluminum is softer
than steel or titanium, and apparently doesn't hold up all that well. Axes
with aluminum heads are generally recommended only for "just in case" use...
which is probably what most PCT hikers need the axe for. Titanium is rather
expensive. There is one company offering a reasonably priced, very light,
axe with a titanium head and an aluminum shaft ($99), but I've never seen a
review, have never held one, and wouldn't know if it was any good even if I
had. Their web page is ( http://sopgear.com/helios.htm ). Maybe someone
with experience can take a look.
(4) I last looked at axes a few years ago and bought a Grivel Air Tech
Racing. This is a relatively light, simple, axe with a steel alloy head and
an aluminum shaft. I bought it as a general purpose axe that would work
well for treking. The Grivel Pamir is also relatively light (and is less
expensive). The only complaint people seem to have with the Pamir is that
its high-carbon steel head tends to rust a little. The fix is to oil it,
which could be annoying on a long trek.
(5) There is no possible reason to carry both a trowel and an ice axe.
(6) Practicing with the axe you pick is more important than picking the axe
with the perfect pick (sorry!)
(7) I think that learning to use an ice axe in general is probably a good
idea. If you are falling down a slope, you obviously need to have practiced
self-arrest. However, ice axes can also be used to help keep you from
falling. There are various techniques for walking across snow slopes (self
belay, moving from "point of balance" to "point of balance", etc.) that can
help keep you from falling in the first place. So, to my way of thinking,
if I ever had to self-arrest, that would mean that I would have been in a
situation where knowing the other stuff would have been useful too.
According to "Mountaineering, Freedom of the Hills" self-arrest only works
about half the time anyway, so it should really be thought of as a backup,
not as a primary way to get around. Better not to start sliding in the
(8) I've heard enough on this list, and from my reading, to believe that
paying attention to snow conditions is very important as well. It seems
clear that a hiker is less likely to slip on soft snow, and that self arrest
is much easier on soft snow. On the other hand, I also understand that deep
soft snow can be just awful to try to travel through (you posthole a lot and
get wet and cold). It seems clear to me that there are different styles of
snow travel, and that if I was going to do the PCT any time soon (alas, I'm
not), I would pay attention to them... at least enough to know when the
style I picked was appropriate and safe. I've also heard people discuss
that snow conditions, and appropriate travel techniques, vary from year to
(9) The short answer is 42 :-)
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Saturday, January 13, 2001 8:30 AM
Subject: [pct-l] ice axes
> I'm changing my starting place from Kennedy Meadows to Tehachapi Pass in
> order to give myself a little more time before I hit the snow. We will
> need to buy ice axes. Again, since I'm from SC, buying an ice axe seems
> a monumental task. Recommendations, please? I was overwhelmed by some of
> the discussions on positive and negative ones. Gail
> PCT-L mailing list