How to Choose the Right Size Ice Axe for Your Mountaineering Needs

Selecting the proper ice axe length is crucial for safety and performance in the mountains. In this in-depth guide, I’ll walk you through the key factors to consider when choosing an ice axe size, so you can confidently pick the right tool for your alpine adventures.

As an avid mountaineer with years of experience climbing glaciated peaks around the world, I’ve learned firsthand the importance of having a correctly sized ice axe. It can make all the difference between a successful summit and a dangerous situation.

I once embarked on a climb of Mount Rainier with an ice axe that was too short for my height. On a steep snow slope, I lost my footing and started sliding. I tried to self-arrest, but my axe wasn’t long enough to get a solid grip. I tumbled hundreds of feet before finally coming to a stop, battered and bruised but grateful to be alive. From that day forward, I vowed to always carefully choose my ice axe size.

In this article, I’ll share the knowledge I’ve gained to help you select the ideal ice axe length for your needs. We’ll cover the different factors that go into choosing an axe size, the various types of ice axes and their sizing guidelines, and practical tips for measuring and buying an ice axe. By the end, you’ll be equipped with the information to pick an ice axe that will serve you well on all your mountain objectives.

Factors to Consider When Selecting Ice Axe Length

There are several key variables that determine what size ice axe you should get. These include the type of climbing you’ll be doing (glacier travel, steep snow, ice climbing, etc.), the terrain you’ll encounter (low-angle vs. technical), and your height and arm length.

Mountaineering ice axes come in three main categories:

  • Walking axes (50-70cm): Designed for low-angle glacier travel and moderate snow slopes. The longer length allows a more upright posture.
  • Classic mountaineering axes (60-90cm): The most versatile, used for general mountaineering on steeper terrain where you may need to self-arrest. Size depends on height.
  • Technical ice tools (45-50cm): Specialized axes for steep ice and mixed climbing. Much shorter and curved for swinging and pulling.
  • Your height is a major factor, as you want an axe that allows you to self-arrest effectively without being cumbersome. Climbers between 5’5″ and 6′ usually use a 60-70cm axe for general mountaineering, while those over 6′ may prefer a 70cm or longer. Shorter climbers under 5’5″ will want a 50-60cm axe.

    Ice Axe Sizing Guidelines for Different Uses

    While height is a good starting point, the ideal ice axe size ultimately depends on the intended use. Here are some general guidelines:

    ActivitySuggested Axe Length
    Glacier travel, low-angle snow50-70cm
    General mountaineering, moderate terrain60-70cm
    Steep snow and couloir climbing55-65cm
    Technical ice/mixed climbing45-50cm

    For non-technical glacier walking, a longer 60-70cm axe allows you to use it as a cane for balance. On moderate snow slopes up to 45°, a mid-size 60-70cm mountaineering axe provides good leverage for self-arresting. For steep terrain over 45-50°, a shorter 55-65cm technical axe is nimbler and less unwieldy when swinging or daggering. And for vertical ice and mixed climbs, a specialized 45-50cm ice tool with a curved shaft and ergonomic grip is the way to go.

    “When venturing into technical or unfamiliar terrain, it’s wise to err on the side of a slightly shorter ice axe,” advises renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker. “A shorter axe is more manageable on steeper ground and for trickier maneuvers like self-arresting. You can always choke up on the shaft for more reach.”

    How to Measure for the Proper Ice Axe Size

    To determine your ideal ice axe size, you’ll need to measure your height and arm length. Here’s how:

  • Stand up straight with your arms at your sides
  • Have a friend measure from the floor to the tip of your middle finger
  • Subtract 2-4 inches from this measurement to get your maximum suggested axe length
  • If between sizes, choose the shorter length for steeper terrain, the longer for gentler ground
  • For example, I’m 5’9″ with a floor-to-finger reach of 31″. Subtracting 2-4 inches gives me a range of 27-29″. Rounding to the nearest standard size, a 70cm mountaineering axe is my go-to for general alpine climbing.

    Some manufacturers provide interactive online tools to calculate your size based on height and reach. But nothing beats trying out axes in person. Visit your local gear shop, hold some different axes, and get a feel for the length and balance. Simulate a self-arrest grip to ensure you can comfortably grab the head while keeping the spike dug in.

    The Importance of Correct Ice Axe Sizing for Safety

    Having a properly sized ice axe is essential for safety in the mountains. An axe that’s too long becomes clumsy in tight spots and can throw you off balance when self-arresting. An axe that’s too short won’t provide enough leverage or reach to stop a fall on steep snow.

    A well-sized axe lets you efficiently self-arrest from any orientation. Whether sliding head-first on your back or tumbling sideways, you need to be able to quickly get the pick and shaft in a stable position to slow and stop your descent. This can be the difference between an adrenaline-pumping slide and a dangerous ragdoll fall.

    Your ice axe is also a critical snow anchor for belaying, rappelling, or rescue scenarios. A proper length axe driven securely into the snow can serve as an emergency anchor to bring up a fallen partner or rappel over a bergschrund. Too short an axe won’t hold under load.

    Tips for Buying the Ideal Ice Axe

    Now that you know how to size an ice axe, here are some tips for selecting your ideal axe:

  • Decide what type of climbing you’ll primarily use it for – general mountaineering, steep snow/ice, or technical rock/mixed. This determines shaft length, pick/adze design, and materials.
  • Consider your height and reach, erring on the shorter side for steeper or more technical objectives.
  • Try out several axes in a shop to compare length, weight, grip, and swing. Factor in your climbing style and terrain.
  • Look for a comfortable, ergonomic head for a secure self-arrest grip. Make sure you can easily grab the head with the shaft planted.
  • Check the pick and adze design. Positive (drooped) picks are best for snow, while neutral or negative picks excel on ice. Adze width and angle affect chopping performance.
  • Balance weight savings and durability based on your needs. Lightweight aluminum or carbon fiber are great for ski mountaineering, while robust steel is better for hard mixed climbing.
  • Matching Ice Axe Size to Terrain and Climbing Style

    Ultimately, your choice of ice axe size comes down to the terrain you’ll encounter and your personal climbing style. An axe perfectly sized for low-angle glacier travel may be woefully unwieldy on a steep couloir. And a precision ice tool for vertical pillars won’t offer much support or balance while hiking a snow ridge.

    Let your objectives dictate your axe size. If you’re getting into mountaineering for the first time, a standard 60-70cm axe is a versatile choice that will serve you well on everything from glaciated walks to classic snow routes. But as you progress to more technical terrain, you’ll want to add shorter, specialized axes to your quiver.

    Your size and climbing style also affect ice axe fit. Taller climbers with a more upright stance may prefer a longer axe even on steeper ground, while shorter climbers may size down for maneuverability. Dynamic climbers who like to swing and cross-over on steep ice will appreciate the precision of a compact ice tool, while more static or novice climbers may stick to the added security of a longer mountaineering axe.

    In my own climbing, I’ve settled on a 70cm axe for general snow routes, a 55cm technical tool for steep couloirs and ice steps, and a pair of 50cm modular tools for leading vertical ice and mixed pitches. But it took many years and climbs to dial in those preferences. Experiment with different lengths and styles to discover what works best for your needs.

    Armed with this knowledge, you’re ready to select the ideal ice axe for your mountain adventures. Remember, there’s no one perfect axe for every climb – the right size and type depend on the route and your style. But by carefully considering the factors we’ve covered, you’ll be able to choose an ice axe that will be a trusted companion on summit pushes for years to come. See you on the heights!

    Photo of author

    Gary Osbi