How to Choose the Right Ice Tool This Winter
Finding the right ice tool is like finding the perfect climbing partner. If you don’t jive or have the same climbing interests, you won’t climb your best or have the most fun. But with so many models of ice tools out there, where do you begin?
The choice boils down to what you want to climb, whether it be technical alpine, ice, mixed or dry routes, and personal preference—a tool that just feels right. Shaft angle, picks, head accessories (adze or hammer), handle, leash compatibility, spike, and the all-important swing are features to consider. Here’s a rundown on ice tools, from pick to spike, to help your perfect partner.
Technical ice picks are designed for the medium they’ll be used on most. Picks for pure water ice tend to be thin (around 3 millimeters), have low profiles and smaller teeth for less ice. Picks for dry tooling or mixed climbing are usually beefier (around 4 or 5 millimeters) so they’re stronger for torqueing, and their tooth pattern is better suited for hooking and stability on rock.
You can use any pick for any medium, but having the right will let you climb with less effort and increase your confidence—plus some routes, especially hard “dry tool” lines, can be impossible with the wrong pick. Fortunately, almost all ice tools have modular heads and it’s easy to replace or swap out picks for different climbs.
Petzl keeps the decision making easy with their simple naming scheme: PUR’DRY for, well, pure dry tooling; DRY for mixed climbing that is heavier on the rock side than ice; ICE for mixed climbing heavier on the ice side; and PUR’ICE for pure ice climbing. The middle options are the most versatile while the PUR’DRY and PUR’ICE are specialized. It’s always nice to have multiple options, but if you’re looking for a quiver of one, go with the ICE pick.
Head Accessories – Adze and Hammer
You use an adze, a sharp, shovel-like scoop, to chop through ice or firm snow to place a picket, create a belay stance or clear a bivy site. An adze is handy on alpine routes, but usually unnecessary for steep ice and mixed climbing, and can even be dangerous—image your tool popping and the adze chopping your nose. While adzes come fixed on mountaineering axes, they’re typically removable or absent on most technical ice tools.
If your game is alpine routes, choose a tool with an adze. If you’re mostly climbing steep ice and mixed routes, ditch the adze, save weight, and possibly save your face. If you want a versatile tool that can do either, buy one that has a modular head so you can add or remove the adze as you wish.
Hammers, used for pounding pitons or pickets, used to follow a similar philosophy of need as the adze, but with the advent of ultra-slim and light adzes, they’ve seen a resurgence on technical ice tools. Hammers are usually made from steel and are more durable than the aluminum heads found on many ice tools. They’re necessary for driving or resetting pins, but perhaps more importantly they protect the tool head’s softer metal from getting dinged up, and are useful for clearing loose ice, choss, or testing suspect holds. Some tools have fixed hammers; others have modular heads and optional hammers.
Petzl’s technical tools all have modular heads and can be used with either an adze, different sizes of hammers or nothing. The QUARK comes stock with either a hammer or adze. The updated NOMIC and the new ERGONOMIC come with the Mini Marteau hammer. The heads of all three tools are also cross compatible—you can mix and match picks and head accessories.
An ice tool’s shaft is the most important factor in your decision of what tool to buy. In general, the more angled a tool’s shaft, the better it is for steeper routes—and for swinging around funky ice mushrooms or bulges—but the worse it is for plunging in snow. A sharply-curved shaft also requires finer technique to swing, more snap of the wrist to sink the pick, while a straighter shaft has a straighte arc.
If you’re new to ice climbing, you’ll have an easier time learning with a less aggressive tool, such as the QUARK. As you begin to climb steeper ice routes and venture into the world of mixed climbing, you can gravitate towards the NOMIC and ERGONOMIC.
Unlike rock climbing where every hold is different, an ice tool’s handle is the one jug you grab until your arms feel like they’ll burst. Ice tools on the alpine-side of the spectrum tend to have a single grip while tools for steep ice and mixed climbing, like the NOMIC and ERGONOMIC, usually have two grips:a low grip that you’ll use most of the time, and a high grip that will let you match hands or advance a hand to make a higher reach.
On steep and overhanging climbs, the handle’s efficiency—how well it slows down the pump—means everything. Thicker handles add weight, but create more glove-to-tool contact for improved friction, and tend to keep your hand in a more open and relaxed position, all of which saves energy. On low-angle climbs, when most of your weight is on your feet, the tool’s overall weight and the handle’s indexing (how well it prevents side-to-side movement) are the most important factors.
Hand size and fit are also important considerations. Some handles are a fixed while others are adjustable for different hand or glove sizes. The grip rest on the NOMIC and ERGONOMIC is adjustable with a simple hex key and can toggle between small, medium and large.
The way a handle feels depends on how well its ergonomics matches your own hand. Play with a few different types to see what you like most.
Leashes or Leashless?
Wrist leashes have gone the way of the dodo. They’re cumbersome, cut off circulation to your hands, make it difficult to place protection, and limit your movement on ice or rock because you can’t match or swap tools. Wrist leashes have become so obsolete that Petzl removed the attachment hole on the new QUARK, and it’s already gone on the NOMIC. Time to evolve or get left behind.
Tool tethers, like the V-LINK, on the other hand, are still around and useful. They prevent you from dropping a tool while allowing you to climb in a leash-less style. Tethers easily clip to the handle or spike of most tools, like with the QUARK and NOMIC. The grip rest on the ERGONOMIC, however, doesn’t have an attachment point. But it’s compatible with the grip rest on the NOMIC, which you can buy separately and swap out with a hex key.
Since most modern, technical tools are not compatible with wrist leashes, that factor is eliminated from your decision making. But for those who prefer to use a tether, or want the option for specific climbs, keep the attachment point in mind when making your buying decision.
All the factors above lead to the feel of a tool, its swing, and the best way to find what’s right for you is to go out and test a few. Borrow them from a friend, rent them from a shop, or attend an ice festival with demos before committing your hard-earned dollars. You never know how a tool will feel until you actually climb with it. If you can, test two different tools at once, one in each hand, and notice the differences in performance.
THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB
To put the pieces together, here’s a few classic climbs and the ideal tool for each. While these routes can certainly be climbed with any tool, the recommendations below hit the sweet spot.
Pinnacle Gully (WI 3), Mt. Washington, New Hampshire.
Ideal Tool: QUARK
The QUARK excels at technical mountaineering and low-angle ice climbing, which makes it a great choice for a climb such as Pinnacle Gully (WI 3) on Mt. Washington. Pinnacle Gully has a long, snowy approach, around 500 feet of WI 3 ice, and an upper snow field (if you want to tag the summit) followed by a long, snowy descent.
Stairway to Heaven (WI 4), Eureka, Colorado
Ideal Tool: NOMIC
The NOMIC crushes all grades of ice and is the perfect match for Stairway to Heaven, a long and stepped climb that alternates between sections of vertical ice and lower-angle ice.
Bridalveil Falls (WI 5+), Telluride, Colorado
Ideal Tool: ERGONOMIC
The ERGONOMIC’s handle was designed for maximum hang time, which is exactly what you’ll need to navigate the funky, three-dimensional bulges and overhanging daggers of Bridalveil Falls.