What’s the most obvious sign of a core backcountry skier? Transceivers, probes and shovels are now standard issue, though the knowledge of how to effectively used them is still catching up. Climbing skins are for anyone wanting to travel more than an hour beyond the boundary and folks with Dynafit gear may rip as hard as you, but they get where they’re going much faster. No, the true sign of the extreme backcountry aficionado is the ice axe. Sharp points and a serrated blade proudly strapped to the exterior of one’s backpack paints the wielder in the light of genuine badassery.
So, at what point does the backcountry enthusiast graduate to the level of axe-wielding alpinist? That of course depends on how you want to spend your time in the mountains. Chamonix has laughable reputation of posers coming into the apres bar with ice screws affixed to their harnesses, when all they did that day was look at the view from Aguille du Midi. There’s a lot less fixation with mountaineering here in North America, but if you start looking at more technical objectives for your own backcountry skiing or riding then a lightweight ice axe (also called mountaineering axe) will likely be on your purchase list.
The most common use for a the ice axe is for walking – by plunging the shaft into the snow and using it as a point of balance – and for self-arresting a fall. This will come into play when your on exposure such as ridge lines with your skis or board firmly attached to your pack and crampons strapped to your boots. The traditional straight-shaft mountaineering axe excels here as it easily plunges in and out of the snow, can help build an anchor and the adze on the back of the head can be used for anything from step-cutting to digging snow caves. The design hasn’t really changed in 50 years since Yvon Chouinard revolutionized ice climbing by shaping the pick of the axe to match the curvature of the swing.
For 90 per cent of what backcountry skiers are doing, the straight shaft axe will suffice. The Black Diamond Raven Pro and Camp Corsa are great examples of light, strong and affordable ice axes. If you are looking to ascend more technical or vertical terrain, then a curved shaft of an alpine axe such as the Camp Corsa Nanotech or Alpina models give better purchase when swinging into steeper slopes. The curved section of the shaft is only near the head so you can still use it to plunge, but not quite as comfortably as a traditional mountaineering axe. But if you do fall into a crevasse, climbing out on your own will be easier with an alpine axe.
Then there’s the technical ice axes, often referred to as “tools.” These have a severely curved shaft allowing maximum efficiency for the swing and a reverse curve pick to allow for unprecedented traction when ascending vertical ice. However, unless you’re a bonafide ice climber, there’s no reason to have a pair of these kicking around the gear closet. Certain situations may require the use of a technical axe, but if you’re heading into the that type of terrain for skiing you had better have done your homework on the route and the descent.