To Axe or Not to Axe? That is still the question!”

The question came up, today, “Lightest ice axe and still useful? Is it still the CAMP Corsa? I know the Whippet has been suggested, but it is just too heavy.”

So, for the PCT Class of 2023, the answer follows…

The lightest, of course, is none at all. So, the question needs a context of snow-hiking (SH) or snow-climbing?

Over my last 41 years of teaching SH safety on the PCT/JMT over Forester Pass (et al), I think that I’ve finally come to realize (though I’ve probably said this many times over the past 10-15 years) that ice axes carried by snow-hikers actually do them more harm than good for a variety of reasons:

  • Due to a lack of specific-use training, SH don’t know when nor where to use them, so, they don’t,
  • SH don’t know how to use them, so, they don’t,
  • SH don’t want to slow, stop, and unstrap them, so, they don’t (gotta go more miles, you know!),
  • SH travel in groups such that if one person stops to take precautions, out of doubt or fear, the rest may judge or comment, so, they don’t stop, and
  • Their ice axes are usually the shortest they can be (they don’t know why they should be longer) in order to be as light as they can be (because they are carried most of the time), but as such, they work neither as poles for balance nor as effective self-arrest devices (because they’re too short, but they don’t know that, yet, until they fall for the first time).

So, for the preponderance of untrained long-distance thru-hikers, in the end, an ice axe is,

  • an imagined source of safety,
  • a hood ornament on their packs,
  • the mighty symbol of “mountaineering” and better than any ego-sticker or patch,
  • a way to stake down their tents,
  • a tool for digging cat holes,
  • expensive,
  • not allowed on planes, and

I once wrote an article, altogether too many years ago, about this very same debate, entitled, “To Axe or Not to Axe? That is the question!”

In it, I showed that the definitive tool of snow-climbing, the ice axe, in the untrained hands of the snow-hiker is not used as intended (as described, above), so why carry it at all?

Whereas, the extremely handy tool of ski-mountaineering, the self-arrest pole, not only prevents falls but is always there to stop those unexpected, out-of-control tumbles down mountainsides and save snow-hiker’s lives! The only problem, “way back when,” was that backpackers hadn’t learned, yet, the benefits of hiking with two poles!

A bit of history to explain the genesis of the Self-Arrest Pole:

So, some 60 years ago, when mountaineering over steep snow on the approach to a climb needing ice axes, ropes, and anchors was still commonly done on skis, where two poles occupied people’s hands, yet they did, indeed, sometimes fall with their huge packs on their backs and need to arrest the ensuing tumble, some brilliant person came up with the grand idea of affixing their ice axe onto the end of one of their ski poles! [Clearly, they knew, it wasn’t safe to ski with a pole in one hand and an ice axe in the other!]

Thus, began the Self-Arrest Pole concept which immediately won high acclaim because it suddenly and easily combined the two tools ski-mountaineers needed in their hands all the time, poles for balance control (to prevent falls) and an ice axe pick for stopping tumbles in case they did fall!

Well, the concept was slow to cross-over to any other backcountry use, because in those days, climbers used poles on the approach and ice axes and crampons on the climb, while backpackers didn’t use any poles, at all. (Actually, and usually just for creek crossings, a hiker might search the woods, nearby, for a long, straight stick to use as a “third-leg,” placed downstream for balance, but oddly, they preferred to just let their arms hang while they walked. As a consequence, arms swelled, grew numb, and people complained). It was the downhill skiers who started bringing a fixed-length aluminum pole on their hikes to keep their packs standing upright during lunch!

One pole led to two and the old, “solid” poles led to sectioned, adjustable poles, but the lonely, self-arrest pole remained consigned to the ski-mountaineering world until the new sport of long-distance hiking came along. These intrepid souls chose to walk such long mountainous routes that they simply couldn’t avoid snow (and sometimes ice) early and late in the hiking season and had to find out how to snow-hike safely over it. In order to not get killed in these adventures, they stole tools and techniques from the other endeavors already out there, namely, from climbers, their “crampons,” to minimize slip-and-falls, and from the ski-mountaineers, their ever-ready self-arrest pole!

And that brings us to today!

I am here to show you “Why” things are and “How” they can be understood to keep you safe and happy in the wilderness setting, all from my 50 years of Experience unto your Experience, new as it may be. I’m not here to dogmatically tell you what to do or what will “work” best for you. That is your job.

So, when it comes the choice of self-arrest design taken by the current PCT Class of this next hiking season… …take one (and learn when, where, and how to use it)!

Oh, and regarding the heavier weight of most SA Poles compared to that of the flimsy things flicking along most summer trails, remember,

  • It is in your hand and not carried, like the ice axe (lower pack weight!),
  • The muscles of your arm will get stronger while using it day after day,
  • It is an ever-present Safety Tool that’s designed strong to save your life,
  • When the aluminum bends in a fall, it can be bent back, whereas, the carbon version shatters to uselessness,