How An Ice Climbing Axe Saves Lives


In 1953 a team of climbers scaled the rugged slopes of the most imposing of nature’s creations.  This was only the fifth expedition to K2, called the 1953 Karakoram Expedition.  The team made the Abruzzi Spur, the mountain’s south eastern spur, their focus.  Having reached a height of 7,750 meters, the team encountered a storm.

While trapped in their high camp, one of their team members, Art Gilkey suffered a pulmonary embolism.  Gilkey’s condition understandably led the team to turn back to ensure their team mate received medical attention.  The climbers secured Gilkey in a sleeping bag, and lowered him down by rope.

It was a desperate situation for the team, not only struggling to keep control of their new life-saving mission, but also fearing for their team mate’s life.  The going was hard and terrifying, and eventually they came upon a steep ice sheet.  This was to be one of the toughest challenges the team had to face.  Along with Gilkey, five team mates slid down the slope, facing certain death…

With a sudden presence of mind, one of the climbers – Pete Schoening – grabbed his trusty ice climbing axe and wedged it beside a bolder.  This quick thinking saved his life and those of his fellow climbers with a fast and effective belay.

Schoening’s famous ice axe is now on display at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Colerado, a testament to the bravery and resourcefulness of Pete Schoening, and the crew of that ill-fated expedition.

Ice Climbing Axes Today

Those events back in 1953 highlight the importance of ice axes for climbers; they are essential now as they ever were.  As with all facets of extreme sports equipment, ice axes have evolved to give the climber a far more tailored design for extreme conditions.  The development of the ice axe really took off in earnest in the mid-sixties, as travel to faraway places really began to expand, along with the investigation into sports technology.

While there have been variations on the design of ice climbing axes over the years, its constituent parts are still there.  Essentially, the main parts of the axe are the head, shaft and spike.  The head is often made of steel, and combines the pick and the adze.  The pick is the toothed point, which aids in self arrest.  The wide, flat end is the adze, which is made for chipping at snow and ice.  There is usually a central hole in the head that is designed for attaching a karabiner or leash.

Ice Climbing Axe

Originally made from wood, modern axe shafts tend to be made from titanium or aluminum, although other composite materials are used such as Kevlar, carbon or fiberglass.  At the base of ice axe shafts is the spike, also known as the ferrule.  As an ice axe is also used as a walking stick, the spoke offers support and balance when walking across snow and ice.

The ice climbing axe is a proven life saver, and should be an essential part of your kit. To find the right ice axe, always talk to a specialist in rock climbing.

Trekitt supplies climbing and mountaineering equipment including clothing, backpacks, sleeping bags, ropes, and ice climbing axe accessories.