Saturday, July 30th, 2016

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To Ice Axe or Not to Ice Axe


The Guides Corner: Tips, Tricks, Trip Reports, Gear Reviews, and Mountaineering Ramblings from Rich Meyer Alpine Guide.

It’s 5am in Truckee, and you’re headed out for a dawn-patrol lap on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. Your pack includes beacon, shovel, and probe of course. Also layers, hat, sunblock, snacks, lip balm. You know the drill. You peak over at your climbing gear and see your ice axe and crampons. Do you bring them along?

When in doubt, yes!

If the day’s objectives include familiar terrain that you’ve skied before, where the skinning is straightforward over moderate slopes, there is little chance of losing your way, and the descent is free of cliffed-out areas, then no. Leave them at home.

However, If you are venturing into unfamiliar terrain, where steeper conditions exist, or you are focusing on a particular ski objective that includes significant snow-climbing, then yes! Bring the gear. Your axe and crampons still will most likely never come out of your pack. But having them at the ready could be the difference between a great day and a terrible day.

I frequently hear stories from friends who barley pulled off a summit, because they were hanging their ass out farther than they had expected, without the appropriate tools.  The temptation (and often peer pressure) can easily get to us. We weigh the options, and “go for it.”   I’m a fan of pushing one’s comfort zone and taking on a challenge, but I’m also a fan of being prepared.

xlc-390-01bWith the development of lighter gear we can push further (and more safely) into alpine terrain.  My CAMP XLC 390 aluminum crampons weigh in at approx 14 oz.  And my CAMP Corsa 50cm axe weighs in at about 9 oz. The two (combined) weigh less that a Kleen Kanteen of water and offer a lot of security.  (Naturally, some ice axe & crampon training should come with those tools).

The Whippit is another tool backcountry skiers will use to add some safety while on steeper terrain. Attached to the grip of your ski pole it weighs significantly less than an axe, and is always there if you should need it.  Personally, I don’t go with the Whippit very often.  When things get steep and firm, I typically go to crampons and ski poles.  If necessary, crampons and ice axe.   And when I’m skinning on super firm snow (dawn patrol?) and there is “slide for life” potential, I’ll often go to the crampons.

Obviously, mid-winter ski touring in the trees is not the time for the axe and crampons or Whippit.  But come spring when the melt freeze is in full effect, and the pre-dawn start becomes the standard, you might just appreciate the extra security when topping out on your soon-to-be perfect corn run!

Every ski trip is different, and every day the snow will require you to evaluate your plan.  Arm yourself ahead of time with the tools and knowledge to knock out your objective.

*Rich Meyer has over a dozen years of experience guiding clients to mountain peaks around the world. His specialties include Skiing, Climbing and Avalanche Education.  You can learn more about Rich at his website:

  • Andy

    For skiers, there is a way that carrying an axe and crampons can work against you — it can lead you to climb higher and steeper than you can safely ski back down. Leaving the metal at home is sometimes a good strategy to help keep you out of trouble.

    • RichMeyer

      Andy, Great point. Folks should not get sucked into terrain that is above their skill level. That can certainly have nasty consequences. I would argue however, it is poor decision making that is getting folks into trouble, not the gear they carry (or don’t carry). Stay tuned here at SJ for an article on the “Human Factor”. We will touch on decision making in the backcountry and some of the common mistakes people make.