Gear Guy

Petzl Charlet     Photo: courtesy, REI

Q:

Where can I find advice on proper ice-ax technique?

I plan to carry an ice ax on my Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) trek through the Sierras this summer. Where can I find a tutorial or other guidance on the proper use of the ax? Robert Tehachapi, California

A:Yes, tutorial—a very good idea, indeed. Some years ago there was a story floating around here, perhaps apocryphal, about a fellow who bought a new ice ax and wanted to teach himself how to use it. He was too shy to go out with a group, so he hiked up into an area in the central Cascade Mountains near, I believe, Monte Cristo peak. He never came out.

Days later, a search party came across him near the bottom of a snowy slope. He’d been practicing with his ice ax, had made some mistake with it, and had stuck the pick end into his chest.
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That said, numerous accidents have been documented where people hiking along a trail with an ax have tripped, sticking it into various parts of their bodies with uniformly unfortunate results.

So I’d do one of two things. First, take a basic mountaineering class this spring. You’ll enjoy it, you’ll learn a lot, you’ll be a lot safer on your PCT hike. Second, perhaps through the same mountaineering school, take just a weekend class on snow travel and ice-ax use. You’ll learn how to travel efficiently across snow, how to be safe around your ice ax, and how to use it should you slip.

You don’t want to be like that guy at Monte Cristo.

For a selection of the country’s best places for getting schooled, read Outside’s April ’04 "Thrill of the Skill".

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