Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

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Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by oleander » Sat Mar 25, 2017 9:27 pm

I just bought an ice axe. I will carry it strictly for self-arrest in high snow years going over Class 2 & Class 3 passes or doing snowfield traverses. (I'm not a winter mountaineer nor a climber in general.)

So. Should I buy a leash for it?


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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by Teresa Gergen » Sun Mar 26, 2017 4:38 am

Last edited by Teresa Gergen on Wed Nov 14, 2018 8:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by Hobbes » Sun Mar 26, 2017 7:27 am

Then there's the counter theory that if you slip and lose hold of your axe, you may survive the fall, but you might not survive the ensuing solo knife fight. I think the last thing I would want would be to have the pick/adze wildly flying around anywhere near my head/chest/abdomen as I slid/tumbled down a slope.

Perhaps the best solution is to have two pieces of equipment: a whippet for the 98% of the time you don't need an axe, but helps greatly to prevent/recover from a general slip. Then, when you are in the 2% situation that requires self belay, step cutting and/or self-arrest capabilities, you use the axe. The idea being that in those kinds of situations, your mind will be so focused that you might surprise yourself with the kind of death-grip force you can apply and hold onto the axe.

Ned Tebbitts is a huge advocate of this dual set-up:

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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by Hobbes » Sun Mar 26, 2017 7:34 am

Every now and then Ned posts up a long summary of his essential advice for snow travel. Here's one from two years ago where he lays out all his most important points:

***************************************************************************************** ... 08306.html

Here are the annual snow questions asked before everyone's PCT thru hike,
then again from the deck at Kennedy Meadows:

1. "How much snow is in the sierra?"
2. "Is it consolidated so I can walk on it or is it powder and I'll have to
wallow through it?"
3. "Do I need crampons or will I be ok with Microspikes?"
4. "Do I need an ice axe or will a Whippet work?"
5. "Will I need snowshoes?"

Let's see if I can organize a decent response:

1. The amount of snow doesn't matter.

2. Once the snowpack is consolidated (compacted, hard-ish), you can walk on
its surface (until it becomes soft and you posthole). The danger comes when
the slope you're walking across (it's always the traverses up or down) gets
steep and/or hard and icy. Then you'll need to know how to safely get across
without slipping and falling and sliding/tumbling all the way into whatever
is below you (trees, boulders, cliff, lake, creek, etc.). That can end your

3. To keep from slipping on the steeps (not much of a problem on the flats
unless you're trying to go fast and pushing off your toes as if you were on
dry ground), you'll need some form of traction device that puts teeth on the
edges of your shoes (because most of the time you're walking on the uphill
edges of your feet across traverses where switchbacks exist in the summer).
This applies if you are ahead of the pack or making your own trail (even
heading out to go to the bathroom) and do not have a trench made by those
ahead of you to walk in every day.

If you have a snow-trench to walk in across steep traverses, the bottom of
that "path" will most likely be flat, side to side, although lumpy and
slippery in the mornings, and almost any design of "crampon" will work since
your whole foot is making contact with the snow. So, Microspikes will work
just fine as long as you don't venture out onto the hard and slippery steep
morning crusts. Instep designs don't help much unless you always walk
flat-footed on top of the spikes all the time, but you will most likely be
rolling off the ball of your feet, so that's why you need spikes up there.
You do not want climbing crampons or anything with forward spikes since you
will be walking, not climbing. Too many hikers trying to "make do" have cut
up their legs with those points!

Don't go with designs that are so light, they aren't strong! Look for good
designs that have solid metal wrapping up alongside your feet in a few
places. With this design, you can lean on those downhill edges and not fear
sliding right off (this is what happens with the chain-designs and
Microspikes!). Remember, you will probably be walking on snow, then dirt,
then snow, then rocks and roots, so they need to be strong enough to endure
this abuse. Keep in mind that if you are just trying to "get by," whatever
you choose will probably fail you somewhere along the line and it will be a
long and hazardous side trip out of the sierra and down to Lone Pine or
Bishop to get the design you should have purchased originally. Make sure
they strap on, because loose or "rubber band" styles can stretch and may
roll off your feet just when you need them the most (nasty steep stretch
across Forester's chute, for example).

4. This is what I want you to remember: The Whippet is in your hand all
the time, ready to arrest your fall. The ice axe will be carried, strapped
to your pack, until you recognize the need for it ahead, which almost no one
without training does, thus it will not be in-hand when you slip and fall
and need to perform a self-arrest to keep from getting hurt!

I used to snow-hike with a long, hickory-handled axe that reached from my
down-stretched arm/hand to the ground, sort of like a short hiking stick. It
was always in my hand. That worked. We didn't have self-arrest poles in
those days! Buy and use a Whippet whenever you know you will be needing to
walk across steep snowy traverses, no matter how small! Don't assume,
though, that they are fool-proof and will always save you from a broken bone
or worse, because if you don't know how to reflexively deploy it, you've got
an expensive stick. And don't worry about its weight; you'll get stronger.
Its presence to save your life makes it worth every ounce! Use snow baskets,
too, otherwise your poles will just sink deep into the snow and be of no use
helping you to keep your balance.

5. Nix to the snowshoes! I carried a pair from Kennedy Meadows to Donner
Pass once and used them that many times, once! The main reason they're
useless to a PCT thru hiker is that they totally fail on the steep
traverses. Straight up or down is marginal, but forget it otherwise. Learn
how to snow-hike in steep terrain and on both hard snow and breakable crust
because that is probably what you'll have on the Crest in May and June.

I have been hiking the sierra, PCT, and CDT for 50 years, have been
snow-hiking for 43 of those, and have been teaching the skill to thru hikers
for the past 33. Mountain Education logs about 100 to 150 days/nights on PCT
snow every year, especially after "normal" winters, and so we have a bit of
experience to share regarding what "works," lasts, and performs and what
doesn't. Snow-hiking and camping, even in the powder snow of winter, is a
gas and addicting!

A little snow-planning advice:

- 1 mile per hour is about average. To get more miles in, you'll have to
hike into the afternoon and risk postholing.

- Postholing is when you suddenly and unexpectedly plunge into the snow
making a deep hole with your leg(s). These can be painful to your ankles,
knees, hips, and back over time, so don't get caught still on the snow
after, say, 1:00pm. Get over the pass and down to terra firma before then!

- Make your miles when below snowline, but realize that the "trail" down
there during the sierra thaw may be a creek or mud.

- Plan to do one pass a day and do it right away in the morning, thus camp
at the base of the climb the night before.

- Don't expect to do more than 10-14 miles per day when on snow in the
steep terrain of the high sierra.

- Double your food and carry an extra day or so because of extreme energy
consumption and the chance for bad weather.

- Don't expect to go from KM to VVR without a resupply out Kearsarge. You
will eat and sweat like a pig snow-hiking!

- Pay a lot of attention to both where you are and how you're feeling.
Snow-hiking will be harder than swinging your feet on dry trail!

- Learn how to navigate over snow! Don't freak out if you can't see the
trail. It doesn't matter anyway. Just know where it is and make your own
easy route. Realize that the summer trail wanders around topographic land
features that will be buried and a non-issue to you. Snow-hiking is actually
easier for above-timberline navigation. For example, just because the trail
goes across that steep slope along the canyon wall, doesn't mean you have
to! Know where the safe routes are and connect with the trail as needed.
This is a huge aspect of what we teach on our Snow Advanced Courses!

- You already know our advice about self-arresting and traction devices and
what tools to use.

- Camping on snow is very comfortable because you can shape your bed the
way most comfortable! Just use an insulated pad.

- Ambient temperatures on snow can be very hot, if you're out there during
the thaw (usually starts sometime in May), so beware of sunburn, both to the
eyes and skin! Wear good glasses designed for high altitude and consider a
long-sleeved shirt. I've been snow blinded and seriously burned twice, then
I learned!

- You may not have open water sources to get water from, so prepare to
carry water when in the heat on snow. Water sources may be unsafe to get
close to, also. Learn how to assess these and snow bridges before you trust
your life to one.

- Expect the day's heat to melt the snow at the rate of 1 or 2 inches per
day, then freeze up forming a crust/ice at night.

- Compressed snow by someone's feet will melt and glaze a bit, thus be icy
and slippery in the morning. So, be careful walking in that trench.

- Balance is a big deal! On dirt, you can roll off your toes, pushing
yourself forward, but on snow, forget it, you'll only slip. Learn to walk
flat-footed and on the edge of your shoes as needed to negotiate the
different cambers, angles, and surfaces. Use your poles out to your sides to
maintain your balance while you move forward. They are extensions of your
hands to catch your balance. Use them. You will slip and stumble and slide
and laugh as you first learn what to do!

- Don't let yourself get wet in a cold environment! As long as you can dry
out, you'll be ok, but watch out for sweating after the sun goes down or
when you cruise through the shade or while descending a pass on the shady
side. Hypothermia can cause you to think sloppy and you can make bad
decisions. It takes another person to see this happening to you, so travel
over snow in a group.

- Don't rely on the "Mountainman" in the group to always know everything
and be the leader. He may like it, but everyone should question where they
are, when to rest, eat, and drink, where they're going, and when to stop!

- Don't count on someone "being there" to help you get through rough spots
because there probably won't be anyone skilled nearby when you need them.
Novices usually say, "I'll learn that skill or ability when I need it! I'm
sure there'll be someone around who can show me what to do...." Your safety
comes from making the right decisions for you, even if you are in a group.
Get your snow skills before you suddenly find the slippery stuff in front of
you, then maybe you can help others who didn't.

- You don't just walk on the surface of the snow. The pressure of your foot
puts weight on whatever is inside the pack, be it a tree, rock, branch, log,
or just air. Realize that you are walking on multiple layers of old snow,
powder, ice, and debris and they all don't necessarily play well together.
Some surfaces do not bond with others, thus can slide when the slope is
steep enough and you just cut a fault line across it with your tracks. No,
it is not usual for avalanches to happen after the thaw, but little, wet
slides can and you'll see them up on the higher, steeper slopes above you.
Just keep an eye out for them because when they occur up there it should
tell you that you don't want to be there as the pack gets warmer, softer,
and less bonded in the afternoon! Realize, too, that postholing through ice
layers can cut you up pretty good. So, too, for those sudden plunges
alongside boulders, rocks, and trees! Predict, as well, that if you see a
little tree peeking above the surface of a deep pack that there is probably
a bigger tree below it and to walk way around it. It is easy to fall down
into its branches and get seriously stuck, if not buried in the ensuing
loose snow.

Mountain Education does have snow skills courses that thru hikers can attend
as they first enter the sierra in May and June! Look for the 5-day,
Thru-Hiker Specific course that runs from Cottonwood Pass, over Forester
Pass, and out Kearsarge Pass. ... -overview/

I hope that helped!

There is so much more to learn to maximize your health and safety when
snow-hiking, but this ought to get your thoughts alerted.

Ned Tibbits, Director
Mountain Education, Inc.
ned at

"To minimize wilderness accidents, injury, and illness in order to maximize
wilderness enjoyment, safety, and personal growth, all through experiential
education and risk awareness training."

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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by Wandering Daisy » Sun Mar 26, 2017 11:18 am

I can guarantee that over the 40 years I did serious mountaineering, that if I did not use a leash, I would have dropped my ice axe down a slope. The chances of a fall are small, but lose the ice axe in the middle of a slope where it is needed and you greatly increase your risk. I am definitely inn the "use the leash" camp. You can make a leash of webbing, but if using an ice axe for many hours at a time a manufactured leash is more comfortable.

Becoming very proficient with an ice axe greatly reduces the chance it will attack you when you fall.

I my opinion, you either take the time practice self arrest, every year with a refresher, or you stay off slopes where an ice axe is needed. By practice, I mean on real slopes, hard snow slopes, fall upside down, fall backwards, fall any way conceivable, with a day pack, with your regular backpack, with your traction devices (crampons or micros-pikes); until you know exactly how to handle each situation.

Slopes that would be safe for the general backpacker (novice ice-axe user) can be done almost as safely (or perhaps more safely) with micro-spikes and trekking poles.

Whatever tools you choose, ice-axe, whippet, micro-spikes, crampons, you REALLY need to practice - a lot. Until it becomes an instinct. Falls happen so quickly that you do not have time to think about what to do.

By the way, on serious snow climbs I always wore a climbing helmet.

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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by Tom_H » Sun Mar 26, 2017 2:53 pm

There are three answers: yes, yes, and yes. And as WD says, you need to practice to the point of proficiency so that there is very little chance of being injured by the axe in a fall.

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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by Shawn » Sun Mar 26, 2017 6:46 pm

And speaking of practicing................

Freedom of the Hills (V7) advises to not use a leash while practicing to prevent getting injured from the axe.

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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by Lumbergh21 » Mon Mar 27, 2017 2:00 am

I have to agree with WD both on having a leash and practice. Having a leash might have saved my life once, a few years ago when I decided to climb Mt. Shasta. What would've been better is if I had practiced self arrest before that trip up Shasta, seeing as it had been better than 20 years since I had last done any mountaineering and had practiced self arrest. I just assumed that because I knew it 20 years before, I would still be able to do it automatically, correctly, quickly. I was wrong, and if I hadn't had the leash on my ace axe, I would have lost it and probably slid over 2,000 feet down a 45 degree slope. Even with practice, I do remember losing hold of my ice axe (also on Mt. Shasta, lol) many years before. It would have slid a long way, and I would have had to retrieve it without an ice axe to use in case I slipped. Not a comfortable position to be in. I also found an ice axe on that very same trip that someone else had lost (me and my mountaineering partner left a note at Horseman's Camp, but it never was claimed).

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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by maverick » Tue Mar 28, 2017 1:18 pm

Take a class or learn from someone who is very experienced in using an ice axe and knows how to self arrest, do not try to learn it on the whim or by reading a book.

You must be able to react to a fall immediately, no hesitation, your life could depend on a split second decision, which only learning and practicing the technique can give you.

Always use a leash, if you slip suddenly, you will throw your arms into the air and will loose your axe, a leash and practice will help in preventing from this happening.
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I don't give out specific route information, my belief is that it takes away from the whole adventure spirit of a trip, if you need every inch planned out, you'll have to get that from someone else.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, an HST member:

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Re: Got an ice axe. Should I get a leash?

Post by oleander » Wed Mar 29, 2017 6:37 pm

Whippet? So I am taking my aunt's dog with me? LOL. That was a really great article, Karl - I learned some new things.

Leash - OK - will get leash.

Taking a class to learn & practice self-arrest has been on my list for a long time.

I do have microspikes as well (and I carry 2 poles).

Thanks everyone,
- Oleander

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