High Street, Llanberis Caernarfon LL55 4HA

The Joe Brown Shops Guide to the 10 Greatest ice Axes of all time…..

   Words by Joe Brown

   on 21/12/2016 13:16:21

If ever there was a subject of discussion this is it! There are definitely more key axes that we couldn’t include in the competition (mostly because we couldn’t get acceptable images to use) and a few have been noted at the bottom of this article, however, for the ones that we have included – here’s a brief history and reasons why………

Axe silhouette logo


At it’s simplest an alpenstock was a long wooden pole (from 4’6’’ to 7’) with an iron spike tip, used by shepherds for travel on snowfields and glaciers in the Alps since the Middle Ages. Favoured by Alpine mineral hunters while collecting on treacherous glaciers the Alpenstock evolved with metal strips being nailed along the lower length for strength and durability. The first ascent of Mont Blanc was made in 1786 by Balmat and Paccard using alpenstocks and short hatchets – the stick was used for balance and the hatchet to create steps. This combination that served mountaineers for over 60 years until local Chamonix blacksmiths created the first ice axe in the 1850’s.

Grivel Courmeyer

Even the lovely folk at Grivel aren’t entirely sure of the name of this classic early axe but as the oldest established manufacturers of climbing hardware in the world we considered this one (which resides at the Scottish Mountain Heritage collection) more than worthy of inclusion. Most essentially, it’s presence will make the competition just that little more sporting!

The Grivel family were originally blacksmiths forging agricultural tools but with the influx of wealthy tourists coming into the area they are accepted as being the first company to combine the functional elements of Alpenstocks and hand axes that early mountaineers used for security on ice slopes and for cutting steps in the snow, with the forged steel picks they made in their factory thus producing the first true ice axes.

Chouinard Zero

Using first a hickory, then bamboo and later a steel shaft, US climbing legend Yvonne Chouinard used this tool to climb classics like the Triolet Face with just one axe. Allegedly, and unsurprisingly the nicest to use was the bamboo shaft. The steel one was “awful”. Considered by some to be the “Rolls Royce” of axes the older ones can still command quite a high price. Here is an excerpt from the Great Pacific Pacific Iron Works and the catalogue from 1978:

“Northwall Hammer and Model Zero ice axe
The Model Zero Axe and the North Wall Hammer are designed for complementary use in vertical ice climbing on waterfalls, in Eastern or Canadian water ice, or for solo or super fast ascents of alpine gullies. These are specialist's tools and are not meant to replace the standard Chouinard Piolet for general Alpine climbing. The main difference in design is in the pick, which has more curve and teeth all the way along its length for better anchorage in piolet traction, but not so much curve that an unnatural swing is required. Both models also have shorter spikes to avoid self-inflicted wounds while swinging in awkward or confined circumstances. Length: 55 cm laminated bamboo shafts. Weight: 1 Ib. 12 oz. Price: $65.0
You may wish to soak or rub the shaft with a 50/50 mixture of linseed oil and turpentine to prevent water absorption. For winter climb¬ing use pine tar to seal the wood and give a good base for rubbing on X-country wax. A violet wax on a cold day will give superb grip for iced-over mittens. Paint on the tar and carefully heat the handle with a torch until the tar begins to bubble, then wipe off the excess. The carabiner hole is solely a convenience for carrying the axe. It is not to be used for belaying; a shaft-boot belay is better.”

Snowdon Mouldings Curver

In 1970 Mo Anthoine set up Snowdon Mouldings with rock climbing legend, Joe Brown. They produced a variety of now iconic outdoor equipment including the Joe Brown Helmet, but the Curver Axe was one of the few British made ice-axes and consequently very popular with UK ice climbers. Mo used imported axe heads which were then re-worked and bent into a sufficiently steep curve and attached to a fibre glass shaft. Consequently they were heavy but worked well on waterfalls.

The Curver Ice Axe (Mountain Magazine 1977)

Rapidly gaining in popularity with beginner and 'hard man' alike. We're so confident in our shafts that a free replacement axe will be given to anyone who manages to break one in normal use (including falling!). The Curver has been used on just about every expedition from the UK in the last five years and after his incredible ascent of the West face of Changabang with Pete Boardman last year, Joe Tasker said "The new Curver is fantastic, the best either of us has ever used and really reassuring to have in the hand." New increased pick droop for added security on steep ice. • New large teeth give added 'bite'. • Glassfibre shaft of great strength. • Shaped hand-grip and non-slip finish. • Beautiful balance and 'feel'. Head hole for wrist loop (essential for steep ice). New 'shorty' size, ideal for British gully climbs. Lengths: 16", 19", 21" and 24" (less pick droop).

(Courtesy of the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection)

Lowe Alpine Hummingbird

Designed by US climbers Greg and Jeff Lowe during the 70’s the Hummingbird was evolutionary in water ice climbing due to it’s tubular pick. The fibre glass shaft meant that it had a good weight to it.

Simond Chacal

The Chacal and it’s brother the Barracuda were key axes of their era starting the reverse curve design that we know today as the banana pick. Made by the Simon family factory in Chamonix in the mid to late 80’s, their picks could be replaced using the interlocking allen keys in the head and the wide knuckle clearance created by the raised pick made them very popular. A tubular water ice pick was also available for this style.

MacInnes Peck Terrordactyl

Reknowned Scottish climber Hamish Maclnnes developed the "Terrordactyl" in 1970, which was a short, all metal ice tool with an aluminium alloy shaft and a high quality pressed steel head in two sections with an adze and steeply inclined serrated pick, for climbing on neve or hard snow. As a precursor to the true “banana” pick, this tool was extremely popular among Scottish climbers in particular.

“Eventually the accepted worldwide design for modern ice tools evolved as a combination of these two basic designs with the pick, steeply dropped like the "Terror" but curved upwards at the tip like a reversed Chouinard "Climax" hammer and known as the "Banana" pick “

Hamish MacInnes via the Scottish Mountain Heritage Collection

Charlet Moser Pulsar

The yellow and black classics that arguably took over from the Chacal as the popular technical tool when they were launched in the mid 80’s. The Pulsar’s had an interchangeable shaft system so that the same head could be used with either a short, curved or long shaft.

Grivel Top Machine

Launched in 1996 this was the tool that revolutionised the shape of modern ice climbing tools. In 1998, experience gained in competitions spread the idea of climbing without leashes, Grivel answered with the first leashless tool. The era of the bottom finger and trigger rest as well as the grippy shaft had arrived. Modern ice tools all stemmed from this original design.

Petzl Nomic

Around 2008 the Nomic burst into the scene setting a new bar for steep ice and mixed climbing technical tools. It’s crazy angled design cemented leashless climbing as a “thing” for the masses and after purchasing, many climbers never looked back. The unique handle design meant that climbers could work their hands up the shaft to gain extra height to place gear without needing to find an additional placement. Some climbers even went so far as to say that Nomics, made their climbing easier by being less pumped as a result:

“It is one of the very few pieces of equipment that actually increases my ability level dramatically, rather than simply making me look the part.”

Alpinist Magazine, 2013

And the ones that didn’t get in to the final list:

Mountain Technology Vertige

Whymper Axe

Charlet Moser Quark

Grivel Beast

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