Ice tools are incredibly refined engineered products and have gone through dramatic evolutions in technology and geometry in the past 15 years. Modern tools are lightyears better than what was previously available, and there are many great choices on the market. Simply put, now is a great time to be an ice climber!
Shopping for the perfect ice tool can be a bit tricky. Tools come in variety of different shapes, styles and geometries. The best ice tool for you is probably the one that penetrates ice most easily and has the most natural swing. Ice comes in a wide variety of different
forms and conditions. Temperature, shape, density and consistency are common variables for every pitch of ice. Find a tool that climbs well throughout the entire spectrum of ice conditions. Any ice tool will climb well in soft, warm, “styrofoamy” plastic conditions. But will it climb well in hard dense and brittle cold conditions? This is the hardest type of ice to climb and where your tool needs to perform the best. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore often has some of the coldest and most brittle ice conditions in the country. This makes the Michigan Ice Festival arguably the best place to test ice tools!
Here are three key points to consider when shopping for tools:
The angle at which the pick penetrates the ice- Hold the tool up against a 90 degree wall, as though you were going to strike it. How does the tip of the pick touch the wall? Is it on the bottom tooth of the pick or the top shoulder of the pick? If it is on the
top shoulder of the pick, it is more likely to fracture the ice and it may require you to modify your natural swing to more of a non-intuitive “downward hack” to compensate for the pick angle geometry. If it is on the bottom tooth of the pick you are less likely
to fracture the ice and when you pull down on the tool the pick will naturally and continually drive down and into the ice.
Pick thickness and shape- The thicker and more blunt the pick, the harder it will be to penetrate ice, and the more ice it will displace due to the increased surface area. A higher volume pick will require more force to be generated to achieve the proper pick penetration. A narrower and beak like pick will focus the force of your swing into a smaller surface area, penetrate ice more easily, and displaces ice. Tools with this narrower pick profile are often quieter and more efficient to climb on. They also may require you ease off on the force of your swing.
Volume of the Grip- ALWAYS TEST TOOLS WITH YOUR ICE CLIMBING GLOVES ON! Consider how the grip feels. Is the grip too big or too large in diameter for your hand? Is the grip too small for your hand? Can the grip be modified to fit your needs? Remember, some grips crush your pinky finger when you are hanging straight arm while others allow for more comfort and more breathing room. A tight support grip
may also reduce blood circulation in your hands making the screaming barfies even worse! And please remember, when feeling the grips on tools in the shop don’t forget to wear an ice glove to determine how you fill out the volume. Rarely do we ice climb
barehanded outside, especially in the U.P.!
Ultimately, finding the right ice tool comes down to personal preference. Try as many tools as you can on the ice, climb on them side by side (left hand with one model, right hand with another) on the same climb to understand what you like or don’t like. Look for what feels right to you. Form an opinion on what you like and why. Remember, now is the best time in history to be an ice climber!
Brett Merlin is living his dream. A graduate of the University of Vermont and alumni of some formative summers learning to climb in Colorado as a teen, Brett works for CAMP USA in Colorado and is a strong, enthusiastic, and always smiling fixture at front range crags AND the Michigan Ice Fest! Be sure to stop by the Cassin Climb at the Michigan Ice Fest demo to try out the latest in ice climbing tool technology!