Basic & Technical Ice Axe Ratings
I saw just one thing in the feeble glow of my headlamp. I tried to look away, but the surrounding blackness was scarier. My belayer seemed miles away, engulfed in the dark. I looked back at the ice wall in front of me and saw it again. A capital B in a circle, like a cattle brand, printed on the head of my mountain axe. What is that B? No! Don’t worry about the B! Focus! Again, I beat the tool deep into the glacier ice above my head. Focus man! I swore at myself to keep climbing. But what is that B for? Bonehead? Basketcase? Broken?
The North Ridge of Mount Baker is a relatively steep Cascade volcano route. Moderate alpine slopes with a pitch of ice thrown in. Schlepping in a full Terminator-style ice climbing regalia seemed excessive for one pitch of ice, so I brought alpine crampons, one straight-shaft ice tool and one light mountaineering axe – the axe with that annoying B.
Gear manufacturers run tests on gear as they develop it. To sell in Europe, the gear must pass CE (Conformité Européenne) standards that the product has met EU consumer safety requirements. The CE standards for climbing gear were adopted from the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations D’Alpinisme, based in Berne Switzerland) about 15 years ago. For climbing gear, in general, UIAA certification meets a more stringent standard than CE certification. Some manufacturers require both UIAA and CE certification on their climbing gear.
Ice Axe Rating
Climbers and mountaineers use ice axes and ice tools. Ice tools are designed for technical ice climbing, mixed climbing and dry tooling. They have drooped picks for hooking, ergonomic grips for better handling, and high strength for pounding and twisting. Ice axes on the other hand, are primarily used as a third point of balance when walking, for steep snow climbing, easy ice climbing and hopefully never for self-arresting a fall. But these days there is a continuous spectrum between tools and axes including new hybrids such as the Grivel Air Tech Evolution. Therefore, the UIAA and CE have placed both ice tools and ice axes in the same category as ice tools. The UIAA and CE have identical standards for ice tools, but there are two categories: Technical, which is denoted by a capital T inside a circle, and Basic, which has a capital B inside a circle.
Here are the ice tool definitions from the UIAA website:
Type B = Basic type, with lower strength, for use in general circumstances as on glacier for snow hiking, for ski mountaineering, etc.
Type T = Technical type, with higher strength, for use in all circumstances especially for ice climbing, dry tooling, etc.
Years ago, tests began on ice axes in the manner they were used: self-arresting, boot-axe belays and as deadmen (burying the axe horizontally in the snow as an anchor). The Basic rating was the only category. Tests are still conducted in this manner, but with the advent of modern mixed climbing and brutish techniques like torquing and steinpulling, the additional category of Technical was established.
Many tools have a B or T rating on both the shaft and the head. The tool must have both shaft and pick T-rated to receive an overall T rating. This table shows the series of UIAA and CE tests.
|3-point bend test on the shaft ||rappelling off an ice tool as a dead-man||2.5 kN* ||3.5 kN|
|Strength of head/shaft interface in use direction ||pulling out on shaft when ice climbing ||0.6 kN ||0.9 kN|
|Strength of head/shaft interface perpendicular to "use direction" ||Boot-axe belay ||2.5 kN ||4.0 kN|
|Torque test of pick ||Cranking your tool shaft while pick is embedded in ice ||127 N ||182 N|
|Fatigue torque test of pick ||Extensive side to side twisting of pick to extract from ice ||No test ||80 N|
|Attachment points on the shaft and spike for leashes and clip-in ||Your body hanging off the tool ||2 kN ||2 kN|
*225 pounds on Earth
The major problem with UIAA and CE ice tool tests is they are standards for ultimate strength, not long-term abuse tests. As Bill Belcourt at Black Diamond put it, “If you beat your axe 1000 times on the curb then try to use it, it will break.” A reputable ice tool manufacturer will have CE and UIAA certifications, as well as conduct their own set of rigorous tests. Black Diamond has 10 or 15 internal requirements that simulate real use for their ice tool tests.
What Does this Mean?
The real question is: was I a Bonehead for dangling my carcass from a B-rated tool on Baker’s North Ridge? The short answer is no. A T-rated axe would have been ideal for that technical pitch, but there was no dry tooling involved and that single crux pitch was too long of a slog from the trailhead to carry a heavy T-rated tool. You don’t need a T-rated axe for general mountaineering. But for harder alpine routes a T-rated axe will be stronger. If you’re waterfall ice climbing or dry tooling then use a fully T-rated axe. Buck-up!