What makes the perfect ice axe?

It’s an essential bit of winter mountain kit but choosing one can be tricky. In search of an expert to explain what makes the perfect ice axe, we head to the only place in the UK that still makes them: the DMM factory in north Wales.

What makes the perfect ice axe?

by Matt Jones |

Back in 1958 mountaineer Godfrey Francis wrote: “Buying an axe should be the beginning of a long partnership.” He was right. A good ice axe ought to be a trusty companion on winter adventures, your pointy metal pal on snow and ice-covered hills. Which means that when you’re picking one out, you want to get it right the first time

There’s only one manufacturer still making ice axes right here in the UK, and that’s DMM. Founded in 1981, DMM turns out some of the most highly regarded climbing hardware in the industry, which includes a selection of ice axes that range from highly technical ice tools to hill-friendly walking axes. They’ve got serious heritage in this department – DMM were the first company to make fully bent ice axes, and in 2006 even produced a single-piece, hot-forged ice tool: the legendary DMM Rebel, as wielded by Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise. DMM’s latest innovations in axes are the Spire and Spire Tech, a batch of which just happened to be coming off the assembly line as the Trail team arrived at the factory in Llanberis.

Waiting to meet us was Peter Danson, the design engineer responsible for the new Spire tools – and the perfect person to explain precisely how ice axes are designed and made. “I started climbing with my dad when I was 10, and he started climbing with his dad when he was 8,” he revealed. “From then on, I was hooked. I did my first winter routes at 11 and was always interested in the hardware. I think I’m one of those rare people who knew exactly what they wanted to be from a young age: a climbing gear designer. My dad always joked that I was more interested in the gear than the climbing!”

Design

Now that he’s all grown up, Peter takes his craft seriously. “As far as I’m concerned, the design of climbing gear is art,” he says earnestly. “But the function drives the form. The form is beautiful, but the function is driving that shape. It’s not made that way because it looks nice.”

DMM’s Spire and Spire Tech axes were four years in the making. What sparked the initial concept? “More people than ever are getting into winter hillwalking, and we’ve seen a corresponding growth in sales of winter kit,” reveals Peter. “But DMM didn’t have a straight-shafted ice axe, primarily intended for use in piolet mode [holding the axe by the head and using the bottom spike for balance]. The Spire was developed to fit that brief.” How about the Spire Tech? “As the name suggests it is a more technical version of the spire, with its additional machined grip and a slightly bent shaft for improved clearance when swinging the axe or climbing up steeper névé. It has a 12° curve, which angles the pick more aggressively, even though it’s the same pick design as the regular Spire.” We’ve hit the crux already: pick geometry is arguably the most important element of ice axe design. The angle of the pick has been designed to give optimum performance on both straight and bent shafts, and the front point has been improved to give better penetration into ice, whilst maintaining its durability. In fact, Peter reckons it’s superior in this regard to its much-loved predecessor, the DMM Cirque.

Despite this slightly more aggressive design, the head of the Spire is still surprisingly comfortable to hold when using the axe in a classic walking/self-arrest position. “That’s down to the partial chamfer on the top of the pick, which makes it more comfortable to hold and plunge, but can still be removed from ice with ease,” Peter explains.

DMM ice axe designer Peter Danson
DMM ice axe designer Peter Danson

Weight

In recent years, outdoor kit has generally got lighter and lighter. The Spire weighs in at just 352g in the 55cm length. That’s significantly lighter than the Cirque, which is a comparatively hefty 583g. Is lighter always better when it comes to ice axes then? “Not necessarily – it’s about balance,” says Peter. He explains that if you’re primarily using the axe as a walking aid, you’ll appreciate a lower overall weight, especially at the end of a long hill day. But if you’re swinging the axe, then a little extra head weight makes for easier, more efficient placements with the pick. The same applies if you’re cutting steps using the adze.

Length

“The steeper you go, the shorter your axe wants to be,” is Peter’s basic advice. But what exact length feels comfortable depends on the individual. Like many axes, the Spire and Spire Tech come in various lengths. The shortest is the 45cm Spire Tech, which is ideal for ski tourers or shorter hillwalkers. The longest is the 75cm Spire – essentially a winter walking stick, which is great for stability on frozen terrain or crossing glaciers. Generally, however, Peter agrees that an axe between 55cm and 65cm is the most versatile option for UK hillwalking and mountaineering.

Materials

“Basic materials haven’t really changed in climbing equipment for many years, because there’s nothing significantly better,” says Peter. The Spire’s shaft is made from 7075 aircraft-grade aluminium alloy. It is a slightly thinner tube than DMM’s other axes. Doesn’t that mean it is weaker? “Slightly, but the demands on a walking axe are also much lower than our more technical axes, therefore we can design a lighter product that is more comfortable to carry and more suitable for its intended use.”

The head of the Spire consists of a pick and welded adze. These components are made from cold-rolled, hardened steel. Essentially, the steel is rolled and compressed at very high pressure to the required thickness. Apologies if you were hoping they were forged over flames by Middle Earth dwarves deep in the mines of Moria (though actually, DMM does hot-forge many components, so there are some pretty impressive furnaces on site). The head is secured with two bungs, made from super-toughened nylon – the same material used in ski bindings. These are black in colour to ensure high UV-resistance. At the other end of the shaft, the steel spike also has two more bungs. The pieces are then riveted together.

There’s one hidden ingredient. “We also glue each end of the shaft with an epoxy, unlike most manufacturers,” reveals Peter. “This adds stiffness and rigidity, while also preventing snow and ice meltwater from entering the shaft.”

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Ice axe production process
Clockwise from top left: Stamping out ice axe handles – before and after; Ice axe shafts being tumbled; Part of the Pick production process; Drilling out rivet holes before assembly
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Construction

In the assembly room Peter has laid out all the constituent parts of a Spire axe. There aren’t many – just 9 components in total. But the processes required to manufacture each part are far more complex. “The pick is laser-cut, stress-relieved, machined and welded to the adze, which has also been laser-cut, stress-relieved, machined and bent. This forms the head, which is heat-treated and hardened, then EP [Electrophoretic paint] blacked to prevent corrosion,” says Peter.

The bottom spike is made in similar fashion. It’s a lot of work – and a lot of workers. “Up to 25 people have touched each component before it reaches the consumer,” reveals Peter. Some of these processes are incredibly time-consuming. We watch a DMM operator patiently grinding adzes to their 3mm thickness. Each batch can take around an hour on the machine housed in the busy, noisy press shop.

In a delivery bay, we see 3m-long boxes of extruded aluminium tubing. Each box weighs half a ton. This is the raw material for ice axe shafts, which are cut to size before being heat-treated, rumbled, anodised and lasered. Rumbling is just as cool as it sounds. Parts are tumbled in a giant vibrating drum along with hundreds of abrasive ceramic stones, which smooth and polish the metal. Then they’re anodised to give that familiar sleek, coloured finish – which also ensures greater durability and corrosion-resistance. Lasering is the final touch, which inscribes the DMM logo and product name on the shaft, along with essential safety information. This includes a unique serial number that allows every single axe to be individually traced back to its date and order of production. DMM is a brand that takes pride in every one of its products. Peter,

I suspect, is similarly proud of his designs, though he casually downplays it. “It was pretty nice to see the Spire Tech in the shops,” he eventually admits.

Maybe it’s not cool for a design engineer to big up their own work. But Peter does tell us that he added his own little flourish to the Spire axe. Take a look at the adze and you’ll spot three cut-outs. These reduce the axe’s overall weight. But the shape also looks like a smiley face. Peter reveals it was inspired by a climbing buddy of his who added smiley faces to the pommels of his climbing axes, so that halfway up a tough route he’d spot them grinning down at him.

As we leave the DMM building, mighty Snowdon looks down on us. Today the summit is wreathed in cloud rather than snow, but winter is coming – it’s time to tool up...

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Not sure which ice axe to buy? See our guide to the best ice axes for winter treks and mountaineering****!

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