I'm going to start mountaineering. Is there a recommended size per height/weight for ice axes for general mountaineering?
With your hand on top of the head of the axe and holding it down by your side, the spike should come down to about your ankle. This will feel quite short, but when walking on steep ground (which you should be when taking an axe!), holding the axe in your uphill hand it will be a very useful length. Shorter is also lighter...
Ideally try and borrow one and see how you get on.
Some people prefer to have one long enough to use as a short walking stick. Others prefer to save weight and go as short as possible. In any case, it should be long enough so that you can use it properly to self-arrest. Everything else is optional.
You could rent a couple of ice axes of different sizes, go out to a steep snowy slope, and practice self-arrests to see what you're comfortable with. The practice will be valuable in itself. Keep in mind that stopping in powder, ice, and deep slush are all different experiences.
This is sourced from REI's How To Choose An Ice Axe.
As Chris mentioned, the axe should barely touch the ground when standing upright and with arms at the side. A rough guide to ice axe length is:
- <5'8" (<1.72m): 50-60cm
- 5'8"-6'0" (1.72-1.8m): 60-70cm
- >6'0" (>1.8m): 60-70cm
Too short is generally better than too long.
As AA Grapsas commented, it also depends on the type of climbing. Axes less than 60cm are generally for technical ice climbing and are best used for very steep or vertical slopes. Since they're shorter, they don't offer much leverage and are therefore bad for self arrest.
On the same note, axes over 70cm are generally too long for technical climbing, but better used for flat or lower angle slopes.
They say a picture is worth thousand words:
Source: Axe buying guide (Polish)
Mountaineering ice axes serve a few simple functions: self-arrest, belay, and T-anchor. (And occasionally cutting steps, but hopefully by the time you're doing that, you will already know what you like.)
For belay and T-anchors, any length of axe is fine.
For self-arrest, however, there are some factors you could consider:
- In self-arrest, you are supposed to "fall" on the axe and use your body weight to dig it into the slope for a good arrest. If the shaft is too short, much of your weight will go directly on the snow instead of on the axe, reducing the weight on the axe, and therefore its stability against the shear force pulling it tangential to the slope.
- When dropping flat on your axe in self-arrest, the length of the shaft can affect how easy or hard it would be for you to self-impale. There are two common ways to impale yourself on the shaft in self arrest:
- If the shaft is too short, and in your self-arrest drop the pick didn't go right in and the bottom of the shaft is sticking up, it could go right into your abdomen. This is fairly uncommon.
- if the shaft is too long, and in your self-arrest the pick didn't go right in and the bottom of the shaft is sticking up, it could go go through your thigh. The poking angle required for this to happen can be much lower than that required for the first abdominal impalement...
So in summary, I find that (regardless of walking-stick usefulness) the best shaft length is the one between too long that it can impale my thighs, and too short that it can impale my abdomen. I generally measure this length as the diagonal from one shoulder to the hip bone on the opposite side, but you might find that this measurement varies for you.
To add a data point to the curve, I'm 6'3", and after much deliberation bought a 65cm DMM Cirque as a general winter hillwalking axe.
While I'm generally very happy with it, I'd definitely switch to a 60cm one next time. The only place where I find the extra length useful is cutting steps in descent.
Self-arrests with it are fine, but a shorter axe would be more wieldy for them.
Always opt for shorter rather than longer. If you're holding the ice axe at your side with your arm extended, the bottom (spike) should be just below the middle of your calf. If it reaches your ankle, it's way too long.
The general advice used to be that an ice axe should never be longer than reaching your ankle, but somehow that turned into that it should reach your ankle. If an ice axe can be used as a walking stick, it's not going to be much use on steeper slopes - which is when you actually need it to self-arrest.
I wrote an article for AlpInsider on how to use an ice axe, which explains more about why shorter is better for self-arresting and how to actually use your axe. As a data point, I'm 5'11 and use a 54cm axe with a curved shaft, so it comes to about mid-way between the top of my calf and my ankle bone.