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My ice axe came with a leash already on it and I have never had any problems with it, but almost all of the other ice axes that I have seen in use lacked one.

One obvious pro is in case of dropping the ice axe, a leash will prevent it from sliding down the mountain and a con the constant switching back and forth to keep the axe on the uphill side.

What are some other pros and cons?

  • I'd be keen to see some cons as I cannot think on one myself. I have ice axes that came with and without leash. I've got a 15m of sling and the ones that came without I put a leash stright away. – Desorder Jul 17 '16 at 23:45
  • My impression is that leashes are bad for mountaineering, good for ice climbing. – Ben Crowell Jul 19 '16 at 2:50
  • Pro: you can't drop your axe; Con: you can't drop your axe. – Toby Speight Jan 23 at 11:40
  • A partner dropped an axe as I was belaying her on vertical ice. I almost caught it in the face as it bounced on the 45° rime slope where I was standing. Leashes are much safer in those cases although those like this one are probably better since they aren't stuck to your wrists, which can be a big hindrance. – Gabriel C. Jan 23 at 19:05
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Notice: I consider this a question about classical mountaineering. The question becomes very debatable if you include steep ice.

In short:
Do not use hand leashes on mountaineering ice axes: you attach a sharp tool to yourself which has a high chance of serious injury in case of a fall.

Safety
While there is a whole bunch of pros and cons, the one deciding factor that all mountain guides and instructors I met agreed on is the following: If you fall and let go of your ice axe, you will not get control of it again even with a leash. So the only thing it accomplishes, is that the ice axe remains close to you and will probably injure you. So no benefit but big security risk.

Pros/Cons:
There are of course some situation where a hand leash will benefit you, coming into my mind are: Accidentally losing grip and falling into a crevasse (lower risk of injury due to short fall). An obvious handling disadvantage is: Loosing time when changing direction and thus the hand holding the axe. All these factors however are much less important than the security implication explained above.

Self arrest / falling:
Most importantly: Train self arrest with your ice axe (without crampons or leash). This will show you that it is very important to stop a fall quickly. All people that I have personally see slipping on a snow slope stopped quickly by self arrest after falling. People that fell for a longer time all stopped their slide only when the terrain got less steep. Two friends who slided/fell for a long distance both reported that there slide quickly became and uncontrolled tumble after building some speed. The essence: You should never become fast but break quickly - recatching a lost ice axe takes too long and will quickly be impossible.

A personal note on steep ice:
I do not use leashes either. However I am no expert and this is purely on recommendation of an expert friend. His opinion is, that with hand leashes you will be more likely to drop one as you have to fiddle with the leash when placing an ice screw and leashes attached to the harness often get into the way. And anyway, you don't drop your axe as you depend so much on it. That is however certainly just a personal preference.

Another note on shops:
Most ice axes are supplied with a hand leash. However the mountaineering shop I go to advises all its customers to remove them before use. I asked them why they do this. Their answer was the safety implications described above. The second question: Why then are leashes still supplied. The answer is marketing. Of old hand leashes are part of an ice axe and customers might consider another ice axe if this "extra" is missing.

  • 2
    As one guy told me: "Imagine yourself sliding down the couloir in panic and fear, with a sharp axe attached to your hand, swinging here and there like some crazy viking mace." – Usurer Jul 19 '16 at 14:56
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    To illustrate: i.imgur.com/rlW3lHB.jpg – Michael Borgwardt Dec 8 '16 at 9:59
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I'm talking about a single "alpine walking axe" here, not a pair of climbing axes. (I presume this is what you mean?)

For me it's pretty strightforward:

Pro

It stops you dropping your axe (or more to the point if you do drop it you won't loose it)

Cons

It's a pain and gets in the way (just generally in my experience)

It makes swapping hands more difficult (you have to remove the leash put the leash on the other hand, etc)


TL;DR it's a matter of personal preference, some people use them others don't. The terrain is likely a factor. If your on resonably technical ground and need to keep swapping hands then it's more of an issue. If it's a slope and your not having to swap hands, then it's less

7

Not dropping the ice axe is a pro in some circumstances and a con in others. If you drop into a crevasse it would be really nice to hang on to your ice axe to aid in your rescue and finishing or evacuating the climb. One the other hand, if you fall on a slope and lose control of your ice axe, then being tethered to a flailing rod with lots of sharp edges could be really bad news. If you have a taste for that sort of thing, google, "impaled on ice axe". I just finished a glacier travel course, and the opinion of the guides was "No leashes!". However, that was with absolute beginners on the easy and heavily traveled Easton glacier route on Mt. Baker in the NW USA. If you are on technical ice, or on a big Alaskan glacier, opinions may differ.

  • 1
    Problems with impaling while sliding down a hill is a debatable issue - if you are going that fast, you are probably not stopping without an axe - in many cases, that outcome is pretty bleak. (Self arrest training where you have a safe run out, NEVER use a leash (or crampons) ) – user5330 Jul 18 '16 at 4:03
  • @mattnz, to be sure, to drive an ice axe through your abdomen would take a lot of force. But it wouldn't take a lot of speed to bury the pick in a limb or your neck, if it's not under your control. – Charles E. Grant Jul 18 '16 at 4:42
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Short answer:

Safety > Convenience.

Long answer:

For mountaineering I'd suggest using a leash; I'm sure you're aware but if you were to lose it you would have a hard time performing all these tasks:

  • Self arresting a fall on a steep snow slope.
  • Extracting yourself from a crevasse.
  • Rescuing a partner from a crevasse.
  • Building a bucket seat anchor.
  • Building a buried ice anchor.
  • Building a snow/ice bollard.
  • Creating an emergency shelter.

You are very vulnerable without your tool. The idea of falling into a crevasse and dropping my axe is pretty frightening; I would never want to rely 100% on my partner's ability to construct and haul me out with no help on my part. Likewise, the idea of my partner falling into a crevasse (and maybe becoming injured) and causing me to drop my axe as I am pulled off my feet, leaving it out of reach would be equally scary, not being able to help them and knowing each movement could bring us both a little bit closer to falling to the bottom...

The other main advantage a leash has is that it supports your weight when climbing steep stuff. This means you don't have to hold on as tight and can climb further before becoming too pumped to continue. All tools designed for use without leashes have extra support for the hand built in to compensate for this. Even then many people use elasticated umbilical-like cords to prevent the loss of tools, especially in mountain environments where it may leave them stranded.

Possible compromise:

how to attach an ice axe leash

If you have a regular mountaineering axe with no additional hand support but don't intend on climbing anything steep (unlikely if you're only using a single axe) then you could get an elasticated leash such as the Blue Ice Boa or any other very similar product. Attach it to your harness and the head of the axe and not to the spike so that it does not interfere with plunging. You will then be attached to the tool at all times but your hands will be free.

  • Yeah, the idea of losing an ice axe is a nightmare. – Usurer Jan 23 at 13:06

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