If you’re new to mountaineering then buying your first ice axe or ice tool can be real confusing and buying the wrong axe or tool could be disastrous. Here is a basic breakdown of the different types of ice axes available and what they should, or shouldn’t be used for.
Ice Axe vs Ice Tool
Ice tools have a T rated head (noted with a T stamped on the pick) and a short curved shaft. They are used for climbing vertical ice or mixed ice/rock walls where you will be constantly putting all of your weight on the head. A quality ice tool will feel rather heavy because strong thick metals are used to ensure the axe doesn’t break under the abuse climbers put them through.
An ice axe typically has a longer straight shaft with a B rated head (noted with B stamped on the pick). These are used to navigate steep glaciers and snow fields most commonly as a walking stick. The head is commonly used to break up snow and ice to cut steps or clear an area for camp and break loose gear that froze to the ground. With experience an ice axe can be used to stop yourself in a fall using a technique known as self arrest
B vs T Head
Basic heads are marked with a B stamped on the head and are found only in ice axes. These heads are made of softer metals and generally weigh less.
Technical heads are marked with a T stamped on the head and are mostly found on ice tools. These heads are made of steel and undergo rigorous testing to make sure they can handle torquing in every direction. They usually weight substantially more than a B head.
One last note on mixed use axes. For specialized situations some manufactures make ice axes with T rated heads. This allows you to put your full weight on the head of an ice axe to climb vertical walls. The ergonomic design of an ice axe is not optimized for vertical climbing so this type of axe is uncommon.