1. Ice Axe Positions

In this video we review considerations for ice axe positions. The ice axe is the symbol of mountaineering. When used correctly, it can be one of the most versatile tools a climber employs in the mountains.

There are many ways the ice axe is used and held to help climbers with ascending and descending snow and ice. When and where to choose these different hand positions depends on:

  • Ability and/or desired security
  • Firmness of the snow
  • Steepness of the slope
  • Consequences of a slip and fall

Below are the various ice axe positions used in alpine & mountaineering:

Cane – On relatively flat terrain, or with gentle slopes such as glaciers and snowfields, it’s best to use the axe in the “cane position.” As it sounds, hold the axe on top of the head, with fingers wrapped around the pick and the adze. The shaft and the spike are placed on the mountain surface, and the whole tool is used like a walking cane.

Self Arrest – The classic “self arrest” position is similar to the cane position, but the axe is always held in the uphill hand with the adze facing forward. This position helps you swiftly self arrest while climbing. Please see our other video on “The Self-Arrest.” 

Dagger – When the terrain gets steeper and firmer such as with neve snow, climbing using the “dagger” position is a secure and speedy technique. The axe can be held just under the head on the shaft, or with fingers wrapped around the head, with the adze resting in the saddle between the thumb and pointer finger and the pick facing into the slope. Plunge the pick into the snow and keep the lower part of the shaft flat against the slope, then move your feet up and repeat.

Belay – On steep, softer snow, the ice axe “belay” position can offer very secure climbing. Hold the axe on the head, one hand on the pick, and the other had on the adze. Plunge the shaft of the axe as far as you can in the snow to create a fairly solid anchor. Then move the feet up and repeat.

Hammer – Finally, the “hammer position” is most often used with vertical ice climbing tools or a set of ice axes in very steep snow or ice. Hold the axe low on the shaft just above the spike. Drive the pick of the axe into the slope using a hammer swinging motion over your head.


In this Alpine & Mountaineering video series section, we discuss carrying only one ice axe. It is therefore called an ice axe. A “piolet” is a more technical form of ice axe, which is sort of a hybrid of the two axe types used on many alpine routes. Once we enter into our Ice Climbing video series, notice how we describe waterfall ice axes (typically used as a pair) as “ice tools”, and not ice axes. Pedantic, but correct!

We hope you found this video helpful. Feel free to comment below with questions or thoughts!


Please remember, climbing is inherently dangerous. Climb at your own risk.