A mercifully brief (or not) overview of how that basic tool of mountaineering (the ice axe) came into being as both a historic symbol and vital tool of modern mountain climbing.
Axe Not for Whom the Piton Holds: A Brief History of the Mountaineering Ice Axe
As a proto-renaissance man, I have always been fascinated by technology; this, despite my alternate reputation for being sympathetic to the proto-Luddite cause. Perhaps remarkably (perhaps not), my entire life has reflected this sort of polar contradiction in preferences and life interests. I am by nature simultaneously a person committed firmly to the philosophical principles of peace and world-wide co-existence, while at the same time I am a keen student of the history of warfare and the study of global conflict. With regard to technology, that field of applied artifactual science that so characterises our modern Western culture as Sapiens of the Homo genus, I am again happily ambivalent to the seeming contradiction this state of superimposed diverging interests suggests.
On the one hand, I view Western mankind’s obsession with scientific technology as a fascinating anthropological nuance of human culture, while at the same time I balefully regard the imbalanced influence technology has on Western culture as potentially catastrophic (and a formidable threat to the prospects of continued human survival on the planet). My interest is, of course, purely academic, since it will no longer matter to me personally in about another 20 years (if that).
Although most ‘average’ people value consistency and perfect congruency (in thought, word, and deed) above all else in their personal lives, this basic polar duality I describe seems, by my reckoning, to characterise the essential status of all human existence. When we reflect on the fact that the vastly complicated nature of human awareness spans a broad spectrum that ranges from one extreme to its polar opposite, a complex dichotomy in all aspects of our own experiences may be seen as perfectly normal. Perhaps also chaos itself may then be seen (although with some initial difficulty, admittedly) as almost (but not quite) perfectly ordered normalcy.
Human life on this planet itself assumes the character of this extremely polar divergence of both outlook and behavior, despite our fondest personal wishes for calm, peaceful, unremarkable stability, and unchanging continuity. On the one hand, our rational minds demand serenity, while the universe seems to favor disorder and an unending clash of complexities that transcend our ability to resolve such immense philosophical contradictions. One thing we can all agree upon is that Homo Sapiens is a tool user (and increasing, a 'tool abuser', as well)...a rather high order tool (ab)user at that.
At the risk of flying off on yet another fascinating tangent, and hoping fervently that the foregoing has served to provide some needed contextual background on what follows, let me return to the subject I intend to discuss more fully here: the specific tool known as the climbing ice axe (a uniquely symbolic, yet highly functional artifact specific to mountain climbing).
As a technological artifact, the mountaineer’s ice axe is a perfect expression of the basic human trait of using tools, the clever employment of which, helps set humanity apart from its simian relatives. Or at least that remains the prevailing wisdom of the present age, despite recent compelling anthropological studies that clearly show chimps and gorillas using rudimentary tools in their interactions with their envoronment.
Even at first glance, to the non-climber the ‘ice axe’ (its common English name, although the French call it a ‘piolet’ and the Germans prefer the term ‘eispickel’) appears to be the ubiquitous, universal symbol of the climber, or mountaineer. Just about any classic stereotyped image of a climber you can recall seeing very likely shows a climber clutching an ice axe in his hands as he ascends steep snow or ice on a mountain. Aside from being the most visible symbol of a mountain climber, the ice axe is the single most important tool a climber employs to scale the upper reaches of any high mountain (except perhaps his boots, his crampons, and a rope).
In perfect congruence with today’s ever-growing tendency to improve and refine existing technology in our modern climbing setting, even the basic ice axe has been subject to enhancements in form, materials, and application over the decades since its invention. At present we find the basic ice axe in its more or less original form employed in its classic application on modest snow and ice fields for ‘self-arrest’ (the use of an axe to stop a slide or fall on snow and ice). At the upper limits of today’s tendency to push the extreme limits of human climbing ability, a far more specialized version of the basic ice axe is used to climb vertical ice; this highly technical form of the ice axe is more properly known as an ‘ice tool’. Modern ice climbing ‘tools’ are fabricated from exotic materials (titanium, carbon fibre, and steel alloys), assume very complex shapes, and are used in sets of two (along with specialized front-point crampons) to ascend sheer ice walls that only a few years ago were considered far beyond the rational limits of climbers.
Modern ice axes, whether of the classical (original) configuration for use as an aid and safety device in snow and ice walking, or in their extreme ‘ice tool’ form, are quite expensive, ranging in price from an average of about US$ 100 to US$ 500 or more. Most garden variety ice axes (for self-arrest on steep slopes) are constructed from aluminum alloys, although a few are made with state-of-the-art carbon-fibre polymers, and several are produced in harder-to-fabricate titanium/aluminum alloys. Seldom does one encounter any modern ice axe made from hard wood in the manner of the beautifully crafted original European climbing axes, first devised more a century or so ago. The reason for that is simple enough: today’s extraordinarily demanding climbing limits require far stronger materials than mere wood to assure a margin of safety. Despite that fact, there is quite an interest among mountaineers who appreciate the history of the sport for yesterday’s beautifully hand-made wood-shafted ice axes as collectibles. A quick visit to eBay and a simple search for ‘ice axe’ will verify that fact.
By this time, after reading the foregoing information, most people find themselves wondering how the ice axe, that enduring symbol of the mountain climber, first came into being, and therein lies our main story.
Mountains that reach above a certain height in altitude are seasonally covered by ice and hard-packed, high glazed snow. Many summits that reach in excess of about 5,500 meters (approximately 18,200+ feet) are covered in ice and snow all year around. Climbing safely on ice or hard snow is about as natural a process as trying to remain underwater for any length of time without supplemental air. Lacking the necessary tools to overcome the hazards of ice underfoot, climbing simply cannot be done. As a result of the need to employ safety devices to enable hazardous climbing of this sort, the basic tools of mountaineering first came into being.
The very first of these was the rope, since very early climbers lacked any specialized items to assure their safety at all in their ascents. Even boots used to climb back in the mid-1800s were often ordinary street-wear styles and not sturdy footwear created specifically for ascending frozen snowfields and keeping feet warm. Clothes worn by the early mountaineers were also often typically ordinary street clothes, amazingly enough, and a glance at old images of Victorian Era climbers will quickly verify that fact. In almost every instance, these earliest photographic images show bearded men of the early to late 1800s wearing ordinary hats, jackets, knee-pants, wool stockings, and boots (although some used ‘puttees’, long lengths of cotton fabric wound around the lower leg for added warmth and protection).
After the basic rope made of twisted hemp fibre, sturdier footwear was recognised as a basic need for Victorian Era climbing. Almost at the same time, these early climbers also recognised the utility that a good, stout climbing stick could provide on steep hillsides. Thus, today’s modern ice axe started out as little more than a relatively straight bough of modest thickness, taken from a tree and shaved free of its branches.
As early as 1786, engraved illustrations show French doctor Michael Gabriel Pacard, who along with his porter Jacques Balmat, used a long, straight wooden staff (about 10 to 12 feet in length) affixed with a metal tip to navigate his way up Alpine hillsides and snowfields. Prior to that time, few European gentlemen adventurers had visited the Alps’ highest regions, and the indigenous local peasants who inhabited the lower reaches of the Alps dared not climb them, regarding the higher mountain summits and high peaks as being inhabited by evil spirits and dragon-like creatures that threatened the life of anyone foolish enough to venture there. One illustration in particular shows Pacard’s porter (Balmat) on a mountain hillside, clutching his metal-tipped pole, but with a small, wooden-handled carpenter’s hatchet secured to his belt. In case anyone is wondering, these two items—the conventional hand axe and the long wooden staff—would eventually be combined into a single tool for use by mountain travelers by a village blacksmith, somewhere in the Alpine highlands. The rest, as they say, is history.
This convergent synthesis of walking staff and a small hatchet seems to have occurred in the mid-1800s, as well as may be determined. To some among us today who look back with the extreme clarity of hindsight, it may seem like a logical evolution in terms of functional tool development, but apparently the logic of this combination was at first not readily grasped by the early mountaineers. Since at the time of the mid-1800s, such a thing as a ‘climbing guide’ did not exist, there really was no overwhelming impetus to develop better instruments for climbing. To be sure, there were those occasional alpine peasants who made a modest living as crystal hunters (gatherers of the beautifully geometric and naturally occurring quartz crystals found in the higher mineral outcroppings of the Alps) and there were also high-alpine pasture herders who looked after sheep flocks and cow herds during the summer months, but they got along well enough without any especial need for ropes, axes, or special traction hardware for the shoes.
Only when the Alps were ‘discovered’ by the English Victorians (first by academics who emphasised the ‘scientific’ nature of their interest in mountains to legitimize their climbing activity in the eyes of their skeptical peers, and later by Victorian gentlemen who looked upon climbing mountains purely as an adventurous undertaking), was there any significant impetus to devise and develop the equipment that would soon make mountain ascents safer and more accessible. By the mid-1800s, starting first in the Swiss Vallais (near Zermatt) and French Chamonix regions, but shortly thereafter spreading to other parts of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, genteel English Victorians began discovering the aesthetic appeal of the high Alpine summits. By the late 1860s, the English Alpine Club, founded in the parlor of Zermatt’s Seiler Hotel Monte Rosa, had come into being and the world’s most arguably famous peak (the 14,693 foot/4,478 meter Matterhorn) had been climbed by English engraver and adventurer Edward Whymper.
With this sudden influx of well-to-do Englishmen in their midst, many of the more enterprising Swiss peasants who occupied villages high up in the Alpine valleys found a whole new and potentially lucrative livelihood developing right before their eyes. It wasn’t long before rude accommodations for these travelers had given way to somewhat grander establishments and many other Swiss peasants (long accustomed to herding their flocks in the higher pastures) took up work as guides to the English adventurers. With the fairly rapid growth of the new ‘mountain guide’ profession, there was a corresponding need to create and provide climbing gear, both to the amateur tourist climbers and to the professional mountain guides. Thus, improvements in footwear (sturdy hobnailed boots), clothing (substantial wool garments designed to protect against wind, cold, and moisture), and certain basic safety items (hemp-fibre ropes and climbing alpenstock/axes) came into being.
With specific regard to the ice axe, as noted earlier, the first climbing device of importance, aside from a sturdy rope, was found to be a long wooden staff. This sturdy oak, ash, or hickory staff initially proved its usefulness in the crossing of numerous glaciated snow fields that lay along the approaches to the mountains’ higher reaches. Initially about 10 to 12 feet in length and often capped with a metal spike, a large body of illustrative documentation (including many etchings, drawings, and engraved sketches) exists today that shows the early alpinists (both men and women) crossing the glaciers in and near the vicinity of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn with the aid of these long wooden staffs. As these casual ascents began to reach the higher and steeper parts of the Alps, it became clear that certain improvements were in order that would make the inherent dangers of glaciated snowfield ascents somewhat less hazardous. As climbs began to reach into the highest, ice-covered summits of the Alps, small axes that had previously been carried for use as utility implements (and to chip away small accretions of ice on gear) began to come into use for chopping steps in icy sections of the accent route. Since climbing irons (modern term: crampons) had yet to be invented, step-chopping quickly became the accepted method of climbing up icy gradients (the technique remaining in use over succeeding decades, to reach its apex in about 1930).
Enterprising alpine guides therefore started having their village blacksmith (the local ‘Gemeinde’, or village cooperative smithy) create axe-like heads for their alpenstock climbing staffs. With a tool so fabricated as to have a spike on one end and an axe head (with pick) on the distal opposite end, steps could be chopped more readily by reaching further up the ice slope with the axe head’s shovel. At first these axe heads had a vertical blade on one side and a pointed pick on the other, an arrangement not all that dissimilar to those used on conventional carpenters’ axes (and hand axes used for cutting ice into blocks from frozen lakes). A number of these early old ice axes of both types may be viewed today in alpine museums in France, Italy, and Switzerland (the Zermatt Museum of Alpine Mountaineering comes immediately to mind, not least for its fascinating collection of old climbing axes). A later improvement that came along in about 1860 was the creation of a horizontal (instead of vertical) adz blade opposite the head’s pick, since that better suited the era’s strenuous step chopping techniques.
For a while in the late 1800s (about 1860), both types of these early ice axes were in use, although by 1900 the horizontally bladed adz-axes fitted with a pick had became more or less the universal standard. Further, whereas in the mid to late 1800s, ice axe shaft lengths tended to remain fairly long (about 190 cm or 6 feet, since two-handed techniques for step cutting were the norm), as the years passed, shorter ice axe lengths came to be more popular. After about 1900, and concurrent with the development of good quality steel ‘climbing irons’ (multi-pointed steel crampon devices that were used on boots to replace the old hobnails), it was generally recognised that fairly short wooden shafts on ice axes would prove more suitable for steep pitches of ice-covered slopes; as a result, wooden ice axe shaft lengths began to diminish to about 95 cm (or roughly 3 feet). They remained at that length for a number of decades (through about 1950), becoming shorter yet only after a renewed interest in mountaineering and the concurrent development of new vertical ice climbing techniques gathered momentum in the USA of the 60s.
The very early and subsequent ice axes (from the mid-1800s through the mid-1950s, almost a hundred years) had shafts that were nearly all made from fine ash hardwoods, including oaks and hickories, and originally featured steel adzes and spikes. In the mid-60s, bamboo enjoyed favor as an improved material for ice axe shafts (since it is strong, light, and yet impervious to water), and some exprimentation was done using fiberglass material (which proved too heavy in the thickness needed for adequate strength) . Also in the 1960s, light metal alloys (notably stainless steel) became popular for use as ice axe shafts, and titanium alloy has become increasingly popular due to improved technologies for working with the metal.
The need for stronger, more reliable ice axes had existed for many years, since even the strongest wood has its limits in terms of strength, but as techniques advanced and more extreme climbing routes became commonplace as the post-war mountaineering boom continued, a number of incidents occured involving catastrophic wood-shafted axe failure that spurred renewed interest in devising stronger axes. Notably, pioneering work by Scottish climber and mountaineering search and rescue physician Dr. Hamish MacInnes, in cooperation with climbers Ben and Steven Massey, resulted in a wholly metal ice axe that featured a drop-forged head and ferule fitted to an alloy shaft. Thus, the so-called 'MacInnes/Massey' metal axe came into popular use and soon inspired a number of others to design and produce metal axes for climbing. Notable among those in the US were Seattle's MSR (Mountain Safety Research) group whose 'Thunderbird' axe set a unique standard for reliability in the early 70s. In Europe, the 'CAMP' InterAlp group introduced a new line of metal axes in the mid-70s that further set new precedents for strength and design. Before long, many of the classic European wood ice axe fabricators also began to offer all metal axes, and a much improved level of climbing safety was introduced to the sport.
Not long after, newer and stringer synthetic polymers technology offered even further advantages and axee shafts were produced from them, as well (although heads remains forged from steel). Today, shafts are almost exclusively fabricated from ultra-light, high-strength aluminum alloys or graphite/carbon-fibre polymers, although Titanium axes are occasionally found in the range of axes produced, world-wide. Many of these changes in ice axe fabrication were the result of more stringent safety standards imposed by the CE and UIAA (and other alpine safety certifying organizations), since the fact that conventional wooden shafted axes were highly susceptible to water damage and breakage had been known for decades. Today, as materials technology continues to advance, stainless steel alloys have largely replaced earlier carbon steel for axe adz heads and spikes.
Although climbing tools such as the ice axe remained fairly much the same throughout the first 60 years of the new century, improvements in both materials technology and climbing techniques resulted in not just further refinements to the basic, traditional ice axe, but to newer applications as well. One of the more recent modern refinements came from the ‘invention’ of ice axe ‘traction’ techniques, wherein a set of axes could be used to literally haul one’s self up steep, high angle ice, when used in combination with rigid front-pointing crampons. This new approach to ascending mountain faces has been arguably attributed to the French Alpinist Walter Cechinel in about 1973 and it opened hundreds of new routes up formidably ice-clad faces that had previously been considered unclimbable. As a result of this new ‘direct’ ice climbing approach, the custom of using chopped off standard wood-shafted ice axes gave way to the fabrication of entirely new and specialized ‘ice tools’ that were purpose-built for this use. From that time to the present, these specialized ‘ice tools’ have assumed a highly technical nature and are to be found in all sorts of high-tech variations that greatly facilitate direct, high-angle (vertical) traction climbing on sheer ice.
A curious note in passing is that back in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when mountain climbing was the exclusive preserve of a small core of dedicated alpinists and summit baggers, cartoons about mountaineers were a fairly regular feature in certain men’s magazines, since mountaineers were widely regarded at that time as a bunch of highly eccentric outdoor fanatics. [The average person usually found it impossible to understand exactly why someone would want to go off and expose themself to the extreme dangers that they fancied mountains posed. This curious puzzlement by the average person perhaps found its most well-known expression in the famous post-Victorian English mountaineer George Mallory’s memorable quote, delivered in response to the question “Why do you want to climb...Everest?" His slightly petulant reply, “Because it is there” has become known the world over.] Consequently, cartoons of this type would typically feature several ‘stock’ stereotyped symbols, such as a puzzled mountain goat with question marks sprouting from its head, watching climbers hauling themselves hand-over-hand up steep rock faces, and so forth. Cartoons of this sort would occasionally show up in popular periodicals (such as The New Yorker, Esquire, etc.) depicting a mountaineer hauling himself up a steep rock or ice face with his ice axe. In fact, until Cechinel instigated the new ‘traction’ climbing technique for two ice axes in the early 70s, from 1900 through the 1960s no mountaineer worthy of his scratchy wool knickers would have resorted to use of such an unorthodox technique with his ice axe. And yet, use of an ice axe in this manner was a wide-spread misconception that strangely persisted among non-climbers the world over—until Cechinel changed things forever with his new vertical ice technique.
As to who actually first came up with the original concept for the ‘modern ice axe’, there is still much controversy. The Swiss would like to think that it was their idea (since that famous symbol of climbing, the Matterhorn or Le Cervin, was in their back yard), as would the French, since both nations share an Alpine border with Italy, who also claims the same distinction. What we do know with some certitude is that sometime in the mid-1800s (about 1840, so it is claimed) in Courmayeur, Italy, the Grivel Family constructed an ice axe to the order of a visiting English alpinist, who laid out specific parameters that he wished be incorporated in his custom-fabricated axe. This amounted to combining the traditional hiking staff (known as an ‘alpenstock’ to German speakers) with a carpenter’s hand axe (as has been noted earlier in the text). According to the Grivel Company (who still manufacture fine climbing equipment), the adzes (heads) of these original axes were forged from scrap steel salvaged from old railway rails (since the Alps had many small gauge cog railways in use by that time). Certainly the idea may have occurred to several different early Victorian climbers in Italy, France, and Switzerland at roughly the same time, so Grivel’s claim to primacy in creating the first ‘modern ice axe’ is highly contentious and extremely tenuous. For our purposes, it is merely an entertaining footnote to idly speculate upon in passing.
Certain aspects of ice axe development are interesting to note, one of them being the gradual increase of the pick’s curve, since although many pick blades had long used tooth-like serrations on their undersides, almost all early ice axe picks had been straight and more or less perpendicular to the shaft of the axe. This seemingly small refinement was a major improvement, since it greatly enhanced the ability of a climber to self-arrest and hold himself on a steep slope after a fall. In terms of the specialized and highly technical ice-climbing tools that developed in the 70s, Simond’s use of a reverse-curve pick in 1975 is generally recognised as being a major step forward in the development of pure steep angle ice tools. From that time onward, the trend in these highly specialised items developed to fabricate ice tools with modular components, using replaceable and selectable picks, adzes, and spikes that could be combined to suit the given conditions.
Today, the old original combined alpenstock/axe-head ice axe concept of the 1800s exists in two distinct configurations: the specialized, high-angle ‘ice tool’, and the traditional multipurpose mountaineer’s ‘ice axe’. Both have their specific applications and uses in the mountain environment, although for a strictly recreational mountaineer like myself, who will never do any serious ice-climbing, the only one I need is the traditional old style ice axe.
As someone interested in history of all kinds, I have a collection of ice axes I keep around the house that I have acquired over the years. Regrettably, collecting of just about anything these days has become expensive, since the unholy marriage between traditional antique dealers and ebay’s easy-auction venue has resulted in just about everything under the sun being hastily labeled as an instant ‘collectible’, with prices rocketing skywards accordingly. Just for amusement, I suggest you visit ebay and search for ‘ice axe’. You will run across a whole range of these venerable artifacts, both new and old, with the older, wood-shafted examples commanding rather steep prices indeed.
Then you have commercial retailers like Michael Chessler of ‘Chessler Books’ on line, who specializes in mountaineering collectibles and books. Chessler has given a whole new meaning to the words ‘expensive collectibles’, by arranging to have famous mountaineers (like Everest’s conqueror Sir Edmond Hillary, just recently demised, and other notables of that genre) autograph old wood-shafted European ice axes, which he then offers for sale through his website at horrific prices. Sic semper American capitalism.
It was inevitable, I guess. But that’s the nature of the beast (American capitalism), isn’t it? Find a niche and get rich; buy low, sell foh moah. I’m actually thinking of selling one of my old ice axes, after discovering that a peculiar knot located about midway along its hickory shaft bears a startling resemblance to the Virgin Mary. I think I’ll start low on eBay…no more than a $200,000.00 starting bid…since it could also perhaps be viewed as an outline of 'Burger-meister' Ronald MacDonald. Ummmm.
Some interesting ice axe miscellanea.
Ukrainian born Bolshevik and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexican exile by Ramon Mercader, a Stalinist agent, on 6 January 1925. The object employed to murder him was a climber's ice axe that Mercader wielded to strike him in the head, after coming up behind Trotsky in his study. Aside from adding intrigue to Trotsky's already fascinating life story, this use of a climbing axe as a murder weapon remains almost singularly unique in the annals of both climbing and crime. The ice axe used by Mercader was removed illicitly from a police forensic evidence storeroom and kept by a Mexican constable involved in the original murder investigation, those many years ago. His niece, one Ana Alicia Salas, still has the axe and there is some contention on what will become of it. DNA analysis of the blood-stained pick would prove the claim, although there is little reason to disbelieve the details of Salas' story. The axe in question was a standard, wood-shafted climbing axe that had had its wooden shaft cut down to a length of about 13 inches, prompting some speculation over its possible use in high angle ice climbing on one of the higher Mexican volcanoes. Trotsky was, by all accounts, an amateur alpinist and had done some climbing while in exile in Mexico.
Any true devotee of the mountains can tell you exactly what George Leigh Mallory's relevance to the climbing world is, and may also be able to tell you most of the salient facts about Mallory's third and last climb of Everest in 1924 (the one in which he and his partner Andrew Irvine disappeared somewhere on the Northeast Ridge Route). In 1933 Andrew Irvine's ice axe was found at a point high up on the route they took, incongruously propped against a rock. That axe was hand-forged in a small Vallaisian village just below Zermatt (named Taesch) by the Brothers Willisch (Gebrudern Willisch), who have made fine wooden shafted ice-axes for many decades in the shadow of the Matterhorn. On my own several visits to Zermatt for climbing and skiing, I acquired several Willisch ice axes and they are indeed classic mountaineering implements in the traditional fashion. Somewhere still, back on Everest, George Mallory's own Willisch ice axe remains, awaiting accidental discovery by some modern climber in that Death Zone that took mallory's and Irvine's lives.
The ordinary ice axe was used during the Second World War by all sides during battles that took place in the higher alpine terrain of Europe. The German Army mountain troops used standard recreational climbing axes made by Stubai/Aschenbrenner in the Austrian Tirol (after the Anschluss); these may be identified by the RZM marks stamped into the steel adz head (and occasionally by regimental numbers burned into their wooden shafts). The United States mountain troops of the 10th Mountain Division used American-made ice axes manufactured by the Ames Tool Company; they may be identified by the word 'Ames' that is stamped into their steel adzes. Both the German and the American axes were quite similar to each other in design and materials.
Switzerland produced large numbers of these classic 30s/40s wood shafted ice axes during that period that may today be acquired from Swiss sellers on eBay as collectibles. The value varies with the date stamped on the adz head (older ones in excellent shape are more valuable), with certain well-known ice axe makers' axes going for much higher prices (such as Willisch, etc.).
One further comment on climbing nomenclature. Quite often these days, one will see the work 'ice pick' being used to describe a climbing ice axe by some people. Although technically correct (due to the confusing literal translation of the German word for ice axe, or 'eispickel'), in mainstream English idiom an 'ice pick' is a specific kitchen tool used for breaking up ice cubes. This confusion of the direct English translation of 'eispickel' has created some interesting confusion in the past. Perhaps the best example is the present contention by some sadly misinformed souls that Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevic theorist and radical was killed with an 'ice pick' instead of an 'ice axe'. Although an ice pick would certainly make a deadly weapon for committing a homocide, the article used to kill Trotsky was definitely a climbing ice axe and not an (kitchen tool) 'ice pick'. In English the only proper term for a climbing ice axe is 'ice axe' (or 'climbing ice axe').
Not surprisingly, the most common use of a traditional ice axe is as a walking assisting device, since many climbers use them in this capacity on approach routes. Unfortunately, this application tends to blunt the spike (at the distal end of the shaft, away from the adz head with its pick). Therefore, the most appropriate place for an ice axe, when not yet on snow or ice, is strapped to the pack, thus preserving the spike's sharp point for use on ice where it may be vitally needed.
Two methods have been traditionally used to keep an ice axe from fall out of one's hand. The first consists of a sliding circular metal ring on the shaft, to which a fabric (nowadays Nylon) strap has been secured. The more recent onnovation has been to run a 4 foot length of small diameter Perlon (Nylon) rope through the eye of the adz, looping the other end around the wrist. Both systems work fairly effectively to enable an ice axe to be quickly retrieved, should it fall out of the hand of a climber. Few things could be more catastrophic to a climber's safe descent down ice or snow than the loss of an ice axe that has suddenly careened down a steep slope and out of sight. Rule number one for using an ice axe is: Never let it get out of your grasp! If it does, have it secured to your wrist with a rope or strap.
Last but not least, never use an ice axe for any purpose other than that for which is has been invented. This is especially true of using one as a murder weapon. An application of that sort may garner you lasting fame in the halls of forensic science history, but it is a rather serious breech of good taste!