How to buy an Ice Axe

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 Tool with Hammer

Ice Tool

Ice Axe with Adze

Ice Axe







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.

Ice Axe:

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

B (Basic):

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.

T (Technical)

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.

Mixed Axes

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.




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Winter 2013-2014 Snow Forecast

It’s that time of year again. Winter people start emerging from their summer hibernation caves and tune up their skis, boards, sleds, and snowshoes for an anticipated winter of epic snowfall. The last few years have been a roller coaster for snowfall across the US with a record setting 2010-2011 winter followed by a disappointing 2011-2012 season. Fortunately things are looking up for many parts of the US as early fall models are pointing towards below average temperatures and average to above average snowfall in many areas.

First let’s take a look at winter 2012-2013 and see where we’ve come since then. We talked a lot about the NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation) in last year’s forecast because that is what so negatively affected the east coast area in winter 2011-2012. Typically a negative NAO will result in a cold snowy winter for the east and a positive NAO will result in a warm dry winter for the east. The figure below shows the NAO phase for winter 2012-2013 in the shaded area. Needless to say the NAO was negative and actual snow conditions were substantially better than the year prior. This is in line with what we predicted in last year’s forecast.

Last year’s forecast models were trending towards a weak El Nino winter that would have brought good snow for the Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming areas with below average snow for the northwest and into Montana. This isn’t what happened. Although an El Nino started to form in late summer 2012 it stalled out in late fall and ended up in neutral conditions. With a neutral El Nino, or “La Nada” as some call it, in place the normal weather drivers took over and brought pretty average winter conditions for those areas. Although it was average, it was a big improvement over the previous winter.

Now let’s take a look at the current conditions and compare them to the last three winters that consist of one record setting above average snow year, one record setting below average winter, and one very average snowfall winter. The NAO spent the majority of last summer in positive territory as seen in the shaded area of the plot below showing through September.

As you can see it’s now trending downward and the latest models are suggesting this trend will continue. Bottom line I expect it will remain positive through the fall and possibly early winter. But more than likely it will be in negative territory for most of the winter.

The summer of 2012 had a strong negative NAO which stayed negative for most of winter 2012-2013 so that is not real analogous to what we see for this coming winter or even the record mild winter of 2011-2012, where the NAO started negative in the summer and sharply went positive for the winter, and the epic winter of 2010-2011 that was just a more extreme example of last winter. This year really is a whole new deck of cards unlike the last three in regards to the NAO. The most recent year that was similar to what I expect this winter was winter 2007-2008 where snowfall was above normal in the north east with some local all-time-record snow totals for Concord New Hampshire and Burlington Vermont.

The next big player to look at is the state of the El Nino – La Nina cycle (ENSO). Last year I predicted a weak El Nino. Turns out I was wrong and the El Nino cycle stayed about neutral. The plot below shows the forecast for several ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) models of how much the sea surface temperature will vary in degrees Celsius from normal this winter in the shaded area. Usually I look at the average between all of the models to get a scope of what might actually happen. This year it isn’t really necessary. For conditions to be in any kind of El Nino or La Nina phase the sea sufferance temperature (SST) variance from normal, AKA Anomalies, would have to be outside the area marked by the red lines.

None of the models come close to going outside the ‘neutral’ El Nino zone in the winter months to come.

Looking at past years with similar conditions for the west I expect slightly below average temperatures for Montana, Wyoming, western Colorado, and eastern Utah with average to slightly above average temperatures for WA, OR, ID, CA, NV, and AZ. El Nino and La Nina events tend to swing the pendulum one way or the other for snowfall; splitting the southwest and northwest with one having great snow and leaving the other in a drought. In the absence of an El Nino, history has shown, we’re likely to get a much more even distribution of average to above average snowfall all over the western US including the Wasatch, front range, Cascades etc. Although it’s still early to tell for sure, I see no indication that it will be anything but a snowy winter for the west.

The ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) is such a big force in weather that when an El Nino or La Nina is present it pretty much defines the winter weather for the western half of the US. In a year like this where the ENSO will be neutral opens up the possibilities for many other driving forces to move in and make winter interesting. As a generalization I would expect average conditions for snowfall and temperatures for most of the west. With the official start of winter still being almost 3 months away and with so many possible localized variables in the absence of an ENSO event your local area could be in for anything this winter.

Now for all of you that just want the overall bottom line. The northeast should expect very cold temperatures with lots of snow and frequent storms. Keep caution out for some bad ice storms in the southeast.  Montana, Wyoming, western Colorado, and eastern Utah will have a very cold winter with above average snowfall while WA, OR, ID, CA, NV, and AZ will have about average temperatures and average snowfall with the possibility for well above average snowfall in localized situations. As usual I have posted a map of this year’s Farmer’s Almanac winter forecast since it’s always a good idea to consider more than one point of view when making your winter plans.


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Winter Storm Brutus is Bringing Snow and Cold to the West

You’d better enjoy the warm weather outside, if you still have it, because things are about to change. A strong series of winter storms will be pounding the country over the next 10 days beginning with winter storm Brutus. Snow has already started to fall in parts of Montana and is rapidly spreading south and east. Brutus will likely bring blizzard conditions and several inches of snow across Montana and over the mountains in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado which is great news for skiers and resorts that will be opening in the next couple weeks. Snow will arrive in Wyoming, Western Colorado and Utah by late Friday. The Snow will likely become more widespread in the mid Rockies by Friday night into Saturday. Localized accumulations are expected to be over a foot in some areas of Montana by end of day Saturday. This storm will likely bring high winds and large amounts of snow to many mountainous areas which will land on a weak or non existent snow pack. Snow loading is likely and can create dangerous Avalanche conditions. Make sure you call your local avalanche center to get the conditions report before heading into the backcountry and verify the conditions yourself on location before you start up. As you can see in the model above there looks to be a strong chance of two other systems following this storm but it’s to early to give specifics on them. Much colder temperatures will follow these storms so enjoy the warm weather while it lasts and get your skis ready!

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2012-2013 Ski Season Has Officially Begun!

Yesterday, October 7th, Wild Mountain Minnesota became the first ski area in the nation to open kicking off the 2o12-2013 ski season. The Previous Opening day record for Wild Mountain was set in 1982 when they opened on October 18th. The two rivals, Arapahoe Basin and Loveland Ski Area, are typically the first to open but missed the mark this year. However, they are fallowing close behind having started making snow last week and could possibly open as soon as next week but neither has set a specific opening day yet.

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Cold and Snow Will Fly Across the Country This Week!

NAM - US - 500mb - 60 hour Loop

Its been a long time coming since the end of last years pathetic winter and winter people everywhere have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of this winter for a hopefully epic do-over.  Although I can’t guarantee record breaking snowfall on the slopes this winter it does look like we are getting a nice solid early start. The forecast models are calling for a strong cold front to drop into the Rockys late Tuesday night bringing low temperatures well below freezing for many areas and especially at higher elevations. There’s not much moisture in the atmosphere but this front is strong enough that it will squeeze out any moisture it can find leaving the possibility for some moderate amounts of snow particularly in the mountains. On Wednesday the front should move on into the plains still bringing high temperatures only in the 50′s in many areas with lows dropping below freezing in the north and bringing the possibility of snow to many areas in the Dakotas and northern Minnesota. By Thursday the cold air mass will be well settled in over much of the country with high temperatures in the 60′s as far south as Texas. Ahead of the cold front will bring unseasonably warm temperatures for a day or two, the “Warm Before the Storm”  as they say. You should do your best to enjoy that warm day or two as it may just be the last summer-like day for many areas. As always, don’t forget to pray for snow!

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Winter 2012-2013 Snow Forecast Outlook

It’s the middle of August, the dog days of summer, and most of us are running around with shorts and t-shirts in 90+ degree temperatures. But, for those winter people out there you’ve probably noticed an increase in talk about this upcoming ski season. New 2012-2013 winter gear is starting to arrive at shops around the country and questions are being raised about this upcoming winter weather. After arguably one of the worst ski seasons on record I feel like Mother Nature owes us a good season this winter. I’ve read through many preliminary 2012-2013 winter forecasts from credible and somewhat not so credible sources and mixed in some of my own educated background in meteorology and climatology to give you my best prediction on what you can expect this winter.

First let’s talk about last winter 2011-2012. After an epic 2010-2011 record setting winter the web was flooding with comments about a possible repeat epic winter. This is largely due to a negative NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation) over the summer of 2011. During the winter a negative NAO correlates to cold temperatures and above average snowfall for the east and, 9 out of 10 times, a negative summer NAO leads to a negative winter NAO. What happened last winter was that 1/10 chance falling in to place when the NAO suddenly went positive as highlighted in Figure 1 below.

The large amounts of snow in the cascades and parts of Alaska can be attributed the La Nina winter but at the same time it was responsible for below normal snow packs around Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. With the exception of a few isolated cases like Fox Creek and Steamboat Springs Colorado the skiing was pretty pathetic for these states which also lead to the drought conditions and high fire dangers we’re seeing this summer in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The good news is that the patterns that caused the historically warm and dry winter of 2011-2012 have almost or completely changed. In Figure 1 above you can see we are in a strong negative NAO and this should continue on through winter bringing cold temperatures and higher than average snowfall to the northeast. From the data I’ve seen it looks like we are also in for a weak El-Nino so the mid-Rockies (CO, UT, and WY) can expect a big improvement over last winter. Although they will see about average to slightly above average snowfalls there is still the possibility for localized record setters and let’s not forget that even an average winter for those states can be pretty epic. The weak El-Nino could be bad news for the north east and Montana because any kind of El-Nino event usually brings dryer and warmer conditions to these areas. But it’s only a weak El-Nino so it might not actually be that bad, it just won’t be as epic for the north west as last winter.

For those of you that skimmed past all of the above explanation, here’s the bottom line. Northeast, you could be in for an epic ski season; CO, UT, and WY can expect average temperatures and snowfall but still a heck of a lot more snow than last year. For the northwest and Montana it will be a little dry but probably not as bad as the mid Rockies saw last winter. For those of you that like to rely on the time tested forecasting methods here is the Farmer’s Almanac 2012-2013 winter forecast. It differs a little from mine but it’s still early and there are a lot of other factors that can dramatically change the winter forecast with short notice.

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Illinois Mountaineer Dies in Glacier National Park Fall

Illinois mountaineer and exotic plant team worker for Glacier National park Jacob Rigby was found dead after being reported missing at 2:00am Monday. His body was spotted by SAR helicopter 2:00p.m Friday. The reports say Jacob could have fallen about 800 feet down the north face of the extremely steep and treacherous 8888 peak in Glacier National Park.

Over 50 people helped with the search after Jacob was noticed overdue back from a personal day hike on Sunday. The terrain where Jacob was hiking is extremely steep and dangerous where only the most experienced hikers and mountaineers go. 31 of the searchers were hiking and camping in this treacherous area during the search process.


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Official AlpineExtreme.CO Forum is Now Open

The official AlpineExtreme.CO forum is now open. You shop at AlpineExtreme.CO and you know others are there with you but you can’t see them. The AlpineExtreme.CO forum is a great way to connect with the rest of the AlpinExtreme.CO outdoor gear community.

You can ask questions about any gear at AlpineExtreme.CO and get answers from other outdoor gear fanatics or, if you’re a gear head yourself, you can replay to other’s questions or follow up to a response with more detail. The forum also has a place to give and receive outdoor advice, recommend outdoor recreation areas, or tell your outdoor adventure stories. AlpineExtreme.CO attracts a great group of outdoors enthusiasts. It’s time to bring that community together in the AlpineExtreme.CO forum. Join Up

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