Last year I wrote an article comparing different lightweight mountaineering axes. This year I’m comparing their slightly heavier brethren. And while a really lightweight axe is great if it’s going to mainly live on your pack, a slightly sturdier tool is ideal for more technical objectives. Routes where you plan on using one (or more) axes to climb some alpine ice, work through some deep bergschrunds, scratch up some rock, pound in a few pitons or tackle some steep neve. Such routes require an axe that’s functional and durable more than just lightweight.
Of course there’s quite a variety of options available when it comes to axes for mountaineering or alpinism and we’re not going to review them all. Instead we’ve chosen a selection of the best axes currently on the market for a head-to-head comparison. The technical mountaineering axe line-up includes:
- Petzl Sum’tec
- Black Diamond Venom
- Black Diamond Swift
- SMC Kobah Pro
Of course Grivel is conspicuously missing from the review. The reason is they simply don’t offer the type of hybrid tool that we’re reviewing here. The closest is the Air Tech Evo G-Bone but it still doesn’t really match with the other axes so I opted to exclude it.
Mountaineering Axe Details & Specs:
The Sum’tec is an icon of modern alpinism and arguably one of the most well-known summer alpine tools around. The current version of the Sum’tec was released in 2018 and featured numerous improvements over its’ predecessor including an updated head, shaft and Trigrest™. These changes improved upon the design of the tool without taking away any of the function that has made it so popular.
Tool Design & Geometry:
The overall design of the Sum’tec is a blend of modern technical ice tool and traditional glacier axe as all good alpine tools are. And like all the axes reviewed here, it has a slightly bent shaft to protect the hand when swinging or using the axe in high-dagger position as well as making self-arresting easier.
Petzl has been at the cutting edge of ice and mountaineering tool design for decades and show no signs of slowing down. A recent push towards making their equipment interchangeable has included their ice tools and high-end mountaineering axes. This was accomplished by utilizing the same head assembly across each of these axes: the new Ergonomic, Nomic, Quark and Sum’tec. This means that the same attachments and picks work interchangeably across the entire line. So if you have a pair of Nomics and a Sum’tec with an adze, for example, you could put the Nomic hammer on the Sum’tec instead of needing to buy a different hammer (or axe). You could also use worn ice picks on the Sum’tec to get a bit more life out of them. All-in-all a fantastic feature that’s likely to breed brand loyalty: if everything is interchangeable you’re much more likely to stick with the one brand.
The movable hand-rest which Petzl calls the Trigrest™ has been upgraded with the new version of the Sum’tec. It allows for a very secure grip when climbing steep snow and ice but is easy to move out of the way when you want to plunge the shaft. It was a game changer when first introduced by Petzl and has been copied in one way or another by everyone making technical mountaineering axes.
The head angle on the Sum’tec is quite aggressive, the most aggressive of all the axes reviewed here. The only down-side that I found with this geometry is that it makes using the hammer on the back of the axe harder. The upside, of course, is that it climbs really well!
The Sum’tec is a very well balanced and functional alpine axe. With the hand-rest at the head of the axe the smooth aluminum shaft and steel spike plunge well when climbing snow slopes. Or the hand-rest can be slid to the curve of the axe to provide hand protection and a secure grip for high-dagger or all the way to the bottom giving the axe a feel more akin to a technical ice tool.
The Sum’tec comes with Petzl’s ICE pick, a very versatile T-rated pick that tapers from 4mm to 3.3mm at the tip. Thin enough to stick well in ice without but still thick enough to take a beating. Of course you call always swap out the pick for the thinner Pur’Ice or thicker Pur’Dry picks.
The balance point on the Sum’tec is fairly close to the head of the tool giving it a very natural and easy swing. Definitely a testament to the ice climbing pedigree of the tool. When paired with a nice ice climbing pick the Sum’tec feels like a technical ice tool and can easily dispatch pitches of technical ice.
As mentioned above the hammer on the Sum’tec is set a very poor angle for accurately striking anything but the side of a building. The adze angle, on the other hand, was found to be surprisingly effective. It features a somewhat oblique angle to the shaft making it an amazing tool for digging in the snow for t-slots, etc.
As the new Sum’tec features the same head assembly as the Egonomic and Nomic you know that it can take a beating! There’s no way the type of service a Sum’tec will see could ever match the stress of technical mixed climbing.
Pros: Part of a very versatile line of axes, ergonomic, great balance, durable
Cons: Poor hammer angle
Overall: The Sum’tec is an exceptional axe that’s well made, well balanced and well thought out. A solid choice by itself made more-so if you already have any other Petzl tools.
Black Diamond Venom:
Black Diamond’s Venom alpine axe is a very user friendly and functional tool that performs exceptionally well in the alpine. The current version of the Venom was released in 2017 and featured numerous improvements and changes over its’ predecessor such as the introduction of a move-able hand-rest and a new head design. Black Diamond really hit upon a Goldilocks zone when developing the geometry of the new Venom making the hammer version one of my personal favorite axes.
Tool Design & Geometry:
As mentioned in the introduction, Black Diamond really nailed it with the geometry of the new Venom ice axe. The pick angle is aggressive enough to climb steep alpine ice and easy mixed but the bend in the shaft designed such that it still makes it easy to pound pitons, snow pickets and the like. The hammer is also angled perfectly to provide a striking surface that’s perpendicular to the swing arc.
Black Diamond modified the FlickLock system they use on their extendable ski poles in developing a moveable hand-rest for the Venom (and other) axes. The design provides a comfortable and sturdy rest that can be cinched tight anywhere on the shaft depending on how the axe is being used: plunging, swinging, etc.
The Venom is quite a versatile axe with a nice technical feel. The heavy head gives it a solid swing and good penetration in hard glacial ice. It also has best-in-class hammer geometry as mentioned above. Strangely it only caries a Type 1 or B CE Rating which is generally for less technical axes.
The adze and hammer versions of the Venom come with different picks. The Mountain Classic pick for the adze version and the Mountain Tech pick for the hammer version. As the picks are replaceable you can always swap them around of course. Our test axe was the Venom Hammer and so came with the Mountain Tech pick. This B rated pick tapers from 4.5mm to 3.6mm at the tip. A bit on the thicker side so more prone to breaking ice than thinner options but it’s quite durable.
The fairly smooth rubber grip on the bottom of the shaft gives the axe a good, secure feel while insulating my hand from the cold, aluminum shaft. A really nice feature on cold or wet days!
Despite being fairly heavy for a 50cm axe (test sample length) the Venom is only B rated. Combine that with the fact that the head is not riveted to the shaft but seems to be press-fit I wonder how much abuse it will take. Now I haven’t had a single issue with the sample axe I was provided for testing despite abusing it a bit pounding in a few pitons and rounding sharp edges on some rock by a few alpine anchors. However, it’s hard to speculate on how the Venom would stand up to intensive use over a few years.
Pros: Fantastic geometry, functional, ergonomic
Cons: B-rated, adze/hammer not interchangeable
Overall: Black Diamond really nailed the geometry of the hammer on the Venom making it the best of the bunch if you need a versatile alpine tool with a functional hammer.
Black Diamond Swift:
The Swift is basically a simpler, lighter version of the Venom and was released at the same time in 2017. It comes with an adze (no hammer option) and the head is made of a single piece of stainless steel so the pick’s not replaceable. This makes the axe simple and fairly light but also less versatile, more of a single-purpose type mountaineering axe designed for glaciers and snow.
Tool Design & Geometry:
The Swift features the same shaft material and geometry as the Venom just without the rubber grip. The head is also quite similar with basically the same pick angle though the fixed pick on the Swift is a little shorter. Black Diamond included their FlickLock moveable hand rest system on the axe.
Think more snow, less ice and rock. The stainless steel pick on the Swift tapers from a meaty 8.5mm at the thickest to 4.5mm at the tip. This makes it a great alpine snow and neve tool at the expense of ice climbing. The thick pick just cracks and breaks ice. Also not ideal for that type of service as the pick isn’t replaceable. A few sharpening sessions and the already short pick will need replacement which means buying a new axe.
In steep snow the Swift is a beast. The heavy, wide head is easily buried in neve. The head’s comfortable to hang onto when plunging while
Given that the Swift is really a technical mountaineering / snow climbing axe and not really designed for alpine ice, mixed, etc. if used properly I expect that it will last a long time. The beefy stainless steel pick is not replaceable but that’s only an issue on thin picks that are getting driven into ice and rock.
Pros: Simple, functional & ergonomic
Cons: Single purpose
Overall: The Swift is more of a high-end mountaineering axe, less of a technical alpine climbing tool. A great option if you plan on heading into the alpine to tackle more snow and less ice/mixed.
SMC Kobah Pro:
The newest axe in this review and likely one of the least well known is SMC’s Kobah Pro. The Pro is part of a new Kobah line of alpine and mountaineering axes introduced by SMC last summer (2018) that includes the Kobah Speed Ice Axe (small & light option), the Kobah Ice Axe (traditional mountaineering axe) and of course the Kobah Pro which we’re reviewing.
Tool Design & Geometry:
Like the Venom and Sum’tec, the new Kobah Pro is a hybrid blend of modern technical ice tool and traditional glacier axe. It features a modular head design with two different pick options as well as two different accessory options, an adze and a hammer.
The two pick options are the Glacier Pick with a more traditional, positive curve and the Headwall pick with a more technical reverse curve. Aside from the shape, the picks have different angles with the Headwall pick set more aggressively though the tip of the pick is not very aggressive. Interestingly both the Headwall and Glacier picks are about 2cm shorter than the Sum’tec or Venom picks though they are on par with axes sporting non-replaceable picks like the Black Diamond Swift.
The Kobah Pro’s hammer is aligned fairly perpendicular to the handle and set-back from the handle which makes ergonomic and easy to use. However, the head of the hammer is rounded making glancing blows more likely. What does that mean? Well the hammer works great at dulling sharp rock edges at anchors or pounding in ice pickets. On the other hand it’s not ideal for installing pitons which require a bit more finesse.
The hand rest lock design adopted by SMC is much like Black Diamond’s though it’s a little easier to use. The lock also features a very satisfying “click” when secured in place. All-in-all, it’s a very simple and functional design. However, the actual hand rest itself is a bit flat so not as comfortable and secure as some of the other options reviewed.
The Kobah Pro is a very versatile and technical mountaineering axe. However, because it has a fairly light head the balance point is much lower than on the other tools tested. This gives it a less natural swing. Not to say it doesn’t swing well, just that more effort it needed to get good penetration into ice. On the flip side, the shorter pick makes the axe very stable in a high dagger position on dry glaciers.
The picks on the Kobah Pro are 4mm thick, a little on the fat side for a good solid stick into ice when swinging. However, a great size for routes that are not as steep up dry sun baked glaciers.
The Kobah Pro is a very sturdy tool that I expect to last as long as I need it. It’s T-rated (type 2) so can stand up some abuse. The picks can be replaced so it’s no biggie if accidentally smashing them into the odd hidden rock. The aluminum head looks durable and is well designed with a tapered back to protect the shaft when using the hammer. All-in-all, a durable package.
Pros: Durable & versatile
Cons: Poor balance point
Overall: Less technical than the Sum’tec or Venom but more technical than the Swift, the Kobah Pro fills the middle ground. A great option for alpinists that want flexibility in pick and accessory choice but don’t plan on tackling steep alpine ice or mixed.
This review focused on technical mountaineering axes that are designed as a hybrid blend of modern technical ice tool and traditional glacier axe. The type of tool needed for more technical summer alpinism. However, within that fairly narrow selection of axes there’s still a range of designs that make different axes more or less ideal for different situations. With that in mind, here’s a table that matches an axes performance with specific uses:
|Petzl Sum’tec||BD Venom||BD Swift||SMC Kobah Pro|
|Comfort when Walking||★★★★||★★★★||★★★★★||★★★★|
|High Dagger Climbing||★★★★||★★★★||★★||★★★★★|
Test samples were provided for review but of course this did not influence our opinions in any way.