An Axe of a Different Color

Photo by Jeshua Soucy

Last weekend, I climbed Katahdin with a group of friends. This mountain, at almost exactly a mile in height, is the highest peak in Maine and has the greatest local elevation of any North American mountain east of the Rockies. Viewed from the south, it forms an imposing, craggy ridge that dominates the horizon. And like Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, it catches a serious amount of wind. With well over 4,000 feet of climbing, the way up is taxing even in perfect conditions. Thoreau, wild-eyed, called the ascent “scarcely less arduous than Satan's anciently through Chaos.” He was both ecstatic and unnerved by his time on the mountain, and his party failed to make the summit. A winter climb adds new layers of difficulty, from the aforementioned extreme wind and cold to the snow and ice that drift over the trail and create hazardous conditions above treeline. Special equipment is needed.

The ice axe is a unique tool that evolved from 2 separate implements – the alpenstock (simply a staff with an iron point fixed to one end) and the axe. The alpenstock was used for stability – the point was driven into the snowpack and could be used as a solid anchor, while the axe (yes, the everyday forest axe) was used for chopping steps to establish secure footing. Mountain travelers and shepherds have carried axes for millennia – Ötzi the iceman, the 5000-year-old alpinist found frozen at an elevation of over 10,000 feet in the Italian Alps, had with him a beautiful yew-handled copper axe when he died. In the 19th century, the alpenstock and axe were combined, becoming a straight-handled adze (a better blade orientation for chopping steps) with a sharp point on the bottom end for setting as an anchor. The pick end of the head is used to “self-arrest” if a climber starts sliding downhill out of control. By applying weight onto this end of the tool and driving it into the slope, the climber can gain control and come to a stop. We made good use of our ice axes on the mountain, and I grew in my appreciation of the immense practicality of this tool, perfected as it was around the specific needs of the alpine climber.

In Issue Ten, author George Walker discusses this idea, that tools develop around the movements and capabilities of the human body. He writes, “The shape of the tool, if one pays close attention, helps us understand how it was used and how to get our bodies to join in the dance. Tools are an extension of our bodies, connecting via hand or arm, that utilize the power of the whole body.” While the workbench may be a very different environment than a mountaintop, this concept remains the same. And of course, that most versatile of woodworking tools – the axe – also finds in its family tree the most versatile of mountaineering tools.

You can order a copy of Issue Ten here.


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