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How to Hold an Ice Tool: Three grips.

Date: 26th December 2012

How to hold an ice tool: Three grips.

note–I just shot a little video of this, I’ll try to add it shortly, having issues. Until then here’s one I shot two years ago–it doesn’t have the nice “relaxed grip,” but it does show the hand rotation from “swing” to “grip.”

It’s clinic and ice coaching season, and I’ve been learning a lot of small things about ice climbing and how to teach people to ice climb better. I really enjoy finding these little teaching methods that allow people to go from beating their way up the ice to flowing up it with purpose, security, style and fun. I obsess about how to communicate subtle refinements that make a big difference to the people I’m working with. I recently figured out a better way to teach people how to hang onto an ice tool, or at least it helped them swing and climb ice better. Here it is:

On modern leashless ice tools I use three different grips, often in seconds: There’s the “Swing” hand position, the “Hold On” position, and the “Fist of Rage.” The “Swing” grip is, captain obvious here, for swinging, and very few people do it right. To swing well I start with my hand fairly relaxed, and the upper part of my fingers aligned with the SIDE of the tool. If you make a “Karate chop” hand with all the bones in your hand lined up totally with your wrist and arm and then open the thumb up a little and just relax your fingers and hand that’s about the alignment for swinging a tool (bit tighter with the lower fingers, but the bones in the upper parts of your fingers, bones in your hand, and bones in your lower arm should all be aligned). Most people grab an ice tool and grip it with the upper parts of their fingers in a “fist” position, with the upper part of their fingers facing the ice, and not at 90 degrees to it.. This “fist” position does not allow the tool to swing properly at all, the wrist just won’t flex right. It’s the wrist that acts as the “hub” for swinging an ice tool; lock the hub and you can’t swing an ice tool fast, and if you can’t swing an ice tool fast it won’t go into the ice…

The “grip” position is fairly loose again, but with the lower fingers rotated slightly around the tool. Almost all of my “holding” is done with my lower two fingers. I was playing with this recently while training, it’s quite interesting how little the upper two fingers do in general ice climbing, even when it’s really steep. Your hand should be pretty relaxed, comfortable, there should be some degree of space between the upper fingers and the tool. Try it, you may be surprised how this works. Opening up your hands will keep them a lot warmer, and also relax your mind, which will make you climb better.

The “Fist of Rage” is primarily used when you’re gripped, on hard mixed climbs, and by most novices and even those who should know better but have enough power to substitute that for skill. As it sounds, the tool is gripped in a fist, all fingers holding on and at 90 degrees to the ice. It’s impossible to swing the tool effectively in this position; try holding a tool in the “first or rage” position and you’ll see that the pick points off at about 45 degrees, and the wrist blocks the swing. But this is a great grip for hard mixed climbing; you can lock your little finger down into the bottom of the tool.

So every time I build a placement I rotate my hand slightly toward the outside to get it into a “swing” orientation, swing away until I’ve got something bomber (no pecking like a chicken, we’re ice climbing here, make it SOLID unless it’s a hook deep enough to hold a 500 pound tuna), rotate my hand slightly to the “grip” position, and relax.  If I’m going to cut loose for a big swing or something then I go for the Fist of Rage. But it’s this rotation between the swing and grip position, every single placement, and opening up my hand and relaxing that allows for an effective swing, warm hands, and secure placements. Of course, you have to remember to rotate back to the “swing” grip after each placement too…

There are of course a thousand refinements to this idea. Sometimes I’ll put my thumb on the back of my tool when pecking on very thin ice where it’s more like chipping your way up than climbing (I know I just said not to peck, ha ha!). Or flipping my hand totally over on the tool for big reaches on mixed climbs… Lots of variety, but understanding how to get your fingers relaxed and properly oriented when swinging will really help your swing.

Posted in: Blog


  1. Teo   January 2, 2013 2:27 am

    Thankyou. I started last year doing some steep ice, and now I see why it was so tiring… It’s cool to have a tutoring from the best. Many climbers just don’t bother teaching the basics (and for free!), they brag about how hard their climb are on their blogs. You’re on the top, yet you look at beginners. Nice!

  2. Jeff J   January 2, 2013 2:07 pm


    Its interesting that you keyed in on the swing grip the way you describe. That is very similar to how the bokken or katana is held and used. The pinky finger is the power finger that allows alot of power to come from the wrist and not the arm. With the webbing between the fore finger and the thumb residing on the top of the tool (or sword) is automaticly alines the bones in the arm for a powerful swing.

  3. steve r   January 2, 2013 8:56 pm


    Thanks so much for the info. As an educator and educatee, there are so many ways to learn. Could you possibly post some photos for those that learn visually?


  4. Gustav   January 8, 2013 6:01 am

    Hmm… That video would be very helpful, I don’t understand your descriptions.

    From the karate chop position, do you extend the wrist at all, or do you only flex the fingers to grasp the tool? It seems to me that if you don’t extend the wrist, the swing depends on adduction in the wrist, but if you do extend the wrist, the swing comes from flexion of the wrist?

    What part of your hand is on what side of the tool? For me, the palm ends up on the outside/back of the tool, the proximal finger bones on the outside of the tool, and the two distal bones on the front (pick side) of the tool.

  5. Teo   January 14, 2013 1:42 am

    Saturday I was ice climbing (in toprope, beginner mode). What a blast!
    However, I think I got what you mean by “swinging” relaxed: just thinking almost like “launching” the axe, not smashing it against the ice.
    Not in the Conan-the-barbarian-cracking-skulls way but soft of Geronimo-launching-the-tomahawk.
    I hope I got this correct…

    (and, plenty of shaking hands to de-pump)

  6. Teo   January 14, 2013 1:43 am

    not “but soft of Geronimo-”
    but “but sort of Geronimo-“

  7. Ashton   January 16, 2013 11:20 am

    Thank you for the info, greatly appreciated. Despite your well presented information I’m still not completely certain that I understand in depth your explanation of the grips. The video would definitively help out, and if you’re not able to post the video maybe some pictures could help clarify. Thanks again.

  8. Morgan   January 16, 2013 10:54 pm

    Great advice!

    One thing I’ve noticed is how less-solid bad placements feel when i’ve switched between the “fist of rage” and “hold on” positions. I.e. what felt “solid” while fist-of-raging, now feels uneasy in hold on. A cool practical demonstration of the benefits of grip position and proper sticks.

    Another thing – I have the new BD fusions and I’ve found that hooking my index finger over the secondary grip rest while swinging makes a huge difference in getting good swings/sticks.

  9. Nikolay   January 22, 2013 8:58 am


    Thanks a lot for the great advice! Please, post some video:) Thank you in advance!

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