How to Sharpen Your Ice Tools
An ice climber with a blunt set of picks on his ice tools is no different than a sushi chef trying to cut through a chunk of fine ahi tuna with a set of chopsticks. Bad form!
Ice climbing is already miserable enough: There’s no reason to make the bitter, frozen, painful but ultimately incredible experience of climbing frozen water any more difficult than it needs to be. But using dull picks does just that.
The pick is actually the most important part of the entire ice tool. Not even the whole pick, either: only the most forward few millimeters that comprise the pick’s tip. This is the part that actually penetrates the ice, meaning that it’s only these few millimeters that are actually connecting you to this unlikely, shifty medium. Because ice climbing is always a situation in which you definitely do NOT want to fall, it would seem smart to really, really pay attention to those few key millimeters and make sure they are in perfect form. Always. Your life very much depends on it.
Before discussing how to keep your picks sharp, it’s important to understand what each part of the pick does when you swing a tool into the ice.
There are three stages to every ice-tool swing. And there are no shortages of inappropriate sexual metaphors that could be drawn into these descriptions, but instead of going there I’ll let you use your own sick, twisted, depraved imaginations to fill in the blanks.
Penetration. The ice pick has to enter the ice, ideally displacing as little of it as possible. A sharp, thin, well-beveled tip of the ice pick will penetrate best. In this case, girth doesn’t pay dividends.
Using those teeth. The jagged “teeth” located on the underside of the ice pick are what help set the tool into the ice and keep it from popping out unexpectedly. These teeth add security and help you trust your placements. But bite too hard, and you won’t come out. The teeth need to be filed a bit to keep it all fun.
Pulling out. In order to make that next tool swing, you gotta first pull out of the last one. Dislodging an ice tool from a solid stick is partly a matter of knowing how to work your tool, but it’s also about having a sharp, beveled edge on the top of the pick. A sharp, thin edge up top helps you to dislodge sticky placements and move on to the next one.
So now that you know the birds and bees of how it all works, we need to learn how to actually sharpen those picks in order to make those three stages as effortless and efficient as possible.
Sharpening The Pick
One word: before you start filing down your pick into a paper-thin blade, remember that there’s a balance. Chronic filing will wear your picks out quicker than necessary. At over $40+ per ice tool pick, you could find yourself spending a lot more money than you need to be spending simply because you can’t keep your hands off pick and file.
That said, all picks need to be consistently sharpened, especially brand-new picks straight from the factory. Once you get the proper bevel and shape of your ice pick, re-sharpening now becomes a matter of hitting the pick with a few strokes of the file before each outing.
Here’s what you need: a mill bastard file. These are files that have cross patterns in the file. Straight-cut files are different in that the patterns only go in one direction (and therefore, they only file in one direction too). A bastard file goes any way you want, which makes the job easier.
It’s possible to use a bench grinder to file an ice-tool pick, but only if special precautions are taken in order to not ruin the pick’s temper, such as touching the pick to the grinder for only a second or two at a time and immediately cooling it in a cup of water. Still, a bastard file is preferred and recommended.
Sharpen the pick tip. Following the bevel of the manufacturer, make strokes on either side of the pick’s tip with your file until the steel is shining and the beveled edge is as sharp to touch as a knife blade.
File the top of the pick, making its bevel as thin and as sharp as the tip of the pick. Again, this is a matter of making strokes that follow the manufacturer’s bevel, only working it down so it’s like a razor. You only need to sharpen about two inches of the pick’s top edge, as you’ll almost never bury your ice tool any deeper than that (into solid ice, that is).
File down those teeth on the underside of the pick. This is a judgment call and depends a lot on what you’re personally comfortable with, but think of it this way: More aggressive, sharp teeth bite into the ice, which provides more security when you’re hanging from your tool. However, the more aggressive the teeth are, the harder it is to subsequently remove your ice tool from a solid stick.
The pick in the foreground shows the finished (sharpened) product, while the pick in the background is still dull.
The more technical mixed climbers will actually file away the entire first tooth of their ice picks in order to create a place to “hook” their ice tool onto rocky edges. So, I suggest trial and error to see how much you need to file those teeth down.
In ice climbing, expect to be cold, expect to get wet, and expect to get the screaming barfies. Just make sure that you, and your picks, are never dull.