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Ice axe

A steel and carbon tool for humans to traverse non-human environments.

Ice axe

Ice axes offer humans the opportunity and ability to go where our natural bodies cannot take us. The tools keep us safe under harsh winter conditions dominated by ice, snow, wind, and steep gains in elevations, and it enables access to tricky terrains such as ice walls, frozen waterfalls, and glaciers. The deeply curved blade makes ascents of increasingly vertical ice possible, and its thin, hollow pick rarely fractures the ice. The US outdoor equipment manufacturer Lowe Alpine developed the Hummingbird ice axe in 1973. Company founder Greg Lowe tested it and later produced it by Italian axe-makers CAMP, selling it to consumers for about €100. 

This Hummingbird ice axe comprises resource-intensive materials that impact air emissions, wastewater contaminants, hazardous wastes, and solid wastes. The axe’s head is made of steel, and its handle is forged from carbon. Steel requires about 20 gigajoules of energy per ton produced from mining the base material (ore) and forming the final product. Three-quarters of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels, making the steel industry one of the world’s most energy-consuming industries. Thankfully, steel is also one of the world’s most-recycled materials, with a global recycling rate of over 60%. It is among the easiest materials to reprocess, as it can be separated magnetically from the waste stream without downgrading in quality.

The lightweight quality of carbon makes it desirable for ice axes. It is a minimal thermal and electrical conductor, allowing users’ hands to stay warm and reducing the risk of accidental electrocution. But carbon composites are expensive compared to structural steel and aluminum alloys. Carbon lasts long when kept well, making it hard to dispose of. Carbon fibers cannot simply be melted down and reformed. Once cured, most tough polymers will not melt and must be burned off or chemically dissolved to reclaim the valuable fibers. Recycled carbon fiber often ends up in tennis rackets and golf clubs, where low weight is more important than strength. Regardless of recyclability, both materials require extensive natural resources, human labor, and time to manufacture. 

The Hummingbird ice axe represents an era in outdoor exploration that overlooked traditional worldviews and Indigenous achievements in mountaineering. Only now are these people being written back into history.

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