How to Sharpen Ice Tools

It is that time of year again. The Colorado Ice Conditions page on Facebook is a flurry with posts of who’s climbed Pikes Peak? Is Martha’s in yet?? Who knows where’s there is ice to climb!?!? By early November the Internet is a flurry and ice climbers are anxious, swinging their tools into the neighborhood hockey rink just to feel something. Typically by early November there is climbable ice if you know where to go. By the end of November certainly seasonal classics are in, and by early December it’s game on.

IFMGA ski and mountain guide Chris Marshal leading Stairway to Heaven, WI4 Grade IV, 1200 ft 7 pitches, Eureka, CO

This time of year the ice tools come out of the crawl space and get dusted off. I stare at the picks deciding if they are in need of replacement or can they make it a little bit longer with some love? These picks aren’t that bad I tell myself…. Until compared with a new set of picks is.

Version 2

Climbers beginning the early season climb Second Gully (WI3 800 ft 6 pitches) outside of Silverton, CO

A comparison of old used picks up top, brand new sharpened picks in the middle, and brand new picks on the bottom.

That being said, sharpening these old blunt picks can make them perform and hold on for a little bit longer.

A zoomed out view of the classic climb, Stairway to Heaven outside of Silverton, CO.

A zoomed out view of the classic climb, Stairway to Heaven outside of Silverton, CO.



  • The Pick: The pick has to be able to go into the ice, at the same time displacing or braking off as little as possible.
  • The Stick: The jagged teeth located on the underside of the ice pick keep the tool from popping out. These are what give you security. That being said, if the teeth are too pronounce, the tool will be hard to get out.
  • The Pull: Removing a toll from the ice is 50% skill and 50% having a good pick. The last thing you want is to either A) burn extra energy removing your tool. B) break a pick trying to remove it. C) have the pick pop out and whack you in the nose. A thin and sharp edge on top of the pick can help you dislodge it from sticky placements.

So how do we breath some life back into last seasons picks? You’ll need a plain old mill bastard file. Bastard files have a two way or cross pattern in the file. This allows you to file in any direction, where as a straight cut file only goes one way.

All picks need some consistent love and maintenance, even when brand new. While it is possible to use a bench grinder, the bastard file will do the trick and is typically preferred. A bench grinder can over heat a pick and ruin its temper.

A comparison of old used picks up top, brand new sharpened picks in the middle, and brand new picks on the bottom.

a comparison of a blunt pick, a sharpened pick nearing the end of it’s life, and a brand new pick

Step 1 The Pick: You will want to follow the general bevel of the manufacture. Do not just file back and forth. You will get a better file if you file and repeat in the same direction over and over. Make sure your strokes are ok either side of the picks tip. File until the beveled edge is as sharp as a knife.





Step 2 The Stick: The teeth of your pick are what give the pick bite and stick. This is what keeps you hanging on to steep ice. This is what keeps you from popping out of the ice and allows you to trust your placements. However, everything in moderation, including moderation. Too much bite and you will not be able to remove your picks from the ice.


Step 3 The Pull: Pulling out is always important. The last thing you want is an overly secure stick that you can’t remove from the ice just as you’re pumping out. A difficult pull can “pop” out, whacking you in the nose or cheek. Not ideal. Make sure to have a sharpened and beveled edge on the top of the pick.

So go sharpen those picks, get amped, spend some time on Google Earth and find that early season ice. It’s there.


Climbers enjoying some San Juan ice with sharp picks

Josh is the owner and lead guide for Kling Mountain Guides, a small ski and mountain guide service based in Durango, CO. He is a Camp-USA athlete, an AMGA certified alpine guide, rock guide, assistant ski guide, and IFMGA Aspirant Mountain Guide. His tools get their most use in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern CO.


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