Nov 14 2013

First Look: K2 Shaxe®

What do you get when you cross an axe with a shovel?

Shaxe gets around.

Shaxe gets around — seen here with Yannick Pralong (left), Gilles Sierro, and Olivier Roduit (behind the lens) ascending the Dente Blanche in Switzerland, for the first descent of the “Swiss Fall Line.”

In the years I’ve spent skiing, mountaineering, and, writing about skiing and mountaineering, a steady procession of ice axes and snow shovels have passed through my hands. One thing, however, that I had yet to see was a serious mountaineering ice-axe capable of morphing into a real snow shovel — and back. That is, of course, until the arrival of the clever new Shaxe, the latest addition to K2′s focused offering of complimentary off-piste/ski-mountaineering accessories (skins, ski poles, packs, etc.).

It's a shovel...

It’s a shovel…

I keep wanting to say that the Shaxe is a stand out, except for the fact that there is nothing for it to stand out from, as there is nothing else like it. Of course there have been mountaineering and waterfall climbing tools with interchangeable picks for decades. Snow shovels, designed to be broken down for storage in a pack, have always had an inherent modularity. And, there have been smallish, force-fit shovel blades meant for the spike end of ice axes. However, with its quick, tool-less conversion, and serious build, the Shaxe is utterly unique and offers much utility for those heading into snowy, mountainous terrain. In fact, it’s the kind of tool who’s arrival begs the question: “Why hadn’t someone figured this one out before?”

To get some insight into the birth of the Shaxe I turned to Mike Hattrup, the man behind K2′s backcountry, telemark, and ski-mountaineering line-up since its inception, and, the driving force behind the Shaxe. “Why no one else, including axe manufacturers, hadn’t come up with this before, I have no idea. What I do know is that we wanted to begin with an axe, a real axe, and work backwards to the shovel. I didn’t want to end up with a hokey axe that I could’t really trust in serious mountaineering situations”, explained Hattrup, an AMGA-certified guide. Adding, in his usual self-depracating style, “I let someone smarter than myself figure out how to engineer and build it.” That being K2′s in-house designer, Jason Neubauer. They certainly succeeded, as the Shaxe, when in axe mode, is a robust, yet light tool, on par with all “ski-mountaineering” axes already on the market.

Wait...no, it's an ice axe...

Wait…no, it’s an ice axe…

Pick it up and swing it. With its heat-treated 7075 T6 aluminum handle and chrome moly steel head, you’ll feel the nice balance and comforting heft you’re going to want in a tool meant to chop steps and platforms in hard snow or stick into real alpine ice. Super light aluminum-headed tools are great when going for max lightness. However, when the going, as well as the snow, gets tough, there is no substitute for the bang-around toughness you get with good old-fashioned steel.

Armoring the handle with stronger, though harder to extrude, 7075 aluminum means the axe meets European ice axe standards. It also delivers a shovel handle more than up to the task of demanding shoveling — including the inevitable misuse all shovels endure, such as when people mindlessly pry at snow (hard or soft) rather than raking it or chopping at it. The spike-end of the just-over 50-centimeter shaft is sliced off at a 45-degree angle for penetration and fitted with a plastic plug—standard design fare on “spike-less” ski-mountaineering axes. This prevents the freezing build-up of snow and ice inside the shaft. Additionally, the head features lightening cutouts that double as attachment points for a leash.

Shaxe handy pouch for storing the axe head.

Shaxe handy pouch for storing the axe head.

The shovel blade of the Shaxe attaches not with the type of push-button found on virtually every other shovel on the market, but rather, with a “pull-back” spring-metal clip. This design, where the blade-to-handle locking “button” is moved permanently onto the spine of the blade, rather than being embedded in the shaft, was necessitated by the demands of mountaineering. When the shaft of an axe is thrust into hard snow (and hidden rocks) over and over again, permanent damage can occur to the standard protruding push-type mechanism. Bear in mind too that you cannot retrofit any of K2′s other shovel handles (i.e. the telescoping ones) into the Shaxe due the differing blade-to-handle connections. Nor can the Shaxe’s simplified “T” handle be mounted for 90-degree shaft-to-handle “hoeing”. The blade however, built from the more conventional 6061 aluminum found in the rest of K2s shovel line-up, sport slots. When threaded with five or six millimeter cord or webbing, these slots allows it to be used as a deadman snow-anchor—adding to the tool’s overall utility.

The magic of the clip that makes the union of a shovel or axe off the same shaft possible. Shaxe.

The magic of the clip that makes the union of a shovel or axe off the same shaft possible. Shaxe.

Of course I can’t talk about the Shaxe without mentioning what really makes it go, what really allows it be so unique, which is the axe-head/shovel T-grip fastening mechanism. Once slid into place, the axe-head and shovel grip are fixed onto the shaft with a stainless steel thru-pin that is locked into place with a rubberized clip that swivels and snaps into place, grasping the shaft like a hand around the neck of someone you’re trying to strangle (such as the camp-mate who just kicked over the pot and stove containing the evening’s meal). Further enhancing the security of this coupling is a durable rubber sleeve that slides up over the positioned clip, locking everything positively in place. Simple. Effective. Brilliant.

First rule of steep snow -same as the last: Don't fall.

First rule of steep snow? Same as the last — don’t fall!!!

The Shaxe comes packaged as a shovel. You’ll find the axe-head in the attached storage pouch. Also in the zippered pouch will be found K2′s informative instruction manual and four bolts and wing nuts that can be used to convert certain skis (obviously K2′s) into a rescue sled. The pouch, certainly not necessary if you’re trying to keep your load to a minimum, is large enough that it can be stuffed with the extra little tools, spare parts and general repair supplies we all should be carrying into the winter hinterlands.

While meant for the more vertically-inclined skier, the Shaxe is a great tool for any itinerate skier, or climber for that matter, needing an ice axe that can be broken down for air flights and duffel bags. I keep thinking too of how useful the Shaxe will be on early spring to late summer alpine rock climbs where you need a small axe just for your approach or descent, but that you want to go-away when rock climbing. Well, here it is. No more climbing while your axe grates annoyingly over the rock and clangs around like a cowbell. Just break the Shaxe down, stuff it into your pack, and up you go.

MSRP: $139.00 complete package
Length: 51cm
Weight: 13 oz./269 gms. (axe configuration)
23.4 oz./662gms. (shovel configuration)
29.7 oz./843gms. (axe & shovel together)
35.2 oz./998gms. (complete, off the shelf)

Note: The two action shots showing the Shaxe in use were taken while ascending the 1944 Roch-Greloz-Weigle route on Switzerland’s Dent Blanche—prior to the first ski descent. The first ski descent of the line, found on the western flank of the peak, was accomplished by Gilles Sierro (a guide and K2 athlete), Yannick Pralong, and Olivier Roduit on June 7th of this year. Their name, given to the ski line, is the very apt Swiss Fall Line. For the full story, click here.

© 2013