This section profiles a few metalware items.

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Ice Axes

Not all ice axes are made in a factory.

Ice axes are wonderful, versatile pieces of equipment, and most of them are happily overbuilt. Anyone wishing to test ice axes beyond their design specifications in a wilderness environment faces a daunting challenge. Many of these devices can hold up a car, bounce off boulders, pierce logs, and endure the harshest elemental batterings. Rather than trying to review specific ice axes, we offer some general guidelines and uses.

A good ice axe can fulfill all the following roles:

The uses of an ice axe are nearly endless. Reinhold Messner even outfitted his ice axe so he could use it as a camera tripod.

Steel vs. Aluminum.
Steel ice axe components are heavier and more durable than aluminum, and may rust. There is no such thing as trully "stainless" steel. Aluminum components are lighter and don't rust, but they wear down more quickly. Beware of ice axes with aluminum butt-spikes. The spike recieves more wear than any other area of the axe. We've had to retire at least one ice axe from heavy travel because the aluminum spike became a rounded nub.

Ice axes come in a variety of lengths and weights. Most trekkers, explorer-types, and others should look at 60-70cm axes. Grab your prospective axe and walk around with it a little. It should be just long enough to use comfortably as third leg, but no longer: the longer your axe is, the more ungainly it will be when you're in steep terrain.

We do not wish to offer opinions or advice on the Mountaineering applications of ice axes (Pick design, positive vs. negative tip grinds, the whole leash debate, the grommet jihad…). This subject is a best discussed with experienced alpinists.

Sharpening your Ice Axe Although it's highly unlikely you'll break your ice axe, you will probably dull it. You can wear down the butt-spike, and batter the pick and adze into a ruin of dented metal. These problems can be at lease temporarily rectified by simply re-filing the edge or point in question. We recommend using a 10" or 12" mill bastard file (no, the file isn't a bastard: that's just the name of this type of file). Secure your axe so that you can work without it moving around, then sharpen it with smooth, regular strokes, always holding the file at the desired angle.

You don't need a razor-sharp edge. In fact, a really sharp ice axe will rapidly become a really dull ice axe. The axe gives you enough leverage to do your business with relatively dull, safe points and edges. A really sharp axe is a good way to hurt yourself and shorten the lifespan of your axe.

A Final Cautionary Note
One of the most common mountaineering injuries is impaling or lacerating oneself with one's own ice axe. Leon Trotsky, colleague to Lenin and Stalin, was killed by the KGB in south america, and the murder was done with an ice axe. Don't be a Trotsky. Don't get axed.

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In our experience, the most important question in assessing a knife is what do you need it for. There are a zillion knife styles out there, and a lot of ideology surrounding them. They're all just variants on a sharp rock.

Knife Considerations:


Cold Steel Bird & Trout
The real beauty of this little knife is that it's just that: little. And simple. Weighing only (), it's a knife pared down its essentials: a small blade, a tang, and a ring at the end of the tang. It's small and flat enough to be worn on a lanyard around the neck. It's also cheap, in the $20 range. The Bird & Trout comes with a bead-chain to hang it around your neck. We recommend replacing this chain with a piece of nylon cord, and hanging a little L.E.D. light on it as well. The result is a micro tool kit: a knife, a light, and a bit of good string.

Crawford-Kasper Stiff K.I.S.S.
We don't think this sheath knife is made anymore, but the drop-point version was very handy. It's very light, flat, and has a half-serrated blade. It is still available in a folding version. The tanto-point K.I.S.S. seems to be very popular, but we don't like it. We feel that having a tanto point on a light folder is like having a bash-bar on a Geo Metro. When it was available, the stiff K.I.S.S. seemed to retail for $35 or less.

Cold Steel Mini Bushman
This is a very practical and durable knife. The mini bushman is a knife at its most basic: a carbon-steel blade with a massive tang that's rolled to form a hollow steel handle. You can store things in the hollow handle, but blade strength is not compromised by this design. The blade is enameled black, preventing corrosion. The edge has no serrations. We recommend wrapping the handle in electrical or duct tape, to improve the grip and make it sit more snugly in the leather sheath. Cost: mail order for $20 or less.

Gerber Trendy.
The Trendy is a lot like the folding K.I.S.S.: a folding, open-frame little knife. It's very handy, although the tip can snag on things even when it's closed. Cost: $35 or less.

Nepali Kukuri Knife
This is a heavy-duty Kukuri is a mainstay tool in Nepal, where it is used for just about everything from woodcutting and yak-butchering to slicing vegetables for dinner. The kukuri as also issued to soldiers of the famous Gurkha regiments (Nepalese soldiers who serve as mercenaries for India and Great Britain). The Kukuri pictured is not the standard combat Kukuri, but the jungle version, with a slightly longer blade.

The Kukuri is a very heavy type of knife, bridging the gap between knives and hatchets. It's size and weight make it unwieldy for ultralight travel and mountaineering. It is, however, extremely versatile. With its heavy blade and forward-curve, it is an extraordinarily heavy, durable knife. It works well as a hatchet, wood-splitter, draw knife, and sickle. Crouching on the ground, you can also set your foot on the handle and - thus stabilizing the knife - use it as a stationary blade to cut up your dinner food on. For those who need a knife for major wilderness projects, such as falling small trees, splitting firewood, or building furniture, the kukuri is a hoof option. There are a wide range of Kukuri knives available in the U.S., but we haven't specifically reviewed any of them. This Kukuri was purchased at the House of Kukuri in Kathmandu, Nepal, for about U.S. $40.

Thrift Store Knives.
There's no reason you can't buy old kitchen knives at a thrift store or garage sale, but understand that many of them aren't intended for rigorous use. This just means you'll have to be carefull with them. An acceptable sheath can be made with duct tape and paper cut out of a cereal box, or off the front & back covers of a spiral notebook. For a waterproof sheath, cut up a milk carton.

Improvised Knives
A knife is just a sharp edge. In a pinch, you can file or grind a suitable edge onto most thin strips of metal. You can also use broken glass, and the shards of some rocks. For "cutting" nylon and other synthetics without a sharp knife, you can heat a piece of metal or glass, and melt the desired cut through the fabric. You can use box cutters and razor blades. If you need inspiration on improvising knives, prison weapons are a good place to look.

If you don't have a whetstone and need to sharpen your knife, don't be intimidated. It's just a piece of metal! Rub it on a whetstone or a slightly abrasive rock (such as hard sandstone) at the desired angle. You can even sharpen a concrete trowel to a razor edge by working it on a cement floor. Experiment. Sharpening is a skill, but if you NEED a sharp knife, you've got all the skills and common sense you need.

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A good metal spoon is a joy forever. The mysterious powers a metal spoon bestows include: Metal spoons are available at your finest garage sales, thrift stores, and giveaways. You may wish to equip your metal spoon with a lanyard. You may wish to stash several in key locations in your life, like in your car, your camping gear, and your safe deposit box.

A charming cousin the metal spoon is the (lexan?) M.R.E. (Meal-Ready-to-Eat) spoon. These are the best plastic spoons we've ever found. Technically, they're disposable, but there's no need to throw them away! M.R.E. can't take heat, but they're tough. On the upside, they work as great firestarter if can get them lit. You can often find M.R.E.s or even just the spoons at Army Surplus stores.

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