Blue Ice's Bluebird
As always, we're looking at the Blue Ice Bluebird from the point of view of long distance trekking over tough terrain. Though the Scramble team are regular users of ice axes, we're not mountaineers or climbers and we're not going to pretend we're experts in this area. Instead, for this review we've brought in some outside help. A big thanks to Dane, owner of the excellent Cold Thistle site.
Test subject: Height: 5ft 8"
Test item: 54cm Version
Kit Tests: Winter
Disclaimer: None required (item not provided by manufacturer)
|Materials: Head, Spike (Chro-mo hot forged steel)||100%|
|Materials: Shaft (7075-T6 aeronautical grade anodized aluminium)||100%|
|Treatments: Anti-corrosion surface treatment and anodized sandblasted aluminium shaft||-|
|Origins: Forged in Switzerland, designed & assembled in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc||-|
|Ice Axe Certification||CE / EN 13 089|
|Weights (54cm stated & measured* / 60cm stated)||450g & 435g* / 480g|
|Approx. Product Sizing Reference: 5ft 8" =||54cm|
|Manufacturer RRP||~£90.00 (100 Euros)|
Introduction: A Refined Beast?
In winter, mountain trekkers like us, unlike mountaineers and climbers, may spend more time with an ice axe attached to our packs than in our hands, afterall, we carry ice axes, goggles and crampons as an insurance policy, for those times in winter when mountain trekking takes a turn for the serious and starts to look suspiciously like mountaineering.
As stated elsewhere, for Scramble mountains are simply awkward things that have planted themselves between point A and B, and sometimes we need to clamber over them. So when it comes to a "trekking ice axe" we want a simple, robust, no-nonsense mountaineering axe (nothing technical as we're not going ice climbing) and above all we want something light ... but not too light. We don't want a talisman luring us into places we perhaps shouldn't be, offering only a false sense of security. We need an ice axe that really performs when required, since if required, almost by definition, there is risk and potential danger ahead.
The Bluebird fits the bill perfectly. In our view this axe is something of a refined beast. It features an aggressive pick, a good sized adze for cutting steps and digging holes and a tough, sharp spike, essential for self-belaying to prevent slips becoming falls. It's heavy enough to function as a serious mountain tool, yet not so heavy that the additional weight becomes a crippling burden. All I can say is that as long as you're not wedded to the self-arrest carry position, this axe is a delight to use.
Now we'll pass it over to a real expert to dig a little deeper and then we'll finish up wth our normal negatives and conclusions and ratings sections.
Over to Bruno Schull to tell us about Two Ice Axes ... Two Cultures?
A Tale of Two Ice Axes
by Bruno Schull
This is a tale of two ice axes. Or two cultures, or two climbing styles, or two ways of dealing with danger in the mountains. Can we draw cultural conclusions from ice axes? Many aspects of climbing vary in generally recognizable ways from place to place, for example, rating systems, environmental ethics, techniques and so on. Why not ice axes?
The two axes I would like to discuss are the Raven, produced by Black Diamond, based in the Rocky Mountains, and the Bluebird, produced by Blue Ice, located at the foot of Mont Blanc. The two axes appear similar. They both have straight aluminum shafts, simple spikes, and forged steel heads with classic picks. Nonetheless, they are very different.
There are differences in form. The Raven is a refined object, each detail perfectly finished, from the twin lines that trace backward from the cut-out in the adze, to the seamless transitions between steel and aluminum. The Bluebird is a rough tool. The head bears remnants from the forging process, and you can see exactly how they ground and shaped the metal.
There are differences in function. The Raven is a general mountaineering axe. The weight is balanced between the head and the shaft, and the pick is not aggressive. It would be perfect for climbing 14,000 foot peaks, ascending volcanoes, and exploring the kind of rugged wilderness found throughout the American West. The Bluebird is more specialized. The head is substantial, and the pick is designed for hard ice. It would perform well on steep couloirs, easy mixed ground and complicated ridges in the French Alps.
In this sense, each axe does reflect the region where it was produced. But I am interested how the shape of the head makes you hold each axe.
The head of the Raven is defined by a smooth curve which runs from adze to pick. The curve fits into your palm, and large surface supports your weight. Beneath the pick, the head is flattened for your fingers, and there is a large indentation above the shaft for your hand. These features make it comfortable to hold the axe with the pick facing backward in the self arrest position.
The head of the Bluebird is marked by a prominent crest above the shaft. The crest fits the web of skin between your thumb and forefinger, and the sloping adze support your palm. The top of the shaft has also been cut away at an angle so that your fingers lie naturally along the sides of the pick. These features make it comfortable to hold the axe with the pick facing forward in the dagger position.
Of course, you can hold the axes any way you want, but they have clearly been designed with a specific position in mind. You can test this by holding each axe the opposite way; if you hold the Raven in the dagger position, your hand slides forward along the smooth head, and if you hold the Bluebird in the self-arrest position, the sharp crest bites into your palm.
Which position is best? This question is frequently debated, like how to rack gear or tie in for glacier travel.
Briefly, if you hold an ice axe with the pick facing backward, you undoubtedly eliminate one movement during the difficult process of self-arrest, and if you hold an ice axe with the pick facing forward, you may be able to move more securely and prevent a fall from happening in the first place.
Without committing to one point of view, we can ask if there are cultural differences between these two techniques. Is there something particularly American about the self-arrest position, or distinctly French about the dagger position?
It’s probably fair to say that most aspiring alpinists in the United States learn the basics of self-arrest, and dutifully practice the maneuver from a variety of positions, while few climbers in France hold their ice axes in the self-arrest position, and prefer the dagger position. Imagine an American climber, balancing on a steep slope, convinced that if they do not hold their axe with the pick pointing backward they will meet certain death, or a French climber, daggering up easy ground, proclaiming casually, “I do not need to self-arrest because I will not fall.” The self-arrest position does have a certain utilitarian pragmatism, which seems American, and the dagger position is more elegant if daring, which seems French.
There are American climbers who prefer the dagger position, and French climbers who prefer the self arrest position, so perhaps it’s more appropriate to consider cultural differences based not on geography, but on larger questions of how we approach climbing.
I am reminded of the familiar risk equation, formulated as the product of the likelihood and consequences of an accident.
There are situations with low likelihood and high consequences, like walking across a wide granite ledge above a steep face, and situations with high likelihood and low consequences, like reaching for a tiny hold on a granite boulder in the middle of an alpine meadow. Risk assessment in these situations is relatively straightforward, while the gray areas in between are more difficult to navigate. We usually take steps to reduce the likelihood of accidents, such as wearing crampons, and steps to reduce the consequences of accidents, such as wearing helmets.
How does this relate to the Raven and the Bluebird? The Raven would be the choice for those seeking to reduce the consequences of a fall, while the Bluebird would be the choice for those seeking to reduce the likelihood of a fall. The axes, then, reflect different ways to manage risk in the mountains.
Alpine climbing forces you to constantly make decisions about danger. When should we climb? What route should we follow? How much gear should we bring? These are important questions with real consequences. That is why I am interested in how to hold an ice axe, and the design of the Raven and the Bluebird.
To be honest, my favorite design is a third axe, which allows you to easily switch between positions. The larger truth, I think, is that no one position is best, and it’s important to be able to move fluidly between techniques. Likewise, I would say that we should strive whenever possible to address both sides of the risk equation, and limit the likelihood and consequences of accidents. Perhaps, if there is one, this is the moral of my tale. Seek the middle way.
I own both a Raven and a Bluebird. Each is beautiful in its own way, and I enjoy turning them over in my hands, studying their features, considering the questions posed by each design.
Then again, I do hope to use them in the mountains. I bought the Raven in a longer size, and the Bluebird in a shorter size, because that seems appropriate for how they are designed. But that’s just my perspective. Which axe would you bring with you on your next climb?
© Bruno Schull
Published here with the kind permission of Dane @ Cold Thistle. Many thanks!
The only negative we can come up with for the Bluebird may, for some, be a deal breaker - the fact that it's clearly been designed to be held in the dagger position. For those who don't feel comfortable with that, the Black Diamond Raven (which weighs almost exactly the same as the Bluebird) would be an excellent choice. There aren't too many bad ice axes around and if you stick with a well established company like Grivel, Petzl, CAMP, Black Diamond et al, you're sure to find a good fit.
Conclusion & Rating
Blue Ice's Bluebird is a minimalist, lightweight classic Alpine mountaineering axe. A step up from a traditional "walking ice axe", the Bluebird is designed for mountaineering, ski and glacier touring.
In winter, the line between mountain trekking and mountaineering can get very blurry and in our opinion it's far better to have an ice axe intended for the latter for those spindrift days when goggles and crampons are a must and your week long trek from A to B just got a little bit longer and a hell of a lot harder. The Bluebird is one such tool; a great general purpose ice axe and our top pick in the Trekking Ice Axe category.
Rating (out of 10)
* The value score is derived from two factors:
1) Competitive Market Price (CMP). This represents our judgement of a competitive online price point if we were to stock the item. e.g. if we feel we would need to sell an item at 40% off (i.e. 60% of its full RRP) to be competitive, then our CMP score will be 6/10.
2) Customer Value Price (CVP). We then make an honest appraisal of the maximum price we would be willing to pay for the item (and we're mean). So if we'd pay 80% of its RRP our CVP score would be 8/10.
We then average the two scores to get our final value score, which in our example would be 7/10.
Last Updated: 27/05/18