Traverse near the Col du Bonhomme on the GR5
In the middle of 2007 the author and his wife spent three months walking in France. While it was meant to be summer, the chances of snow on the high cols was real and we wanted something very light to add just a little safety in the snow. Conventional ice axes were too heavy to be justified, but we felt that the very light weight of a medium-length ‘Potty Trowel’ was justifiable. It was used quite a bit, both as a real potty trowel and as an aid in the snow, but we never got any further than ‘walking’ with it. While not perfect in all details, it can be recommended for those walking trips where a little more security is needed.
- Lighter than any other ice axe on the market
- Very easy to carry
- Digs cat holes very well
- Metal and shaft both resist damage very well
What’s Not So Good
- Sharp edges, or at least, square corners, where it is held
- Holes in pick have sharp edges too
- Not certified by UIAA
|2007—Helix Potty Trowel|
Sizes and prices
|Short: 55 cm, 4.5 oz, US$130
Medium: 66 cm, 5.0 oz. US$140 (measured at 146 g or 5.15 oz)
Long: 74 mm, 5.4 oz, US$150
|Pick length 125 mm (5 in)
Pick thickness 4.7 mm (3/16 in)
Adze length 80 mm (3 in)
Adze width 50 mm (2 in)
|Multi-layer wrapped carbon fibre tubing, 21 mm (0.83 in) diameter|
|Anodised aluminium alloy tube, cut at a slant for penetration|
|MIG or TIG welded aluminium alloy, anodized after welding|
The manufacturer ULA Equipment advertises this as a ‘Potty Trowel’. The company does not advertise it as an ice axe, although the web sites admits it looks like an ice axe and that people have used it as such. One reason for this caution is very likely to avoid any liability if someone uses it as an ice axe and has an accident which the lawyers could try to blame on the Helix. In such a case the company can point out the Helix was being used for a purpose for which it was not advertised. Another very good reason is because the Helix has not been submitted for testing to the UIAA, the European body which tests and certifies ice axes against European standards. So what you do with this Potty Trowel is entirely up to you.
The comments here are just the author’s own opinions: Backpacking Light makes no claims as to the suitability of the Helix Potty Trowel as an ice axe either.
Design and Construction
Head and spike of helix
For simplicity I will talk about the Helix Potty trowel as though it really is an ice axe, despite the caution above. As you can see from the photo to the right it has the features you would expect from an ice axe: a head with pick and adze, a shaft, and a spike at the bottom. Both the head and the spike have been hard-anodised. The head and the spike are glued into a round carbon fibre tube which is the shaft. The spiral markings on the shaft are just an artifact of how the carbon fibre tubing is made.
The head has a classical shape, with the pick curving out at a gentle angle for about 125 mm from the shaft. It does not have the pronounced downwards rake of a modern ice tool, but then it is not sold as an ice tool. The pick is made from 4.7 mm thick aluminium alloy plate and this piece of plate extends forward to provide the support for the adze blade as well - this is the normal construction method. The pick has series of 8 plain 6.3 mm (1/4 in) holes down its length. These holes are too small for any respectable carabiner and are not chamfered at the surfaces, which is a pity. In fact I am not sure why the holes are there: they don’t reduce the weight by very much. The tip of the pick is chamfered but is definitely not sharp. The pick also has a series of semi-circular notches of the same size along the underside, going out to the tip. I assume that these are meant to help the pick to grip in really hard snow or soft ice, but their effect is not great. They might grip better in hard ice, but you are unlikely to get the pick very far into hard ice. If you are climbing on hard ice you should be using a UIAA-certified axe anyhow. The notches do have some effect on crusty ice early in the morning.
The adze is welded to the pick plate very solidly. It has very rounded front corners - more rounded than my two other heavier axes. These corners are usually meant to prevent the adze from jamming in hard ice, but the axe is too light to be of much use on hard ice anyhow. It does not matter. The adze blade has three small holes along each side - exactly why I cannot tell. Once again, any weight reduction would be very small. The cutting edge of the adze has been chamfered but like the tip of the pick it is not sharp. Really, none of the edges on this axe represent any danger to gear or clothing - unlike my steel axe which is very sharp at both adze and pick tip. Behind the adze itself there is an unchamfered 9.5 mm hole in the support for the adze. It would have been nice if this hole had been lightly chamfered before anodizing.
Finally, the pick plate itself is welded into a short length of tube which goes into the carbon fibre shaft. The weld lines are very full and look well done. There is a shoulder on the bit of tube which butts up against the end of the carbon fibre tube: this is visible in the photo.
The spike at the bottom end of the axe is a bit of aluminium alloy tube set into the end of the carbon fibre shaft, and it has been cut on a definite chamfer. It too has a shoulder to butt up against the end of the shaft, and this shoulder is essential to support the spike inside the shaft and prevent the glue from being overloaded. Both the chamfer and the shoulder are visible in the photo above.
I have some experience with using 2-D wrapped carbon fibre tubing in outdoors gear, and I like it. Some people have worried about its impact resistance, saying it is ‘brittle’. In my experience it handles impact very well, up to its yield point. Unlike, say, mild steel which yields (bends) slowly at low forces, carbon fibre resists any deformation right to the end, but then it fails quickly. It could therefore be described as being ‘brittle’ - but this is somewhat misleading. It is really extremely strong, but like anything else it can be broken if you take it to an extreme. I found both the Helix and a carbon fibre trekking pole we were carrying on in France to be very reliable when used as walking aids.
Climbing up the back of Mt Brevent, near Mont Blanc
I know that abrasion can damage the surface of carbon fibre tubing, and I was a little concerned about the effect of both ice and rock on the bottom end of the shaft. I added a short length of heat-shrink tubing over the bottom end of the shaft to provide some protection against abrasion - I am sure this added a few grams to the weight. This is visible in the photo above just above the spike and below the spiral markings on the shaft. Whether it is really needed depends entirely on how one treats the axe - it made me feel just that little bit happier about waving it around.
The Helix is missing three features often found on a certified ice axe. It does not have a hole in the head which could take any of my fairly normal carabiners, although there may be very light ones which would fit through the 9.5 mm hole. Mine would require a 10.5 mm hole I think. However the lack of a chamfer there makes putting either a carabiner or a loop of tape or cord through the hole a bit risky. Second, it dose not come with a wrist strap and the shaft has no stopper on it to limit downwards travel of any wrist strap, nor is there a carabiner hole through the spike. Now you may not need a wrist strap with this axe and I have never needed a hole through the spike on any axe, but the UIAA tests seem to require one or the other (clause 2.2.1) in order to do a test on the strength of the head.
Third, the Helix is very light: it lacks the mass and thin adze edge needed to hack into ice. But once again we note: it is not sold as an ice axe, and is not meant for use ice climbing. So there is no point in criticizing it for this.
One other ‘feature’ should be mentioned, although it is not unique to the Helix. The shaft is hollow, and can act as a cork borer in snow and dirt. This meant I ended up with the shaft loaded with tightly packed snow a few times. I found out about this the embarrassing way, when my axe dribbled water all over the floor of a refuge one evening. It took us a little while to work out just where the water was coming from! After that I made sure I melted and blew the snow out before taking the axe indoors. I don’t think this is a fault, and you only make this mistake once (I think).
ULA Comments on Design
We do not normally quote what the manufacturer writes about a product as it is usually just marketing spin, and we can live without that. However, two comments from ULA are worth including here as they relate to the ULA position about the use of the Helix as an ice axe.
"Q: How well balanced is the Helix Potty Trowel? How does this affect the swing of the Trowel?
A: Many other lightweight trowels or poorly balanced due to the majority of the weight being located in the shaft instead of the head of the trowel. In comparison, the majority of weight in the Helix Potty Trowel is in the head. This is especially noticeable when you are swinging the Trowel towards a stubborn surface. While the entire trowel is incredibly light, the impact is relatively solid as the head (what you are creating impact with) is comparatively heavy. This results in a well-arched 'swing.' [See below under Field Testing for further comment on this.]
Q: The Helix Potty Trowel has a striking resemblance to an ice axe. Have you considered using it as an ice axe?
A: Hmmm. Wow. Now that you mention it, it does kind of look like an ice axe. I've heard that a number of thru-hiker's have been using the Potty Trowels on the PCT and CDT as a non-technical ice axe for glissading, basic slope safety, and the occasional self-arrest. You certainly have to admire the weight conscious, multi-use philosophy employed by these intrepid hikers!"
Field Testing - as an Ice Axe
I took this with me on our three month walking trip in France in the middle of 2007. That time of the year should be summer in France, but we had previously met old snow (névé) piled up rather steeply in high cols in the Pyrenees even in summer. Well, it turned out that the snow season had been very late in 2007, and there was a lot of snow around still when we got there in mid-May, and it lasted for quite a while too. (So did the bad weather…) In fact, the cols in the Pyrenees where we started we definitely not passable with the light-weight gear we were carrying, and we had to take our alternate route.
The Helix got used on four occasions in the snow in 2007: going over the Col d’Anterne (2,257 m) in good weather, climbing up the back of Mont Brevent (2,526 m) in good weather (above right), and twice going over the Col du Croix du Bonhomme (2,483 m), each time in filthy weather (second photo). As you may be able to see from the photos, I was wearing light joggers in the snow, and these can skate around a bit -especially late in the day when the sun has warmed things up a bit. It’s not that the angle of any of these ascents was that steep, but there were some runouts below which could have been ‘undesirable’. It also got used a fair bit as a potty trowel: more on that later.
Square top edges of tube and pick
I found the Helix very easy to carry of course, being so light. I started out with a light cord wrist leash which I had added myself, but I found that it was not really a lot of use for ordinary snow walking. I wanted to change hands quite often, depending on which side was uphill. The Medium length was a little too short to be of much use to me on the downhill side. (I would have selected the Long model except that it was too long to fit in my pack for the airline flight. This was a serious consideration.) After a little while I removed the leash completely. In addition to making it easier to change hands, removing the leash made it easier to stow the axe temporarily behind my shoulder in the usual manner.
One thing I did notice while using the axe in bare hands was that the top edge of the tube and the pick have not been rounded off. As you can see in the photo to the left, the top of the tube and the pick are quite square. This contrasts strongly with the old designs of ice axe heads, which were very smoothly rounded and very comfortable to carry (see below right). One could hope that the next generation of the Helix might make some concession to comfort: perhaps a plastic plug in the top of the tube might go a long way towards this? However, I have to admit that the edges, while square, are not sharp at all. It’s a detail.
One might ask whether the owner could round off these edges, and the answer is of course yes. But doing so would remove the hard anodizing layer which protects the underlying aluminium alloy. Remember: the anodizing is much harder than the aluminium alloy. So I can’t see any sense in doing this.
Three generations of ice axes
I did not try any ice climbing with the Helix. Why not? Because the Helix is simply not meant for genuine ice climbing. To the right I have shown three different ice axes (right to left): the Helix at 150 g, a Charlet Moser Snow Walker at 470 g, and a classical wood and steel axe at 960 g (1960s era). The steel one has the weight needed to cut steps with a will, and the Charlet Moser one is really only meant for snow walking, and both are much heavier than the Helix. To try to use an axe the weight of the Helix on any sort of ice is simply misusing an otherwise useful tool. I did try chopping steps in the softer snow we met, but frankly I found it easier to sink the shaft into the snow and hang onto the head while kicking hard, even with light joggers.
One comment about ergonomics is in order. The wood and steel axe swings quite well: there’s a lot of weight there. The Charlet Moser axe does not swing all that well: the shaft is heavier than the head. That’s still fine for walking of course. The Helix actually feels better than the Charlet Moser because the shaft is so light: it felt as though I could focus the strike reasonably well. The ULA web site makes some mention of this feature too.
Some Forum readers have tried the Helix out on steeper snow and report good performance. Brian Lewis wrote on the 18-Apr-2007:
I recently bought the shortest ULA Helix, the 55 cm. I took it up to a fairly steep-yet-safe slope and threw myself down the slope a couple of times to test my ability to self-arrest. Due to the snow conditions, even on a steep slope I wasn't able to build up a lot of speed/momentum, but I satisfied myself that it would stop me just fine. I'm used to a 75 cm axe that's a pound heavier, but I'm convinced that the 55 cm Helix will dig in fine. I'm a little less confident about plunging the carbon fiber shaft spike into the snow to help when carrying this in my uphill hand. I think I'll do it when snow conditions are not too soft to make this less useful and not so hard as to risk the CF spike. A short axe like this definitely isn't a "walking stick" for me, but that's not what I bought it for. It cut steps just fine for me too, at least when traversing uphill; downhill is more of a challenge with a shorter axe. The lightness of the head means I change my technique somewhat to cut steps, it's a little slower process, but it worked fine.
Peter King wrote on the 2-May-2007:
… some initial field test results: Tests done on firm snow (running shoes could barely kick steps), approximately 40 degree slope, lightweight tester (<<60kg), 65cm Helix.
- 8 arrests, 2 in each direction (face up/down, feet up/down).
- 10 falls on self belay (shaft plunged above, feet kicked out).
- 5 arrests during fast sitting glissades.
- 5 arrests during standing glissades, plunging the shaft while falling headfirst.
Result: no axe failure…
Field Testing - as a Potty Trowel
Well, the company does advertise it as a potty trowel, so I tested it as a potty trowel as well. For comparison purposes I used the widely available orange plastic Coghlans Poo Trowel. In the soft soil of our untracked Blue Mountains in Australia the Coghlans Poo Trowel works fine, albeit with a bit of hacking sometimes. In the limestone soils we met in France it was a different story. Those soils seem to have been stompled for a few hundred years by sheep and cows, and they were hard. I had a lot of trouble making any impression at all on the soil in some places with the Poo Trowel. So after a few days of this I hauled out the Helix and tried digging holes with it, using both the adze and the pick. (We were wild camping at this stage, even stealth camping.) I have to report that the Helix worked very well! In fact, it was as the ULA web site says - bring it on! Later on I used it to ‘modify’ a wild tent site on an abandoned farm terrace, and it did an excellent job there too despite all the stones in the soil. In the end I didn’t bother with the Coghlans Poo Trowel any more: I always took the Helix with me. I refined my technique too. Rather than just hack away, I found that the pick could be used to help cut out a square divot which could be replaced, leaving no real sign of disturbance. This was an added feature in my opinion.
Two things are worth mentioning here. The first was that hammering the adze into a lot of soil over the months did result in some fine burrs along the edge. That’s why the edge of the adze looks a bit shiny in the photo above: I cleaned it up with a file when I got home. The second is that the head got a lot of hammering and pulling over that time. If there was any chance that the glue might release and the head fall out, it would have done so. But it came home quite solid. This was very reassuring.
Ice Axe Certification
A big question is whether the Helix could meet the UIAA requirements. I don’t know. I did a lot of pretty hard digging with the axe as a potty trowel and I also used it clearing several tent sites, and if the head was going to break loose I would have expected it to have done so under that treatment. It didn’t. And the carbon fibre shaft seems extremely strong: I have little doubt it would take the load test as well. On the other hand, neither I nor Backpacking Light are certified test laboratories, so any numbers we could come up with would be meaningless.
The real question is whether it would be worth-while getting the certification, since the Helix weight is so low that it is very limited in power when it comes to chipping. The author’s opinion is that would not be worth-while.
- Low Weight
Recommendations for Improvement
- Modify the sharp top corners
- Chamfer the holes
- Add heat shrink at bottom end (perhaps)