A friend of mine had a dramatic reminder that winter climbing gear has its limitations this last week. On the lead his axe suddenly fractured into two pieces halfway down the shaft. The force and momentum causing the handle end of the shaft to stab him in the face. Obviously in many ways he was unlucky, but perhaps he had a bit of good fortune that the jagged shaft didn't hit him in the eye or neck. As it was the outcome was fairly brutal, breaking his jaw with some pretty major flesh wounds.
Now my friends axe was pretty old (I think at least 10 seasons) but such catastrophic failure is still fairly shocking. But perhaps it's not as unusual or as unlikely as we might think. Last season I ripped the handle off two axes in separate incidents. I think it's worth remembering that most axes are designed in Salt Lake City, USA or Milan, Italy with delicate tapping up perfect ice in mind. If the designers really knew what we did to their creations in Scotland I think they'd be horrified. So am I suggesting we stop torquing? or tape two axes together? Well obviously not but perhaps we ought to pay a little more attention to the state of our equipment. While spotting stress fractures can be very difficult, taking a conservative approach to retiring equipment early is almost certainly a prudent idea. After all my friend will end up with a slightly metallic wonky jaw but it could have been a lot worse.