Predator

DMM | 16 December, 2021

As DMM’s first ever fully curved ice tool, the elegance and beauty of the Predator can hardly be understated. Alongside the radical curve designed to maximise clearance on the most outrageous winter routes, this axe spurred the development of new cutting-edge picks, allowing climbers to make use of the full range of modern mixed climbing techniques. 

Graham Frost, Infidelity (V), Clogwyn y Ddysgl, Snowdonia.
Graham Frost, Infidelity (V), Clogwyn y Ddysgl, Snowdonia. © Ray Wood

Whilst the Predator is no longer in production, the delicacy and daring with which it was designed and constructed has influenced the way all axes at DMM are made today.

The original design for the Predator axe was brought to DMM in 1993 by ice climber and professional cartoonist, Phil Waters. 

As stated by Fred Hall, technical director and chairman at DMM, “Phil frequently worked for us in the 80s and 90s designing whacky adverts for our catalogues. It was his idea to make a fully curved axe back when there was nothing comparable on the market. Lots of other companies looked at the design but weren’t convinced. When Phil came to DMM we thought to ourselves, ‘one day all axes will be made this way’. And now they are.” 

After the success of the Predator, most of DMM’s axes now feature curves as a major feature in their design. “If you look at any ice axe any company is producing now,” says Fred “you can see the influence of the Predator.” From the aggressively technical Switch, designed to perform on steep mixed terrain, to the gentle curves of the Cirque and Fly’s making them ideal for plunging into deep snow.

A simple yet clever idea by a man with an intimate knowledge of how ice tools should work and an expert in artistic design, Phil Waters helped transform the way all axes are produced and manufactured today – not just at DMM, but worldwide.

Neil Gresham chalk ‘sport’ climbing at Saltdean (England) with the 1st ascent of Massive Attack (C7). © Ray Wood
Neil Gresham chalk ‘sport’ climbing at Saltdean (England) with the 1st ascent of Massive Attack (C7). © Ray Wood

All the products at DMM result from major collaborative efforts. “When Phil brought us the design back in 1993, we saw the potential of the fully curved axe,” says Fred. “As normal, what started as an idea took a lot of hard work and effort to make, test and manufacture.” 

Not only did the Predator pioneer with its striking design, it also allowed DMM to experiment with its new hot forging equipment. 

According to Chris Rowlands, exports and accounts manager at DMM, “the Predator was our first ice tool and its head was made in a massive forge. In the first batches the prototypes were all solid metal which made the axe very heavy. As such, we introduced holes into the head to reduce the weight.” Further experiments and testing allowed the team to develop the original design and make improvements. “The wide design for the bottom spike was quite unusual,” adds Chris “but when that rested on the ice it was more stable. Rope grooves were added to the headset so that climbers were able to plant the tool above their heads and locate the rope into the niche groove.”

Due to the intricacy of the design the hammer, adze and spike were all stainless investment castings made in Irlam by Manchester Investment Castings. While the lost-wax casting method is traditionally associated with artisanal handcraft, investment casting is a common way to create precision metal parts in engineering and manufacturing, ideal for producing smaller and more detailed components.

The nineties weren’t only famous for the Predator. Neil Gresham with a spicy beach find. © Ray Wood
The nineties weren’t only famous for the Predator. Neil Gresham with a spicy beach find. © Ray Wood

When the Predator went to market, it was an instant hit. The first version came with a basic leash, with later models sporting a fitted clipper leash. Neil Gresham and Tim Emmett helped design the later picks for the axe; the ‘Hot Knife’ for ice and the ‘Smooth Torquer’ for mixed climbing.

After years of success the Predator was eventually outdated and DMM started designing new axes with a focus on weight, finger rests and grips to accommodate smaller hands. “We could criticise ourselves for not advancing the concept fast enough,” says Fred. “However, when we started off we were a very small company. Now we have eight engineers working on development alone. After 40 years of expansion, we now have the knowledge and expertise to place evolution at the forefront of our design strategy.”

As we have seen with the Mamba, DMM’s products often find uses beyond the imagination of the teams who first designed and made them. While they are usually confined to improving applications in industry, the sheer artistry of the Predator ice axe has since inspired the work of an unexpected admirer. 

In 1995 Stephen King, the so called “blacksmith of horror”, wrote an article exploring the potentialities of the Predator ice axe for Outside magazine. “This is not the sort of gadget to inspire nursery rhymes. I look at the DMM Predator ice axe and I think of murder […] you could do some damage with this. Real big damage.” King continues: 

“The Predator ice axe has a certain gallows fascination, a bleak beauty with a sternness so extreme that it seems almost neurotic. But study it and you see that there’s no part of the axe that doesn’t work, from the rough hewn butt end with its wrist-loop strap to the arched line of the handle to its wicked, burrowing tip. I’m not sure what the thing on the other end is for, the piece of metal that looks like Paul Bunyan’s bottle opener, but I’m sure it has a clear purpose, which those dedicated enough – and mad enough – to put their lives at risk climbing mountains and ice falls readily understand and utilize.” 

For King and for many others, the Predator is the sort of tool that might make the difference “between life and death.” The raw beauty of its curved design – whilst not intended for anything morbid – does speak in equal measure to what King later calls in the same article the “vulnerability of human flesh” and the “determination of the human mind”. Whilst the author had no intentions of going climbing and purportedly got vertigo when ascending to the top of a stepladder, if King were to need an axe for protection he would certainly know where to look. 

With DMM’s Rebel axe showcased in the recent Tomb Raider game franchise, our winter gear hardly shies away from the limelight. Perhaps it is time for a re-make of King’s The Shining, swapping the axe in the infamous chase scene for a Predator ice tool; a fitting piece of equipment for escaping the hellish snowstorm at the Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado.