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Avalanche Shovels

Our discussion of avalanche shovels is excerpted from the new book Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering  by Volken, Schell, and Wheeler and published by Mountaineer Books. Click here to read our review of the book. This winter (2007-08) avalanche hazard along the Cascade crest has been atypically high due to the unusually high snow totals and this has resulted in more avalanche fatalities than normal. Consequently, we’re giving greater coverage to avalanche avoidance, avalanche safety equipment, and avalanche rescue in the weeks ahead. Here’s a discussion of avalanche shovels, a vital piece of equipment that should be carried hand-in-hand with a beacon and a probe.

Avalanche Shovels

Once you locate your partner with a beacon and pinpoint him with your probe, you will need to dig him out. The only effective way to uncover your partner is with a portable avalanche shovel. Studies show that the shoveling phase takes the majority of the time in a recovery. The moment you need to use your portable shovel in a rescue situation you’ll immediately yearn for a full-sized steel shovel not unlike the garden shovel in your garage. Keep this in mind when you waiver between the models in the store, and consider the following.

Metal vs. plastic. Shoveling avalanche debris is a bit of a misnomer. When moving snow comes to a stop, it sets up and can be rock hard. The correct technique for uncovering your partner is more of a chop and then remove sequence than it is shoveling. The best material for this job of chopping is metal. Metal blades are more durable and hold up much better than plastic ones under repeated chopping. The characteristics of aluminum also allow for less deflection than a plastic blade.  Deflection is when the chopping force of the blade bounces off a material because the blade bends. Less deflection allows for better chopping, which is important for avalanche debris.

Handle. Does the handle telescope? This feature allows for better ergonomics while shoveling and also enables easy stowing inside the pack (remember that stowing everything inside your pack reduces lost items if you’re caught in an avalanche and also minimizes the chance of snagging a tree limb).

Blade size. Not too big, not too small. Think efficiency. If the blade is too large, each time you throw snow out of the hole it will be too much weight, reducing the amount of repetitions you can do. This ultimately affects the overall amount of snow you can move in a given time. Too small, on the other hand, and you can’t move snow quickly enough.

Blade shape. The shape of the blade can affect how the shovel works, though some of this is a matter of preference. Some people prefer a slight point in the shovel, other a flat end. If you plan on digging a lot of snow profiles or performing bonding tests (see chapter on ‘Observing the Snowpack’), a smooth (ribless) blade with a flat back works best.

Durability. Can you stand on the shovel? Any shovel worth its weight in the backcountry should be able to pass this test. Oval- or square-handled shafts are a bit more durable than round shafts. An oval shaft also helps align the pins into their holes when the handle gets extended – this saves time.

Weight. Once again, when you need a shovel, you really need a shovel. This type of critical safety equipment is not the place to save weight. Look elsewhere in you backcountry kit if you want to shed grams.

Tip. When deciding on a shovel, bring your ski touring pack to the store. Try placing the blade into the shovel pocket of your pack—does it fit? Can the handle be stowed internally in the pack?

Recommended Makes and Models by Wenatchee Outdoors

The book Backcountry Skiing does not get into the nitty-gritty of recommending specific shovels (such a list would date the book after a few years). We contacted Proguiding Service in North Bend, WA (where all three authors of the book have worked) and asked Martin Volken which shovels he has tested and carried, and which ones he currently recommends. Besides ranting a bit that rescue gear like shovels are not the right place to shave ounces or to buy price-point products that are $10 or $20 cheaper, he has used many of the shovels on the market. Here are three shovels he's particularly impressed with.

--Ortovox Professional Alu. An excellent shovel (23.5 oz, $69) with an extendable handle and a smaller scoop made of an aluminum-magnesium alloy. The scoop has molded ribs for torsional rigidity and a sharper, beveled edge for very efficient chopping.

--G3 AviTech Shovel. Another excellent shovel (27 oz, $75) with a bigger scoop made of 6061 aluminum. The shovel is solid and the extendable handle (taking the shovel to a length of 34 inches) makes for good ergonomics when moving snow.

--Black Diamond Deploy 7. Made of  6000-series aluminum, this shovel (27 oz, $66) has a strong, .7-gallon scoop. The shovel is compact for packs, is super fast to deploy and collapse, has an efficient shape for chopping, and employs smart engineering (e.g., the handle strengthens the blade, which isn't true of all shovels).