Avalanche shovels are part of the avalanche safety triad (quadrad?) so please spend some time thinking about this for yourself and don’t accept anything I say verbatim. I’m presenting my own personal opinion and my personal interpretation of info I’ve found. Never base a safety decision solely on the advice of some random person on the internet.
As recently articulated by Lou over a WildSnow, many avalanche education courses seem to focus on beacon searches as priority #1 when it’s actually arguably of secondary importance to shovelling.
In a single burial with a modern beacon, the search phase shouldn’t take very long for a relatively small slide.
What often takes the most time is shovelling, and the amount of time it takes is often deceptive.
We dig two-meter-deep holes all the time. I dig pits most weekends and it doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to rough out a pit, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that a pit is dug in virgin, unconsolidated snow. An avalanche rescue is conducted in snow that often more closely resembles concrete than the blower you’d been skiing moments before. When’s the last time you hit some old debris and thought to yourself ‘that’s the turn of the day’?
Next time you come across a recent slide in the back country, if it’s a safe location, take a moment to try digging through the debris. Dig a nice big hole. Come to grips with how insanely difficult it is. Digging that two meter hole takes way, way longer – and crucially, is way harder on your gear.
See, you need to pick your avalanche shovel based on when you really need it, and it turns out that not all avalanche shovels are created equal. Historically, a lot of them actually sort of suck. Worse yet, there’s distressingly little information out there on which ones are good and which ones aren’t and no standards that I’m aware of on how they should be tested.
What they found was, well, distressing. Of the 10 shovels they looked at, only four were found to be able to used in a simulated rescue without damage. Another five were found to be strong enough to withstand a simulated rescue but were so damaged in the process that they would need to be replaced and one was found to be so weak it was not believed that it would survive rescuing even a single buried skier.
I’m not going to go through which models were great and which sucked, because the article is old enough that almost none of those models exist anymore, but what I’m going to do is try and extract some of what the researchers found made the difference between a good and crappy shovel.
- Tip design – Flat leading edges are the toughest, but serrated leading edges seem to improve the ability to chop debris into manageable chunks without sacrificing too much strength. Triangular leading edges are good in theory, but not strong enough in reality and rounded leading edges can make the shovel unstable.
- Shoulder Design – The shoulder is where you would put your foot on the top of the shovel blade if you were working with a spade. Well, debris can be really tough so having a square shoulder that you can easily put a boot on to help drive the blade is possibly a nice feature to have. Sloped shoulders cause your boot to slide off and make you less efficient in tough digging conditions. It can be hard to imagine when this would be useful, but if you’ve got a cornice initiated slide and you’ve got boulders of cornice too big to lift up, you made need to get aggressive to break them up.
- Handles – D-shaped handles were found to be the most comfortable and allowed the greatest transfer of force. T-shaped handles were found to be less efficient.
- Curvature – shovels with tight curves in the blade design were found to be weaker than those with more gradual curves. This makes simple, plain looking blades generally tougher than angular ones. It should be noted that ridges and corrugations don’t count in this respect, they actually make things stronger. They’re more talking about the edges of the blade.
Okay, so according to these guys, we want a shovel that has a flat or serrated edge, square shoulders, a D-handle and a blade that isn’t too angular.
But what about weird shovels?
Okay, so there’s a few weird shovels out there that sort of break the mould and I have to admit that one of them is my current daily driver.
First is the G3 Spadetech; it’s a mini-shovel that’s designed with the idea being that it doesn’t matter how much snow you move per scoop – but rather how fast you’re moving snow overall and that a small shovel can break up debris with less force required. A full shovel load can be really heavy and awkward to lift. The Spadetech is designed around more of a quick paddling motion. G3’s got a video explaining it.
Next isn’t a specific shovel, but more a new class of shovel – the Hoes. Black Diamond, Ortovox, and BCA all make shovels that can alternatively be set up with the blade at right angles to the shaft so that it takes a Hoe configuration.
The hoe configuration is a bit of compromise. Personally I can’t break up debris very well with the shovel in this configuration, but I can move broken up or soft snow way faster. In a rescue scenario, I wouldn’t want to be at the tip of the Vee with my shovel in hoe mode, but it would be ideal for other positions. The hoe configuration is also amazing for digging pits – you can move soft snow crazy quickly in hoe-mode. That said, with my Ortovox Kodiak shovel, I need to switch it to shovel mode for final dressing of the pit walls.
So basically, when in doubt, buy a Voile shovel, and I say that as someone who doesn’t currently use one as my daily driver so it’s not like I’m a total fanboy. They’re simple, durable and do what they’re supposed to. I think that some brands are focused on adding in other features to differentiate themselves, but just end up making themselves needlessly heavy and complex – like the new trend of ice-axe/shovel combos is a perfect example. The one oddball that I do think can be quite useful is the hoes – but until I see some decent testing done on them, I’d be pretty careful in your selection.