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Having the correct shovel and shovelling technique is a crucial, yet often overlooked, part of avalanche rescue. After all, it is no good locating a victim very fast if it then takes you an hour to dig them out. A lot, of course, will depend on the type of snow in the avalanche as well as the depth of burial, but being armed with a strong shovel and being practised in using it is vital.
Statistics show that over 90% of victims buried in an avalanche will still be alive after 15 minutes. After this, however, the chances of survival plummet dramatically - after 45 minutes only around 25% are pulled out alive. Time really is crucial in an avalanche rescue and quite literally every second counts.
Avalanche debris can often set rock hard immediately after it comes to rest and the rapid deceleration involved when a slide stops will compress down the loose snow into a solid mass. This hard snow can make for very tough and tiring digging, especially if the victim is buried far beneath the surface. With a flimsy shovel you really will be struggling.
The main dilemma when choosing a shovel is strength versus size and weight. You should carry your shovel every time you venture off the marked trails so obviously a light and compact one will be preferable. However, if you ever have to use it, you are really going to want it to perform.
The plastic Ortovox shovels are among the lightest shovels available and their lexan blades are very tough.
However, if you don't mind a bit of extra weight, nothing quite matches a large, strong aluminium blade when it comes to digging. The Prof Aluminium II from Ortovox and Alaska D PB , all from Ortovox, are perfect for shifting large amounts of snow fast with their burly blades with long telescopic handles. The Deploy 3 and Deploy 7 by Black Diamond are also powerful aluminium shovels with telescopic handles.
For more of a compromise there are several great lightweight metal shovels on the market. The BCA Tour Shovel is in fact lighter than even the plastic models and comes with an integrated probe making the lightest and most compact shovel/probe setup you can find.
Take a look at our comparison table to compare our extensive range of Ortovox, Black Diamond and BCA shovels
Shovelling is commonly an area where a lot of time is wasted during an avalanche rescue. It is often overlooked in avalanche safety courses as well. Any avalanche rescue practise should involve not only transceiver use but also probe and shovel use as well.
Obviously the ease or difficulty or the shovelling faze will depend a lot on the hardness of the snow, the depth of the burial and how many people are digging. Extracting a victim by yourself under 2 metres of hard set snow is going to be very hard work for example. But a good shovel and a proper technique will go a long way to helping you - madly flailing at the snow is not an efficient approach.
There are two main techniques for shovelling. The cone technique involves digging straight down around the probe. This is a technique is ok for shallow burials but has some notable disadvantages especially on deeper burials. That is you are right above the victim so run the danger of trampling their airway and compressing down the snow around them increasing the risk of suffocation.
The more measured technique is terrace shovelling. This involves beginning your dig at a point one a half times the burial depth (your probe will indicate this to you) downhill from the probe. Although this technique involves removing more snow, means that you approach the victim from the side rather than above negating many of the problems of the cone technique. Also it is a much easier system for two people to dig in tandem and it is far easier to remove the snow from the hole.
Avalanche Shovels - frequently asked questions
What are they used for?
Once you have located the position of the person buried in the snow, using your transceiver and probe, the shovel is then used to dig the person out of the snow. Shovels can also be used to create kickers or dig out the car on a powder morning. Due to the need to carry a shovel at all times in the backcountry, they are designed to be compact and lightweight without compromising strength and performance.
What are they made of?
Shovels can either be made of plastic, steel, aluminium or carbon. The force of the avalanche compresses the snow to make it incredibly dense and hard. It can be extremely difficult to shovel through the snow, necessitating a strong shovel. It is essential to recover the person as soon as possible, as their chances of surviving drop dramatically the longer they are buried for. Therefore, it is necessary to have not only a decent shovel, but also know how to use it and the most effective shovelling techniques.
What determines which shovel you should buy?
Deciding which shovel to buy comes down to weight, size and strength. It is vital that you take your probe, shovel and transceiver with you every time you venture off of any marked ski trails; therefore you need a shovel that will fit in your bag and is light enough for you to carry each time you are out. A plastic shovel will be much lighter and thus easier to carry; an aluminium shovel will be stronger, though, and this can be vital when faced with the hard, packed snow of an avalanche, though they are heavier. For the ideal compromise, there are lightweight metal shovels available on the market. Recently we have added a carbon shovel to our stock for those keen to save even more weight.
How do they fit in your backpack?
The shovels can be dismantled to make them compact and easy to fit into your bag. The handle on the shovel and can be removed to allow you to pack in the handle and blade separately. Many backcountry backpacks have specified compartments in which to store your shovel.
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