Let's Talk Shovels

This essential piece of rescue equipment is probably one of the last purchases your critically evaluate when it comes to your gear. After all, a shovel is a shovel right? WRONG! We have experienced countless avalanche rescue shovels break during practice scenarios and, although no piece of equipment is immune, this is the last thing you want to break when someone's life may be on the line. What may seem like a good quality shovel in the store or while digging out your sled in soft snow, may very well fail you when needed most in hard, dense avalanche debris. So with every manufacturer out there touting they have the latest and greatest in technology, where does that leave us as consumers and potential rescuers? 

The Facts:

  • Average burial depth in Canada is approximately one meter.
  • The primary cause for death is asphyxiation (suffocation) in 60-86% of incidents.
  • The probability of mortality increases with burial depth.
  • Chance of survival if rescued in under ten minutes is 77% but sharply decreases after that.
  • Effectiveness of rescuer shovelling decreases after 2 minutes.

So you've taken an AST course, you understand the Conveyor or V-shovelling rescue technique and you know that timely and efficient excavation of a buried riding partner is essential to improve chances of survival. The most recent research papers and manufacturers at the fall sled trade shows also had the following advice to offer:

  1. The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) Safety Commission has just announced the creation of globally recognized standards for Avalanche Rescue Shovels. While not published in time to capture this seasons equipment roll out, consumers will be able to ensure their rescue shovels meet a minimum safety standard commencing in fall 2018-2019. Shovels that meet this standard will be permanently marked with the name of manufacturer, type, model, and year of fabrication. More info can be read here.
  2. To hoe or not to hoe? A recent pilot study from the University of Innsbruk investigated if shovel shape had an impact on excavation efficiency. The full paper can be read here but in summation, the study found that a deep, flat shovel (6cm deep blade) was more effective than a shallow flat shovel, and that the deep, flat blade combined with hoe-mode proved to be even more effective in certain applications. 
  3. Research papers by avalanche rescue expert Manual Genswein also advise that: the D-handle is the most comfortable and efficient grip; a serrated leading edge (blade edge) provides the best cutting ability while a flat leading edge provided the greatest durability; a flat top to the shovel blade allows rescuers to use their foot for added mechanical advantage while cutting blocks; and telescoping shafts improve your range of motion/ergonomics while shovelling. 

So, while pulling your riding gear out of storage, have a good look at your shovel and evaluate if you may get caught up avalanche creek with the wrong paddle this winter.