March, 2006 Commentary & Opinion...
Shovels: It's Time To Stick A Fork In Them, They Are Done (Or
At Least Should Be)
"There's a difference between the
Cool Whip you dig into in a clinic and the cement of a real avalanche."
Those are the words of Alaskan
backcountry skier John Seibert explaining to a magazine writer
one of the main reasons why he will only carry a metal shovel
on all of his future bc tours. Seibert is more qualified than
most to weigh in on the long standing debate over plastic versus
metal blade backcountry shovels. The then 54 year-old Seibert
was one of five partially buried survivors of the avalanche that
killed seven people on a guided tour at Selkirk Mountain Experience
(SME) in January, 2003. In one of the most lethal avalanche accidents
in the history of North American skiing, thirteen people were
caught in the slide. Of the eight who were fully buried, only
one was dug out in time to survive the tragedy. Among those killed
were legendary snowboard pioneer Craig Kelly, and a friend of
my own, Dennis Yates, a local telemark instructor and avid ski
Based on his interviews with Seibert and
other survivors for an April, 2003 story
on the SME avalanche , National Geographic Adventure writer
McKenzie Funk described the scene in the immediate aftermath
of the slide as "a crucible in which search techniques and
equipment would be tested to their limits." In this and
other accounts widely distributed in print and on the web, it
appears that for the most part the rescuers themselves went about
their grim and difficult task in a near textbook manner, but
according to the story, some of the avalanche gear carried by
the party failed miserably in this, its ultimate test. Funk wrote:
"AS SOON AS THE LA TRAVIATA AVALANCHE
came to a rest, Bieler and the other seven skiers who'd been
above it rushed downhill, dropping, one after another, off the
five-foot fracture line. They were an instant rescue party of
almost unprecedented size... (lead guide Reudi) Beglinger helped
direct the effort and stayed in constant communication with the
seven rescue helicopters he'd summoned by radio. Fanning out
across the debris zone, rescuers scanned the snow with transceivers
and probed for bodies.
Avalanche probes formed by screwing together
ski poles were too short; only standard probes could reach the
deepest victims. Plastic avalanche shovels, Alaskan John Seibert
recalls, could barely cut into the compacted snow of the settled
slide, and one of the tools even snapped. "There's a
difference between the Cool Whip you dig into in a clinic and
the cement of a real avalanche," he says. (Seibert says
that in the future, he'll only carry a metal shovel; he's also
investigating the Avalung, a breathing device that can help skiers
survive longer under snow.)"
When an avalanche releases, the kinetic
energy of the moving snow generates heat from the friction, this
causes the snow to set up like concrete the moment it comes to
a stop. The weight of additional snow coming down compresses
the snow below, making it even more difficult to dig once the
rescue effort begins. It's also not uncommon for rescuers to
encounter ice and other debris while digging. SME owner and head
guide Reudi Beglinger was quoted in another article
on the accident, this one by outdoor author Ted Kerasote. Clearly
devastated by the experience, Beglinger described his efforts
to save 49 year-old Coloradoan Vern Lunsford, "He was only
1.2 meters down, and I felt I would find him alive. I was hoping
because the snow was soft. Then I hit a great block of ice. He
wasn't alive when I reached him."
Sadly and more than a little frighteningly,
Ruedi's difficulty in trying to dig out Lunsford is not atypical.
Last year, 24 year-old Martin Gulsrud of Norway was buried in
an avalanche, inbounds but off piste at Tignes, France. With
the help of his Avalung, Gulsrud survived a 20 minute burial.
story, related here on Telemarktips, Gulsrud tells of being
freed from the snow by Tignes ski patrolers wielding very large,
long handled shovels. The patrollers arrived in time to relieve
his companions, one of whom was digging with a plastic shovel,
the other with an aluminum model. "(My ski partners) told
me afterwards that they would never have been able to dig me
out without help from the ski patrol. After digging down 1 meter,
they were both totally exhausted, and the snow was too hard for
their light shovels." Gulsrud wrote afterwards that neither
he nor his reagular ski partners would ever venture off piste
again without "aluminum shovels having good size blades."
The ineffectiveness of the most widely
sold plastic blade shovels in avalanche rescue is not exactly
a secret among avalanche professionals, or even within the outdoor
industry itself. Janet Urquhart, writing for the Aspen Times
last January, related her experience in taking an Avalanche Training
Workshop taught by her local SAR group, Mountain Rescue Aspen.
"I learned that if I have a metal shovel and my companion
on a backcountry excursion has a plastic one, I should offer
to trade shovels at the trailhead," wrote Urquhart. "That
way, if I get buried, my rescuer won't be trying to dig me out
with a worthless piece of crap." I heard the same line delivered
nearly word for word, by an instructor in a Level Two Avalanche
Safety class I sat in not long ago. And two years ago in the
outdoor industry magazine GearTrends,
Senior Contributing Writer Clyde Soles alerted backcountry
ski shop owners and retailers that some of their best selling
backcountry shovels could become a problem for an unlucky shop
owner. "Some plastic shovels, such as the Life-Link and
Ortovox polycarbonate models, have blades that cannot penetrate
avalanche debris. These are fine for digging out a car, but stores
selling them for avalanche rescue could be asking for trouble,"
Anecdotal accounts of the poor performance
of plastic backcountry shovels in rescue situations abound, they
are embedded in incident reports on avalanche safety oriented
websites, as well as in postings to discussion forums.
One of the more recent and memorable first
hand reports, this one involving an early season avalanche fatality
in Colorado's Berthoud Pass, was posted in a thread
on our own TelemarkTalk Forum. A participant in the rescue described
a chaotic scene and observed, "Snow was flying everywhere.
People were shouting, digging, stepping on him, and hitting each
other accidentally with shovels strokes. I was so glad to have
a real shovel with a real metal blade. The plastic blades were
Today, despite almost overwhelming evidence
that plastic backcountry shovels are simply not up to the task
when put to their most important intended use, that is digging
through set-up avalanche debris to save a partner's life, even
the flimsiest models are widely touted in catalogs and on retailer
websites as still being the shiz.
One Colorado-based e-tailer which touts itself as "the source
for professional mountain rescue gear and safety equipment,"
describes Life-Link's line of polycarbonate shovels as "the
choice of Pro-Ski Patrollers to Everest Guides since the 7O's."
And they are hardly alone. Life-Link's "If youre thinking
this is just a plastic shovel, think again" tagline, along
with their by now dubiously distinctive claim to being the "Original
Polycarbonate Avalanche Shovel (U.S. patent #DES267468),"
appears in dozens of returns from retail webpages indexed by
the major search engines.
How did we get to this point and why do
these ineffective but vital safety tools remain big sellers?
Many years ago plastic backcountry shovels were sold as being
a lightweight and somewhat lower cost alternative to aluminum
shovels. Few of us really thought they would work as well in
an emergency as the metal models, but the justification went
something like this, and I have to admit to having been among
those who bought into this line of thinking, at least early on:
As they developed and perfected their own
line of backcountry shovels, Vancouver, Canada-based G3, makers
of the market's biggest selling telemark binding over at least
the last decade, apparently recognized early-on the severe limitations
of all plastic blade shovels in actual avalanche scenarios. From
what can be found on various computer engineering websites, G3
seems to have put no small amount of money and time into developing
a hybrid design which utilized plastic in the body of the shovel
to save weight, while also incorporating steel along the leading
edge, and reinforcement, in is said to have been an effort to
give the shovel "adequate ice-cracking strength." Dubbed
" this hybrid shovel design doesn't seem to have made it
past the prototype stage, and it looks as though it would be
a challenge to manufacture, but the important point of this sidebar
in relation to our story here is that G3 would seem to have explored
the possibility of bringing a plastic blade backcountry shovel
to market, but realized that such shovels are not effective tools
for avalanche rescue. Today G3 manufactures and sells one of
the more highly regarded aluminum blade models available.
"If I have a lightweight shovel, albeit
a little less effective one, I will be more likely to actually
carry it out on backcountry tours than I will if I buy the heavier
model, and at least having some kind of shovel along is better
than no shovel at all."
Obviously times have changed. Backcountry
skiers are, on the whole, far more avalanche safety aware than
they were fifteen, even ten years ago, myself included. Today,
perhaps like many if not most of you, my shovel lives in my bc
skiing pack year 'round.
Happily, these days the weight penalty
involved in carrying an aluminum blade shovel over a plastic
model has been reduced considerably. In fact there are aluminum
models available that weigh less than the most popular but dangerously
useless in an emergency polycarbonate shovels
Above right: Spotted in the Black Diamond factory in Salt Lake
City, this is perhaps an ideal use for an old plastic blade backcountry
shovel. I've got a couple myself that I could donate to a local
Next, Part Two:
About those composite plastic shovels...
and tips on selecting a quality aluminum blade backcountry shovel.
Parts (1), (2)