Digging Deep: Avalanche Shovels, Probes
Because locating a victim is only the beginning
Beacons, with their electronic wizardry, get all the attention when people consider backcountry gear, but shovels and probes are the workers in the trenches—almost literally speaking—and are just as essential to avalanche rescue. There are plenty of brands out there, available in several styles. It's taken time, but most companies have finally gotten on board with building durable metal shovels, as well as probes that are more than two meters (six feet) long. Let’s take a look why.
When an avalanche slide releases, the kinetic energy of the moving snow generates heat from friction, and consequently the snow sets up like concrete as soon as it comes to a stop. Avalanche debris has a density of roughly 40 percent, or 400 pounds per cubic meter. So, if your friend is buried two meters deep, you’re moving up to 800 pounds of snow to free him, and fast. Why not have strength and dependability on your side? Metal shovels cut through debris easier than their polycarbonate (Lexan) counterparts; they might bend a little with prolonged use, but chances are they’re not going to break. Lexan is substantially strong in its own right, but is much more likely to break and has a flex that deflects off dense snow and ice, slowing would-be rescuers.
In a real-life, time-is-of-the-essence avalanche rescue, managing your tools properly is paramount if you want to reach your friend before it's too late. Here's an example of how such a companion rescue might unfold in the backcountry, and assumes the rescuers have taken at least a Level 1 Avalanche Course.
Once the avalanche has stopped, we’ve decided the scene is safe to go after our friend. We’ve gotten to the last point where he or she was seen, and we’re beginning our search. Beacons are out and set to receive. Our shovels and probes should be assembled, or placed to retrieve at a moment’s notice. (Another serious consideration is when to click out of your ski bindings. On the primary search, it’s essential to not overshoot prescribed search strip widths.) Once we’ve got a signal, we move with purpose, following the beacon’s cues toward the buried party.
At the pinpoint search, when our distance reading is below three meters, we have our probe ready to plunge into the debris. Once we’ve located the lowest distance reading—following the pinpoint search protocol (grid pattern)—we probe until we get a strike, and then leave it there. Shoveling is a tiring, hectic process (think about all that weight you could potentially be moving), so accuracy is essential when digging out our partner. The probe provides us an important focal point from which to dig, as time is not on our side, and extraneous digging doesn't help anyone.
From the downhill side of the probe strike—1.5 times the length of the burial depth—we start digging uphill toward the probe. When we make contact and know the orientation of our friend’s body, we direct shoveling toward their airway and focus all efforts to make sure it’s clear. This post isn't meant to substitute for taking an avalanche class, but rather to illustrate a realistic scenario in which both shovel and probe are deployed in the field.
The takeaway is this: While no two avalanches are the same, in real life or in practice, shovels and beacons do much of the work during a rescue. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have a complete, high-quality avy rescue kit in the backcountry. A good shovel and probe will provide invaluable accuracy and efficiency when speed and focus and every last shovel-full of snow could be the difference between life and death. Here are four each shovels and probes you can bet your life on in an emergency:
Black Diamond Deploy 7
Made of aerospace aluminum, the Deploy 7 has low-profile geometry (what BD calls its “nesting” design), and can be extended into a locked position at a moment’s notice. The larger blade can move greater amounts of snow, and shines in rescue situations where digging space is limited.
Voile Telepack T6 Shovel
The Telepack T6 is a compactable yet professional-grade rescue shovel. A strong interface between blade and telescopic handle has been Voile’s calling card for a while, providing strength and power when chopping and leveraging away at dense avy debris. Slots in the blade can be used as a deadman anchor. The two pieces come apart for easy storage, but can be assembled and ready in seconds.
Brooks Range Backcountry Compact Pro T
Like the Telepack, the Compact Pro has the strength and durability for all sorts of backcountry duties, including snow science, rescue and winter camping. The high-tensile aluminum blade doesn’t bounce or break when chopping hard or refrozen snow, and the telescopic T-handle extends adequately to provide better reach and leveraging power.
G3’s go-to tool is the AviTECH. It has a handle that extends to 34 inches and weighs about 27 ounces (770g), though it can also be configured into a shorter-handled “ultralight” option that weighs five ounces less. The blade’s straight, flat surfaces are efficient for constructing smooth pit walls, helping keep your digging profiles consistent and uniform. The blade is also an ideal size for tap tests.
Mammut Probe Plus
Svelte but strong aluminum piping, and a no-brainer deployment and locking function make the 280cm Probe Plus a reliable backcountry rescue tool for the recreational user. For a more professional option, try Mammut's Probe Expert.
BCA Stealth 270
This probe is 270cm of ice-blue sex appeal. Laser-etched centimeter markings meant to withstand repeated pit use are perfect for snow science duties, while its speedy deployment and strong aluminum framework are dependable in rescue situations. The Stealth is a worthy option for the recreationalist turning snow-it-all.
G3 Speed Tech
The Speed Tech has a single-pull rapid deployment mechanism with a serious commitment to immediacy. Constructed with high-strength piping and aluminum ferrules, the Speed Tech is tough enough for repeated penetration through dense avalanche debris without weighing you down.
Ortovox 240 Light PFA
Weighing in at 270 grams, the 240-cm high-tensile aluminum Light PFA (patented flash assembly) is elegant, quick on the draw and trustworthy for dealing with serious avalanche debris. With 5-centimeter depth increments, an EVA foam handle, and overall structural integrity, the Light is a worthy tool for winter avalanche pros and seasoned backcountry travelers.