Backcountry Skiing News Roundup & Shovel Choices

Post by blogger | March 23, 2006      

Backcountry Tragedy
I have to admit it hits close to home. Famed Colorado nature photographer John Fielder’s young son J.T. committed suicide this past Tuesday. He took his life while out in the Colorado backcountry, on skis — I don’t know what to make of that. To most of us, the wild is a place of joy and renewal. But we also bring our problems and mental conditions with us when we backcountry ski — and the healing effect of the wilderness may not be strong enough to help. Many families have depression and other emotional illness in their present or past history. As day-to-day challenges and problems obfuscate deeper issues, it’s frequently tough to be aware of dangerous depression or other mental problems with friends and family. Fielder’s tragedy gives me inspiration to do a better job as a father and husband — to try for better awareness of what’s going on with family, and friends as well. Always tough, but worth the challenge.

Backcountry Survival
On a lighter note: If you’re a guide, parent, or just an experienced outdoorsman who ends up giving others advice, you’ve probably been asked what to carry for emergencies. In the parent mode, you’ve probably found yourself giving a few lectures on the subject. Did you get listened to? What’s in your friend’s or kid’s pack when they hike or backcountry ski? A guy in Utah had the right stuff with him and easily survived two unplanned nights out. He had fire starting items and good clothing. Though his fire starting kit eventually failed, he apparently had the gear, food and smarts to compensate. Lesson: along with your usual high-tech clothing, snow shovel etc. always carry a GOOD fire starting kit, a small amount of extra food, and perhaps a lightweight emergency shelter. Lecture over. Advertisers
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The Great Shovel Controversy
Well known web publisher Mitch Weber ( recently published an opinion article about the shovels we carry while backcountry skiing. In his somewhat rowdy writing, Weber contends that “plastic” shovels are bad, and aluminum are good. I found Weber’s views to be strongly presented but somewhat simplistic. Points to ponder from yours truly:

– Construction. A good quality plastic shovel is better than a junky aluminum one. As with other modern materials and design, how something is made is of equal importance to material choice, if not more so. Merely judging gear by the type of material is a simplistic view.

-Size. There is no perfect size shovel for avalanche rescue, but quite a few aluminum shovels on the market are somewhat small, while some plastic shovels are quite ergonomic. The reverse is true as well, and depending on your exact use, there may be no specific size that’s best.

-Material. If we apply Weber’s logic to the situation (less compromise in safety gear), it is possible that both aluminium and plastic shovels could be considered inadequate, and we should carry steel or titanium shovels. On the other hand, Mitch does have a point when he states that plastic shovels don’t appear to save much (if any) weight over aluminum, so why use them if there is any question about function? More on that below.

-Use. Quite a few backcountry skiers stick to tours that avoid avalanche terrain (or tour in areas where there is no avalanche danger), and carry shovels for shelter building or convenience (constructing a picnic spot etc.) Weight and price might be larger issues for such skiers, and plastic can provide benefit in that area.

-Data. Have inferior shovels ever caused an avalanche death, or contributed to it in an easily documented way? Anecdotal reports are circulating, but don’t include specifics of exact shovel size/brand, nor clarity about whether the stated bogus shovels actually contributed to a person’s death.

-Avalanche rescue. No matter how good the shovel used to dig them out, a large percentage of avalanche victims die from trauma, or are buried so deep there is little to no hope of a live rescue. Thus, making shovel material into a hot-button issue is a red herring when it comes to dialog of how we improve the odds of avalanche survival.

More important issues than shovels: Why do people do dumb things in avy terrain (including this writer), and how can we reduce that trend? How does the Avalung work in a real avalanche? Is the airbag backpack the way to go? How important is first aid training, and how many backcountry skiers actually have it? Could beacons work better (faster)? Should all ski and snowboard bindings have safety release to reduce injury and death in avalanche terrain.

Indeed, a case could easily be made that non-release telemark bindings have contributed to more avalanche injury and death then the materials shovels are made of. And speaking of anecdotes, I’ve heard a couple of vague shovel stories, but I’ve heard horrifying first-person accounts of how non-release bindings tore people’s legs up and exacerbated the risk of their avalanche ride. One wonder’s why Mitch didn’t pick that as an industry expose’, as it would seem much more important than alu vs plastic shovels. Can you see it? “Time to put a fork in killer tele bindings?” (Mitch, if that’s your next article in line then I shut my mouth.)

-Philosophy. Again, if we apply Weber’s logic to other backcountry gear and technique, where does that lead us? For example, do ski helmets provide the protection that advertising and peer pressure imply they do? Are we all first aid experts (most, if not nearly all avalanche victims require major first aid skills, if not advanced life support). Do you always carry a form of reliable communication such as a sat phone? Since avalanche victims are frequently badly hurt, speedy secondary rescue would seem to be as important as what type of shovel you carry, especially considering the fact that many avalanche victims are not fully buried, but still badly hurt.

-Material tech: For core backcountry skiers, weight is the big issue with shovels. The best plastic shovels are designed and made to provide a good mix of durability, size and weight. In use they indeed behave differently then aluminum or steel, but the well made ones work (as do the aluminum ones). Unless constructed with extra beef, aluminum shovels tend to crack and eventually fail with repeated use such as that of daily expedition shelter building. High tech plastic (resins, composits, etc.) can provide amazing strength/weight ratios, that’s why it’s used in skis, ski boots, ski helmets, ski bindings, and ski poles. In my opinion, there is no reason effective avalanche rescue shovels can’t be made from plastic, but design is the key (as is the exact material).

-Size and shape: Stated again, there is no perfect size or shape for an avalanche rescue shovel. When digging out a victim you might find yourself reaching for the biggest heaviest shovel in the group when you start your dig, but once you’re 4 feet deep and your hole is 10 inches wide over a person’s hypoxic face, a small aluminum or plastic shovel might save precious moments as you carve a small area around their mouth so you can clear their airway. One advantage of plastic is it can be molded to nearly any shape. As shovels are developed, we may discover that certain shapes are much better for moving snow out of a hole, and such shapes might be much easier to create with plastic.

-Conclusion: First, I should state that everything we use in the backcountry can be improved. My comments above are simply about priorities. As to shovels, there will (I hope) always be a variety of backcountry snow shovels available: plastic; alu; different sizes; various levels of strength, weight and quality. In the end, we need more testing of shovels to figure out what works best for avalanche rescue, then a certification or at least some agreement in the backcountry media that will inform consumers of such shovels. As I’m not a fan of bureaucracy or regulation, my view is that some solid testing by backcountry media, with video and photos of simulated avalanche rescue digs in fresh debris, would tell us all we need to know.

Articles such as Weber’s get people thinking (it did so for me), but do little to help with actually picking the right equipment. Rather than obsessing on your shovel (where is Freud when we need him), take the large view inspired by Mitch. What gear could you carry that would help save a life in an avalanche accident (sat phone, CPR masks, etc.)? If you don’t carry it, why? More, what skills do you need during an avalanche rescue? If you don’t have them, why? And by all means carry a shovel — aluminum or plastic, reasonable size, from a name manufacturer!


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12 Responses to “Backcountry Skiing News Roundup & Shovel Choices”

  1. David Rontal March 23rd, 2006 3:01 pm


    Perhaps you should worry about proofreading your blog before bashing Mitch’s rowdy writing. It is “merely” not “merly”.

  2. Lou March 23rd, 2006 3:28 pm

    Thanks for the help David, I fixed that heinous missing letter. Perhaps I had the same proof reader that Mitch did, in part two of his article the word “news” is spelled as “new,” as in “and how the new travelled.” Looks like both Mitch and I might need better proofing (grin). Seriously, a typo now and then shouldn’t get in the way of what a person has to say, be it Mitch, myself, your, or anyon else. I take Mitch’s views seriously, and he really got me thinking about this issue.

  3. Roy Haraldstad March 23rd, 2006 4:33 pm


    Great website! I read your blog daily.Very early in the season you mentioned about Silvretta Pure field testing.I bought a pair last fall with high hopes,light is right + step-in.I live in New England and Mother nature has been most unkind, I have managed only two days in the BC this year. So far I love the way they tour and the reduced weight is great but……will they hold up? Have you had a chance to field test these bindings and If so will you be posting this info in the near future?

    Thanks, Roy

  4. David Rontal March 23rd, 2006 5:27 pm

    I fired from the hip about the typo. My apologies. Law Review teaches us law school nerds to be extra careful (big grin) about typos as they can detract from credibility. Maybe I should re-evaluate my priorities if I am getting so fired up over this (wing)

  5. Dale Atkins March 23rd, 2006 5:57 pm

    Hi Lou,

    Great comment about asking the more important question about “Why do people do dumb things in avalanche terrain…?”

    About shovels and dumb human tricks — though I suggest it’s often ignorance — last week the London’s The Times reported:

    “Last week officials in the Swiss resort of Verbier stopped all skiers at the bottom of an off-piste run and checked their safety equipment. Of those wearing avalanche beepers only 22% also carried a shovel, which is essential to dig out a buried skier.”,,2087-2092602,00.html

    Your readers ought to keep in mind that to uncover a buried friend from under 1m of avalanche debris (the average burial depth), their friend(s) will have to dig out at least 1 TON of snow and the actual amount will likely be closer to 1.5 tons of snow.

    For companion rescue a good, high quality brand is more important than material.

    Keep up the good work.

    Think Snow,
    Dale Atkins

  6. Lou March 23rd, 2006 5:58 pm

    David, apology accepted, thanks. Indeed I was kind of taken aback that you’d get on my case about that, when Mitch had typos as well. Seemed kind of weird, like Mitch could do no wrong or something… At any rate, I appreciate Mitch bringing this subject up, and seeing all the opinions has been fantastic and useful.

    I do agree that typos and poor writing detract from cred, but the life of a blogger without a staff is such that one has to accept a certain amount of that. I do my best, that’s all I can do.

  7. BJ Sbarra March 23rd, 2006 6:52 pm

    Hey Lou,
    Another thought provoking post, thanks. You mention a large percentage of avalanche deaths occur from trauma, while Craig Dostie in his article about being buried with an avalung states only 25% of deaths are from trauma. I’ve seen many different figures from different folks on this. Any idea what the real deal is? Thanks!

  8. Lou March 23rd, 2006 6:59 pm

    BJ, perhaps “quite a few” would have been a better term, but I firmly believe that it’s easily more than 25%. Also, just think back on all the avy accidents where folks don’t die, are not even buried, but get badly hurt. And we worry about what our shovels are made of?

    The main thing is that many people live in this fantasy wherein they’ll ride an avalanche to a gentle burial and their friends will quickly dig them out and joke about it later at the bar and perhaps argue about whether their plastic shovel worked well or not. It just doesn’t work that way. Most of the things are violent — if not, you still suffocate fast.

    Perhaps Dale can give us a more definitive answer…

  9. TeleTim March 24th, 2006 12:10 pm

    Only Lou Dawson could turn an article about shovel construction into a shot at telemark skiers.

    Do you ever get tired of grinding that old ax?

  10. Gary March 24th, 2006 2:58 pm


    Wouldn’t you agree that in a burial situation you would want to extricate the victim in the shortest amount of time possible? Regardless of the condition dead, mangled, untouched, etc. I agree that there are a lot of other important pieces that should be considered in the backcountry. Yet, if the worst case scenario happens, it would sure suck to have a piece of gear that is fairly ineffective in removing avy debris when you ‘might’ have a chance of saving a life.
    One of the main reasons I carry the gear is the worst case scenario.

  11. Gary March 24th, 2006 3:01 pm

    Maybe I should read a little more of your response. Seems that you answered most of my questions. I agree that there are many areas in backcountry equipment that need to be addressed.

  12. Lou March 24th, 2006 4:46 pm

    So, TeleTim, since when did bindings become human?

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