Dance of the Wu Li Shovels – and Probes

Post by blogger | April 25, 2006      

For spring backcountry skiing overnight trips with minimal avalanche danger, a smaller aluminum shovel is the ticket. Alu shovels work well for hacking a kitchen pit out of consolidated isothermic snow, and they don’t melt if you use them as a stove platform. But what’s the lightest aluminum shovel you can get?

The swirling organic dance of our gear planning seems to have developed a pattern; Wu Li. For a few days we’re content with an item of gear as to weight and function. Then we start thinking, or someone in the industry emails and says, “hey, we’ve got something you might be interested in.” In this case it was the latter.

In our Trooper Traverse gear list I’d included the Voile XLM shovel, which was advertised as 16 oz but weighed in at 17.8 ounces on the ultra-exacto WildSnow scales.

A whopping 1.8 ounces over a pound. Not much in some ways of thinking, but significant if you’re going for super incredible lightness.

(In case you’re wondering, our weights are ACCURATE. To make sure I run two scales, a Pelouze PE5 and SP5 with calibration checked by weighing 10 nickels at 50 grams. Both scales show the nickels at exactly 50 grams, and show item weights as exactly the same.)

Backcountry Access (BCA) saw our gear list and immediately threw their Tour Shovel on the scale. “Hey Lou,” they emailed me, “it looks like we might have a lighter shovel for you.” A couple of BCA Tour shovels arrived yesterday.

The weird thing is that our two BCA shovels don’t weigh the same. One hefts at 16.2 oz, the other at 17.1, almost an ounce difference! This offends our rigid Western minds, but hey, Wu Li. Let’s average it and say 16.7 ounces for a BCA (and now we get to fight over who carries the lighter BCA shovel — oh when will this ever end?).

The two Voile XLMs we have weigh 17.8 oz each, so there you go, the BCA tour saves us about an ounce. Yeah, the BCA blade is slightly smaller (where most of the weight savings resides), but it’s still big enough for our purposes. That said, I do like the XLM blade shape better for digging winter powder and possible soft slab avalanche rescue (I also like plastic shovels with larger blades) but the BCA is now our choice for spring, when its purpose is more utilitarian such as digging tent platforms and use as a stove base, etcetera).

Note, we’ve also been messing around with avalanche probes. To save weight, a larger group (4 or more) on a spring ski traverse doesn’t need one probe per person (one for every two or three will suffice). More, you might as well carry the lightest weight probes possible, and about 6 feet long is totally adequate. The Life-Link Speed Light probe weighs 6.5 ounces, and the BCA Companion, which fits in the BCA shovel handle, floats at 5.3 ounces. While somewhat short and not particularly strong, both probes would suffice for occasional practice and at least one real rescue.


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23 Responses to “Dance of the Wu Li Shovels – and Probes”

  1. Mark April 25th, 2006 6:47 am

    Think I’ll go and drill a couple holes in my XLM now.


  2. Clyde April 25th, 2006 9:46 am

    Jeez, what tanks! No ultralight fanatic can justify that sort of excess weight. The Komperdell Carbon with extendable handle is 15.0 ounces. And if you leave the upper handle off, it’s 10.2 ounces and still functional.

    They also sell a carbon probe that is 6.5 oz and doesn’t compromise on length (265 cm) or stiffness (most ultralight aluminum poles are too flexible so they deflect easily). I disagree with anyone in a group leaving a probe behind, no matter the circumstances — that’s an unjustifiable risk.

  3. Brian Dawes April 25th, 2006 10:55 am

    I have also tried both of the shovels and I prefer the BCA. I think they have achieved a good balance between weight and size with this model. We just spent two weeks on a trip and it performed flawlessly.

  4. Rob April 25th, 2006 1:37 pm
  5. Karl Olsen April 25th, 2006 3:14 pm

    “Note, we’ve also been messing around with avalanche probes. To save weight, a larger group on a spring ski traverse doesn’t need one probe per person (one for every three will suffice). ”

    Seems pretty risky. What’s your rationale for this?

  6. Wijad, S. April 25th, 2006 3:29 pm

    FYI: The Komperdell shovel has a blade that is sufficient for a small child digging in a sand box. Not a good choice for cold spring mornings.

  7. Lou April 25th, 2006 3:47 pm

    As for how many people carrry probes, do you guys think we’re planning on doing a probe line, or what? We’re using beacons, it’s 2006! The probe is used after the beacon pinpoints. There is no reason to have 5 or 6 people running around with deployed probes trying to do beacon avalanche rescue. One probe for every two or three people is plenty.

    Also, bear in mind that our avalanche protocol for springtime Colorado is still to be careful to expose only one person at a time to hazard. While we’re guiding this trip, we’re not planning on marching the whole group in lockstep up (or down) avalanche slopes like some guides do.

    About the actual probe: It’s been my experience in many avalanche rescue drills that with good beacon work, a big long probe is not necessary. A ski pole with the basket off works fine, or just start digging like mad and use the beacon in the hole after you’re a few feet down. You have to have confidence in your beacon skills, however. But don’t we all, or are we depending on 100 year old technology (probes)?

    Like the Tylenol ad says: “think about it.” If you guys are so concerned about what safety gear you carry, are you all carrying sat phones and bag masks? It is arguable that the sat phone would be of more importance in an avalanche accident than the probe pole, as would be the resuscitation mask.

  8. Lou April 25th, 2006 4:09 pm

    Rob asked about the Salewa shovel. All I can say is that this shovel is proof that not all aluminum shovels are superior to plastic.

  9. eric April 25th, 2006 4:25 pm

    (Lou) “One probe for every two or three people is plenty.”

    Are you suggesting this as true only for bigger groups (i.e., just a few probes for a group of >4?)? If so, I understand it.

    I don’t really think it translates to “1 probe for a group of 3” because the person carrying the probe could be the one buried.

  10. Lou April 25th, 2006 4:50 pm

    Sorry about the lack of clarity, indeed, I’m talking about larger groups. Regarding this ski traverse we’re planning with 6 people, I’d be comfortable with having 2 probes in the group, and one shovel for each person.

  11. Grant Gunderson April 25th, 2006 5:28 pm

    “Sorry about the lack of clarity, indeed, I’m talking about larger groups. Regarding this ski traverse we’re planning with 6 people, I’d be comfortable with having 2 probes in the group, and one shovel for each person.”

    Lou, I respectfully dissagree very much with the coment abouve. We all know that no matter how organized a tour may be and how well planed it is. Things change on the fly. It is not inconcievable for the two people carrying probes to wind up next to each other in the group (even if ideally ones at the front, and ones at the back). In this even if a slide occurs and happesn to take out both people with probes your SOL. Also even if only one probe carying person is taken out, it would be a great asset to have more than one probe remaining in the group so that two people can be probing for the victim after the pin point tranciever search.

    I am all for saving weight on a tour, but leaving safety gear at home is NOT the correct way to do it.

  12. Lou April 25th, 2006 5:43 pm

    Grant, point taken, but does everyone in your party have a first aid card, and do you carry two or more sat phones? Aftercare is as important for many victims as is the initial search. Seems like an extra probe or two is a poor substitute for the above… but one man’s safety gear is another man’s heavy luxury, I guess. Ditto for beacon practice. Interesting how many people carry probes as an “essential” but don’t practice with their beacons that often…

    Also, for a trained beacon operator it is easy to find a buried avalanche victim without using a probe, or by using a ski pole with the basket removed, that is unless they’re buried super deep (and thus dead anyway).

    At any rate, it seems there is some dogma going around. Reminds me of the helmet issue.

  13. Mike April 25th, 2006 6:05 pm

    Lou: My wife uses my probe in the garden for the sweet peas and tomatoes. It doesn’t rot like bamboo. Mike

  14. Matoosh April 26th, 2006 12:16 am

    I am permanently confused with american units (oz, pound, inch etc.). Apparently, on both american and continental (cm,mm,kg,g) units are used; hence, seems that you Americans can understand both. I know that it is a little selfish, but is it possible to state all dimensions in both (US/EU) units? It would make my life better amd easier 🙂 BTW, the worst is conversion from °F to °C (luckily, temperatures are not state to often here).

    And a question: Length and weight of skis is measured in cm, while length and weight of a human body is measured in inches and pounds. Why is that so? Tradition (e.g. skis come to US from EU with EU units)?



  15. Lou April 26th, 2006 4:39 am

    Americans have deep understanding of many things, that’s why we have such a robust economy and only the occasional riot — and can understand mysterious things such as ounces.

    When it’s not too awkward in the writing I do try to use grams as well as ounces, will attempt to do that more often.

    As for ski length, if they are measured in inches it is usually a fraction (converted from cm) and thus awkward. Since the skis are sold and measured in cm, we use cm. Historical note: For many years in the past, wood skis made in the U.S. were sold with inch measurement instead of centimeters, I’m not sure when that standard changed, but it shows that Americans can indeed use metric when we want to.

  16. Clyde April 26th, 2006 7:45 am

    Lou, you have too much faith in the durability of beacons. The testing standard against impacts is quite minimal, pathetic actually. There are also the known issues of odd battery sizes. And you can never be sure that everyone in the group has fresh batteries or they didn’t do something stupid like using lithiums or NiMH batteries. Case in point, remember the skier that died a few years ago at Jackson who apparently hit a rock and broke his beacon. Carry the probes.

    BTW Wijad has apparently never actually used the Komperdell shovel. The blade size and stiffness are comparable to the shovels you’re discussing. The only thing offensive is the cost.

  17. Lou April 26th, 2006 8:03 am

    Hi Clyde, you make good points, but put entirely too much faith in probes . I’ve enjoyed your comments elsewhere about helmets, and how their perceived safety might be less than reality. Expecting a probe to find a live avalanche buried person with a defective beacon would seem to be somewhat similar of an excessively optimistic view. With this logic, why not wear two beacons rather than worrying about how many probes in a group? That would seem MUCH wiser judging from the history of live avalanche saves by probe alone.

    Everyone, this is next year’s avalanche safety dogma: Everyone shall wear two beacons, a personal location transmitter, avalanche air bag, helmet, Avalung, neck collar and chest protector — and carry two avalanche probes in case one breaks as this has been known to happen.

    Also: “Case in point, remember the skier that died a few years ago at Jackson who apparently hit a rock and broke his beacon.” So this guy’s companions didn’t have probe poles and couldn’t find him, or did the other rock hit his head? Rest or story, please.

    All this stated, the flak I’m getting about occasionally not carry a probe reminds me of the flak you got when you questioned the efficacy of ski helmets. Dogma creeps into everything.

  18. Mark Worley April 26th, 2006 9:06 am

    Why would using lithium batteries in beacons not be recommended?

  19. Lou April 26th, 2006 9:48 am

    Lithium’s have a power curve that causes the beacon battery life indicator to be inaccurate, more, they have good power under low load up till they’re nearly empty, but put nearly empty lithium batteries under load such as doing a digital beacon search, then they fail quickly. All that said, for my 5-day ski traverse I’ll be using a fresh set of Lithium AAAs in my Barryvox, then use them in headlamps once I get home. For day-to-day skiing in the winter, I’d never use lithium in my beacon, as I wouldn’t be able to use the battery life indicator and would loose track of how long they’d been installed. More blasphemy from Lou? Or just free thinking?

  20. Clyde April 26th, 2006 10:49 am

    I’ve argued before that beacons have probably killed more people than they’ve saved. A lot of folks wouldn’t ski where they do if they left their beacons at home. So you’d be safer without any of the avy gear. When I’m testing new beacons, I actually carry a spare (early production runs are more prone to glitches). The probe is the only backup most people would carry (ski poles really do suck for probing). IIRC the JH fatality involved breaking the beacon on his chest, no other trauma, companion had no probe and it took rescuers too long to arrive. Particularly since you’re guiding, it seems a the few ounces is worth the struggle. Mark’s question just show how unaware people are of beacon issues. Kinda doubt 3 AAA liths saves more than 10 grams over alkalines. Not blasphemy but not worth it either.

  21. Lou April 26th, 2006 11:57 am

    Thanks Clyde, that J Hole accident is an interesting example. Of course impossible to say if a probe would have saved the guy, but certainly supports the point that you’ve got to have some sort of probe in the group.

    I’ve used a ski pole for dozens of beacon drills and had good results. The key, AS WITH ANYTHING, is practice. The crux is usually getting the basket off. The poles that have basket threads that allow the basket to be rotated off are the best, the pop-off type are unreliable as when they’re cold they’re tough to pop off. A basket can be quickly cut off a pole, but of course that’s too fiddly for a smooth rescue attempt.

    For those new to this game: Let’s keep in mind the reason beacons were invented: probes are too slow and usually result in a body recovery rather than a live rescue. I get the feeling that the efficacy of avalanche probes is getting overrated, just like helmets .

    As for using lithium for my beacon batteries during a multi-day trip, it’s more about having max battery life than anything else, but the weight savings exists, especially since I won’t have to carry a spare set. As for the concept that small amounts of weight are meaningless, tell that to Ray Jardine. Ray does say to save weight first on the major stuff, but he doesn’t shirk at pruning everything.

  22. Wijad, S. April 26th, 2006 3:11 pm

    Clyde-you are right, I have never used the Komperdell shovel because it is not available anywhere. At least not in North America. What types of tests did you put it through in comparison to aluminum shovels?

    Regarding the Jhole incident: remember that he had his beacon on the OUTSIDE of his coat. He put it on hastily when they decided to duck the rope to ski the permanently closed terrain. Not a good example on which to measure beacon durability. But if I rememeber correctly, the searching beacon did not receive a signal from the broken beacon so the searcher began probing. But a single person looking for an avy victim is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. A probe verifies the depth and location of a buried victim. Can probably still find accident details on

  23. Lou May 2nd, 2006 6:08 am

    I see people all the time in the backcountry who have their beacon strapped loosely on the outside of their clothing. Current beacon harnesses might be the worst thing invented for beacons as they encourage people to carry them that way. In olden days our beacons had a simple neck strap and you usually carried it inside your clothing even while wearing thin layers.

    Perhaps one of the reason I’m getting grief about how many probes we carry is that people are strapping their beacons on the outside of their clothing, figure it might get ripped off in an avalanche, and the probes might be needed for a probe line to find a dead person with no beacon? I like Clyde’s idea better — carry two beacons.

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