The Right Shovels for the Job

Post by blogger | March 23, 2010      

I have been carrying the same Backcountry Access shovel for the last decade. It’s done a tour of duty in the Alaska Range and shoveled snow on numerous trips across five continents. But reluctantly, I have to admit the old girl might be ready for retirement. At least that is what Jordan, one of my frequent touring partners, persistently tells me. And nobody should make their touring partners nervous, or they may do the same to you.

BCA Chugach Arsenal & Saw

BCA's Chugach, Arsenal Shovels & Integrated Snow Saw

With our Alaska trip coming up, I think the timing is right. If there is any place that will put some wear on a shovel, it’s Denali. In fact, my soon to be retired shovel carries many scars from her last trip up there. So we have been vetting some of Backcountry Access’s latest and greatest this winter. As I am sure most Wildsnow readers know, Denali is a shovel fest. Whether it’s digging out tent platforms, a kitchen, snow for melting, caves, or trying to keep the tents from collapsing in a storm, a shovel is an integral piece of gear up there. A solid and efficient shovel may save your life in more than one scenario.

In Colorado my primary shovel use is for pit digging and snowmobile rescue (thankfully no people rescue so far). So I have been testing out the BCA Arsenal/Companion Shovel (I mention Companion because that is the name of BCA’s medium sized blade). It’s very similar to my soon to be retired shovel, with a slightly larger 10 x 11in aluminum blade and telescoping shaft (extended length 37.5in), a must for us tall guys.

Arsenal Shovel in Action

The blade is flat and square, keeping my pit walls up to standards.

Arsenal Saw in Action

In addition, the Arsenal boasts an integrated 35cm saw for column isolation, emergency wood cutting, or perhaps some light pruning if you are into that sort of thing.

Depending on the tour, I occasionally find myself ditching the saw to save weight (5oz), but when it makes a trip it’s nice to have the saw contained in a place that won’t cause destruction of my other gear. All in the integrated system weighs 30oz, exactly the same as my old shovel though with the addition of the saw. I certainly like that.

Arsenal with D-grip & T-grip

When moving large amounts of snow with heavy gloves, the D-grip is a must.

So the Arsenal has been a great replacement for my everyday use shovel, but we are headed north soon, so how does it fit into our Alaska snow moving plan? The blade is sturdy enough to handle all but the hardest snow, the shape will allow the artists among us to really sculpt a camp or snow cave, and the size is sufficient to move respectable amounts of snow. Modifications? You knew there would be some. The first change has been the addition of a D-grip handle. We contacted the folks at BCA and they were able to provide us with a few. The change is simple, just slide the D-grip equipped shaft extension into the place. By the way, I spoke with BCA and if additional D-grip extension tubes are available, they will sell them to anyone who contacts them, though they aren’t available through the standard retail channels.

The snow saw contained in the handle will of course be a casualty, but it’s not designed for the heavy block cutting we will be doing up north anyway. The addition of the D-grip extension shaft brings the extended length to 40.5in and the weight to a reasonable 26oz. I think we will be pleased with the Arsenal for excavation and precision work, which after swapping to a D-grip, is essentially a Companion shovel. Though the Companion is no longer sold with the D-grip handle due to a simplification of BCA’s shovel line.

But what about the serious snow removal? Well for that task we have been testing out the BCA Chugach Pro Ext. With a large 12.5 x 11.5in blade and a D-grip handle, it seems build for the job right off the shelf. However I must say that you can’t have a big enough shovel up there. We actually took an aluminum grain scoop on our last trip and it worked fantastic. Though it seems someone may have sharpied “honk if you’re horny” on it without the knowledge of the guy carrying it on his back the first day on the Kahiltna (he was last on the rope). That added some entertainment on a serious slog, for more groups than just ours. The problem with the grain scoop was weight, 6lbs versus 38oz for the Chugach. The telescoping shaft (extended length 42in) also makes it easier to pack and easier on the back.

Chugach Shovel in Action

The Chugach really moves snow well. I understand folks are even using it to clear driveways out here. Seems like an expensive solution to me, but hey your neighbors will at least know that in addition to being domestic, you lead a secret backcountry life.

I want to add that I have used telescoping shovels in the past that felt a little flimsy when shoveling heavy wet snow in the extended position, I have not experienced this feeling with either the Chugach or Arsenal. In fact, both feel very sturdy considering the large blades and light weight. I also want to mention that the trade-off with the larger blades is whether or not they fit in the popular avy gear pockets common on most ski packs these days. The Companion blade just barely fits into the avy pocket on my BD Anarchist (last season’s model). I actually attribute the tight fit with a damaged zipper on that pocket. And the Chugach, forget about getting that blade into my BD Anarchist avy pocket. But I carried my shovel in the main compartment of my pack for years, so I won’t complain too much. I suspect this is less of an issue on some other avy pocket designs.

So after Lou brokers a deal to borrow a steel spade for the high camp, I think our shovel situation is resolved.

Shop for BCA shovels here.


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44 Responses to “The Right Shovels for the Job”

  1. Mike March 23rd, 2010 9:32 am

    Have you seen this paper by Manuel Genswein and Ragnhild Eide?

  2. Randonnee March 23rd, 2010 10:13 am

    Is there any standard for rescue shovels? Such a standard is easily defined- a specified strength, specified loading of the shovel. My impression remains that so much of rescue equipment has only informal word-of-mouth of personal opinions to recommend it. Marketing of the gear is the driving force, unfortunately this marketing seems to permeate judgment at all levels of retailers, educators, guides, users, etc., in my view.

    I appreciate the paper above. the XLM is the only commercial avy shovel that I have carried. In my view, if a shovel is prone to breaking, it is not useful at all, other considerations are secondary.

  3. colin March 23rd, 2010 11:10 am

    Hey Lou, Do you have any plan designs on how to build a emergency rescue sled using a shovel and the items a typical B.C. skier would have with them like poles straps and cord. I haven’t found anything that doesn’t require making special parts to assemble the sled.
    Thanks, Colin

  4. shawn March 23rd, 2010 11:37 am

    Lou, was turned onto your site after buying and reading your book Wild Snow. Lately it seems the focus of this site is primarily gear. What gives man? I come here to read about your skiing adventures, not sled mods, boot tweaks, and the minutia of all the gear you come across. I understand this is a service that your many readers value, but I’m missing the ski reports.

  5. Newman March 23rd, 2010 12:12 pm

    colin, i think martin volken’s backcountry book has plans for an on-hand-gear-only rescue sled…might be worth checking out.

  6. Tyler March 23rd, 2010 12:51 pm


    Hope you’ve been practicing with that biggin’ (the Chugach) That old girl needs some horsepower behind her to really move some snow!

  7. SB March 23rd, 2010 1:10 pm


    If you don’t mind my asking, what did you previously do in the Alaska range?

  8. Lou March 23rd, 2010 3:34 pm

    Shawn, we’ve got the trip reports coming, and believe me, once we’re on the way to AK in just 6 short weeks (when we begin the drive), it’s going to be trip report after trip report after trip report…. It seems to go in cycles. Last one was my Europe trip, next, a few random ones then Denali every day for you fanatics!

  9. Marcus March 23rd, 2010 4:01 pm

    My biggest complaint with the Covert and Anarchist Avalung packs is that, when fully packed, it’s a pain in the ass to get anything but a fairly small shovel into the tool pockets. I’d gladly carry an extra inch of fabric/zipper/whatever to make that a little easier. Or buy a smaller shovel, I guess.

  10. Lou March 23rd, 2010 4:11 pm

    Shawn. P.S., I’ve got a nice trip report from guest blogger Dave Downing, I guess we should publish that tomorrow!

  11. Matt Kinney March 23rd, 2010 7:54 pm

    Avalanche shovels are all pretty good …looking. :unsure:

    I enjoy going into a ski store with a wide selection of avy shovels and giving each one a shake test. :unsure:

    Take shovel by shaft with one hand with spade attached and hold vertical. Then shake or jiggle the shovel. Note how much play each shovel has at the interface of shaft and spade. A couple popular brands had way to much play or were not very tight fitting and you could easily feel the metal jiggling and looseness, Not sure what the design team was doing as they are actually very good shovels except for the “play” in the grip. That worries me so I tend use that has my FIRST test of durability and design. I think that is shoddy manufacturing. Try it with your own shovel. Never took note of which brands but it was pretty obvious.

    I have an aged BD Bear-something and it could use an edge sharpening. It has moved a lot of AK snow. Still… no wiggle or play in handle at all.

    I cut 1/2 the “T- grip” off to save space and add simplicity cause I had a “lou-moment.” : 🙂

  12. Caleb March 24th, 2010 10:50 am


    My Alaska Range experience is fairly limited from a Wildsnow standard. I led a 23 day trip on Denali in 2002 with a fine group including my now wife. Can’t wait to go back. It is a special place.

  13. Caleb March 24th, 2010 11:04 am

    As far as the shovels go, I think BCA generally does a pretty nice job. I have used the Arsenal quite a bit this year and have confidence that it would perform if I have to dig out my wife, brother-in-law, or any of my other close touring partners. Yeah avy shovels need some improvements, but I would rather get out and have some fun in the snow rather than wait for those improvements.

    Ideally one would go down to Home Depot and get a couple of $15 D-Grip round point metal shovels (I carry one in my truck) and a couple of $30 D-Grip aluminum grain scoops and then jump on a flight from Talkeetna. But who wants to carry all that weight? So we compromise.

  14. Lou March 24th, 2010 12:07 pm

    We’re a pretty mixed group, which will make for good blogging. Caleb and I have done Denali and I’ve been on one other Alaskan Range expedition. Jordan has been around, at altitude and winter camping, but not on Denali. I’ve done a ton of hardcore winter mountaineering including mid-winter ski traverses, teaching winter NOLS courses and stuff like that. Colby and Tyler are great skiers without any expedition experience. Joe is a great skier and climber, with plenty of winter under his belt as well as skiing all 54 Colorado 14ers. And then there is our youngest, Louie, who has a lot of winter mountaineering and snow camping experience, but no expedition experience.

    What better place to learn the expedition tricks and style than the West Butt, so long as you’ve done your homework!

    Our main goal is of course to have a safe fun time in an amazing place, if we get to summit and ski it, so much the better!

  15. Caleb March 24th, 2010 12:21 pm

    I agree Lou. One correction “Colby (not Caleb) and Tyler are great skiers”. Don’t want my reputation as a hack on the sticks ruined.

  16. Lou March 24th, 2010 2:37 pm

    Edited, sorry to usurp your reputation (grin).

  17. Mark W March 24th, 2010 5:53 pm

    Is it a coincidence that the Voile shovels that came out on top in that test all were the higher quality T6 treated aluminum?

  18. Win March 24th, 2010 6:08 pm


    If I recall correctly, Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book has something about building a rescue sled.

    Wouldn’t mind seeing other ideas.

  19. KDog March 24th, 2010 7:24 pm

    I went out and got a Voile T6 for that very reason. All my previous shovels were on the “destroyed” list of that test.

    On my Ski Op’s Level 1 Avy course we were graded on our snowpit craftsmanship, i..e, flat , vertical walls. The Voile’s blade curvature made flat walls a PITA! The best pits were made by folks with BCA shovels with the Companion blades or G3 Techs. Not the most important function of your shovel, but a real time saver in the trenches.

  20. Anonymous March 24th, 2010 10:44 pm

    Snow saws work very well for exacavating snow for shelters.

    Has anyone ever considered using a snow saw to cut blocks during a rescue?

    Wonder if this could be tested.

  21. Lou March 25th, 2010 7:59 am

    I like that shovel test, but one must remember they picked an arbitrary level of abuse that might very well exceed what it would take to do a live avalanche rescue. Body recovery rescue, different story (a steel spade is usually best for that).

    Most of us have done a ton of snow digging with lighter weight shovels and had good success with many models. I’d say the lesson in the test is that some shovels are not strong enough. But for example I really doubt I’d break a Chugach Pro doing a companion rescue or digging a snow cave. On the other hand, I did ask BCA if they’ve had any problems with Chugach pro breaking as in this test, and I said something like “our lives are going to depend on these things on Denali, are they strong enough?” and the guy at BCA said “yes.” Perhaps they made a thicker shaft since this test was done.

    One other thing about Denali regarding our Chugach Pro shovels, if they did break as indicated in the test, they would be difficult to repair as the shaft has reduced diameter to fit into the blade socket. That’s really too bad. It seems like a much better design would be to have the blade socket the same diameter as the shaft, that way if the shaft broke you could just shove it back in, duct tape, and keep on digging.

    Another thing about our Denali shovels, which is by intent, is that the shafts all interchange because we’re all using BCA shovels. So if we break a shaft, we have more. We could even bring a spare lower shaft.

  22. Jonathan Shefftz March 25th, 2010 8:13 am

    Re the shovel “test” — the following is the first half of a letter from Tor Brown of BD in Europe. (The second half covers some more BD-specific points.)


    January 13, 2009

    Subject: Recent European Shovel Review.

    A few of you have brought up this shovel review conducted in Europe by the Austrian Alpine Club (published in Europe by Bergundsteigen) and I want share my thoughts on why we disagree with both the objective and the results, as well as share what some other shovel manufacturers are saying about this flawed test.

    Just two years ago in Europe we were credited with bringing improved safety and reliability to avalanche shovels by bringing to market metal shovels that competed with the popular plastic models without compromising weight or cramping space. Reviews were stellar. In the attached shovel report carried out by Manuel Genswein and Ragnhild Eide of the Austrian Alpine Club, a seemingly non-existent bar was raised to which our shovel and our competitors’ models were benchmarked to ditch-digging type of utilitarian shovels.

    In our view, the technique used in the test involving hammering down with ski boots onto the back edge of the shovels is only used for and should only be used for, dead body recovery. We have questioned several seasoned professional patrollers about this technique just to be sure, and none of them have ever dug in a rescue search in the manner described in this test. Most commonly, rescuers are down on their knees chopping and shoveling very quickly. Digging with feet in a rescue scenario is very dangerous for a buried victim and such a test advocates and promotes an unusual, dangerous method.

    We concur with these official statements about the test by other avalanche shovel manufacturers:

    Pieps: “Basically you can destroy any piece of equipment, if you want…The strike with your foot method is dangerous for the victim…For this test to use this method and call it correct blade use is dangerous to publish…Such articles contribute to unjustified insecurity for many alpinists and are not consistent with the information and knowledge with which this journal has become popular.”

    Ortovox: “…We believe that so-called tests like the one…by Manuel Genswein and Ragnhild Eide only create uncertainty for consumers…. The results of this test are not comprehensible.”

    In an extreme case, when there is a very big avalanche that’s packed so cement-solid that avalanche rescue shovels would break when pounded on by boots, rescue crews are using steel bladed, wood handled shovels to dig out dead bodies. This is not what our shovels are designed to do. They are not for digging ditches in glaciers. They are for snow pit and avalanche emergencies, they are rapid response tools. With this in mind, we’ve designed our shovels for optimal snow volume capacity, ease and quickness of deployment, ergonomics, lightweight, and strength (within parameters of safe and realistic use).

  23. Mark W March 25th, 2010 8:14 am

    Must admit the photos of the tortured test shovels showed what appears to be more trauma than would occur in the real world. My own shovels spend 99.44% of their time doing little more than hanging out in my pack.

  24. Lou March 25th, 2010 8:34 am

    Jonathan, thanks for sharing that. My take on the test was that the level of abuse did ID a few shovels that are perhaps too weak, but in my experience most present day avy rescue shovels are totally adequate for a one-time live rescue scenario. And indeed, who the heck is going to be doing a live rescue and finding it necessary to stomp on the shovel blade with ski boots and full body weight?

    Good for Voile that they have a shovel that can stand up to that kind of abuse, but is it the shovel of choice for all of us? Not in my opinion, though it is a fine shovel.

  25. Randonnee March 25th, 2010 9:20 am

    Toyota has been explaining away problems with Toyota equipment lately as well….

    I have no specific criticism or knowledge that any specific shovel is not reasonably strong. It is unfortunate that there is not a specific, measurable, descriptive standard for such a simple tool. Personally, I am skeptical in regard to what any manufacturer states about what is simple equipment. That manufacturer’s primary concern is to market that equipment.

  26. KDog March 25th, 2010 9:44 am

    The snow conveyor technique developed by Manuel Genswein was taught to us during Op’s Level 1 in Canada. It requires that the lead person in the digging “pyramid” have his/her back to the probe strike and use the shovel to cut blocks for the “paddlers” by stepping on the blade top like a farmer turing hard soil. This technique has become a standard of rescue up here and explains the forces applied in his testing methods.

  27. Lou March 25th, 2010 9:54 am

    Just for grins, a few years ago I tried at every opportunity to shovel in fairly fresh avy debris, sometimes within minutes of the avalanche fall. They were all soft slab or point release avalanches. Not one required any sort of stepping on the shovel or prying. They set up later, of course, to the point where they would actually require a steel shovel.

    My conclusion was that at least in the case of the type of snow we ski in around here during avalanche season, a large enough shovel with a shaft extension was a lot more important than worrying about durability. In a live rescue, anyway. That’s not saying there is a minimum standard for strength, but I really truly believe that this article and test was a torture test, not a real-world simulation of a live burial and rescue immediately after a slide. Proof is there are lots of live rescues these days, using a variety of shovels. If available shovels performed as badly as this test promulgates, many of those live rescues would have failed due to shovel failure. Instead, while I recall occasionally hearing about shovel failure influencing a rescue, shovel performance is usually not mentioned.

  28. Randonnee March 25th, 2010 10:30 am

    There are at least two factors here – operator error and equipment characteristics. In my view, manufacturers attempt to explain away equipment shortcomings by invoking operator error. Personally, I am confident that I can break anything while shoveling snow, except perhaps my Glock etool. With that in mind, I know that I must shovel reasonably, but I wish to have a reasonably strong shovel. A formal standard for strength would be helpful.

  29. Lou March 25th, 2010 10:37 am

    Good points Rando…

  30. gonzoskijohnny March 25th, 2010 11:12 am

    nice review and comments guys.
    Lou is right, in colorado fluff- land nearly anything will shovel fresh and soft snow debris- I’ll bet the K-mart plastic and conduit shovel I left in my ex-wife’s trunk will even do it. Certainly the Lexan Life- link is up to this task.
    I have MANY shovels, and have damanged all the older ones- but even my ’70s RAMER balsa wood and soft Alu is still useful for driveway debris.

    Bottom line is what is your use, what is the weight/cost you will suffer to do that job, and why not get the toughest shovel for the wt/size/price? I now carry the Voile when group skiing, (although i use the Lexan Life-Link when solo on long days). Or I could do what BD suggests and spend more for a equivalent, but weaker shovel.
    The BCA saw/handle is Genius! The Voile combo, however handy, is a PITA for pit work, having to continually take the saw off and then reverse it back in to use the blade, then undo and reverse again to saw… nasuem.

  31. Evan March 25th, 2010 1:18 pm

    Lots of comments aboot shovels here, until now I was insecure blogging about my BCA companion replacement, thanks for the group therapy! It does seem that shovel pockets don’t fit very large shovels. I’m not going to Denali, my take on shovels is here.

  32. Bar Barrique March 25th, 2010 2:24 pm

    My shovel has been used more than once to dig out a truck that was stuck, so I prefer one that I can use my foot on. I often carry a metal shovel as well, but I don’t always have one handy.

  33. Win March 25th, 2010 6:22 pm


    The V-conveyor technique that I’ve read about and practiced has the lead person facing uphill towards the probe strike, same as everyone else: chop-chop, move the snow back, repeat until rotate.

    I replaced my BCA Tour shovel (didn’t like the probe in the shaft as the pins would get stuck on the cable to the point I couldn’t put the shovel together) with a Voile Mini Telescoping with a D handle as I wanted a small-bladed medium-length (I’m short) telescoping shaft with a D handle. BCA didn’t have a D-handle mini, G3’s handle felt too bulky for my small hands while the Voile D felt fine. I figure that I can move the same amount of snow with the smaller blade in the same amount of time: it’ll just mean moving faster.

  34. KDog March 25th, 2010 10:10 pm


    Yes the current documentation shows the technique practiced as you describe. The newer technique was demonstrated by Manuel in the first professional level Avalanche Rescue seminar held by the CAA this winter. All of our instructors for the Ski Operations course had taken or assisted Manuel’s seminar and taught/tested us on this new technique.

    To Lou’s point about the avy debris. Our instructors said that the Rescue seminar was held in old avy debris to better simulate the difficulty in negotiating a real blocky debris field rather than a smooth slope and that the re-frozen snow presented a worst case scenario for digging.

    Also, Lou mentioned the safety of the victim with someone stepping down with full body weight on a shovel blade. The new technique takes into account the rescuers knowing depth and maybe the direction of the victims body and by having your back to the probe you are actually chopping down slope from their position. You are primarily loosening blocks of snow for the paddlers to sweep down slope, creating a platform for extricating the victim. As you reach the victims depth you slow down and carefully remove the snow around them, leaving them in a “cave” to help keep them warm.

    I think this may be a professional level rescue technique and for most folks “dig like hell” is still the best action.

  35. akglacierboy March 25th, 2010 11:22 pm

    what kind of snow saw are you taking on your climb up denali?
    and the other thing is on all expeditions that you have to melt snow and clear tents off I allways have at least one or more plastic shovel to get snow for water and to clear off tents this way the shovel that is used to dig the denali outhouse is not the same shovel you use to get fresh snow ect staying healthy is key.
    . I have seen many tents cut with a metal shovels with a small nicks.
    in May I fly out for my 3rd attempt hope to see you guys

  36. Jack Crognale March 25th, 2010 11:57 pm

    Hi Folks, I am getting geared up for a week long traverse of the Northern Monashees in BC. I currently have a 42 liter Black Diamond pack that I really like. It has a seperate tool pocket and skis nicely. Unfortunately it is a little small for a week long trip. I also have an ancient Lowe pack that I can fit a small car in, but it is uncomfortable and to big for my needs on this trip. I have been shopping around for a pack in the 55 to 65 lt. range but am unable to locate one with a dedicated tool pocket for a shovel and probe et. and a separate sleeping bag compartment. If anybody out there has a favorite pack in the medium volume range I sure would appreciate hearing about it. Cheers, Jack

  37. Lou March 26th, 2010 7:14 am

    AK, we have a mixed bag of shovels right now. Got any specific suggestions? What most people are telling me is to bring some sort of pruning saw from the hardware store, but I’d like to get specific.

    For Colorado igloo and snow work over the years I’ve just used a snow knife (machete), but that doesn’t work for hard snow.

  38. akglacierboy March 26th, 2010 8:46 am

    in the Ak Range the saw is just as important as the shovel .
    I have seen all kinds, home made and store bought .
    I need to replace the old one .
    There is a few on the market , as far as a pruning saw leave it at home , it will take too long to build block walls with a small saw .
    look at the Smc summit snow saw or black diamond .

  39. Lou March 26th, 2010 9:38 am

    I just ordered an SMC. I’ve heard that the best snow saw is simply a D-handle carpenter’s saw with large teeth. Whatever the case, I recall that a decent handle is essential for lengthy use, rather than trying to hold onto a straight handle. This especially true with mittens.

  40. Paul March 31st, 2010 4:28 pm
  41. silvertonslim February 15th, 2013 11:45 am

    Lou- I’m modifying my 20 year old Ramer shovel and wonder if you know where I can find the spring clips Paul used to connect the handle and blade to the tubular middle piece. Its the old Ramer red square aluminum shovel with black d-handle. And the middle tube is about 12″ long with 1/4″ dia holes that allow the internal spring clip assembly to connect to the holes in the shovel/handle. I took a 28″long piece of 1″ EMT tubing, milled down the first 2″ at each end (to reduce diameter so it fits into the shiovel/blade pieces). I find that I’d prefer a longer handle shovel when I’m digging out my cabin so I don’t have to bend over so bad. Thanks

  42. Lou Dawson February 15th, 2013 11:54 am

    Slim, those are called “snap buttons” and it looks like the following will have what you need unless they sell by lots of 1,000

    Let us know if you have any trouble, Louie probably knows where to source in small batches due to his K2 shovel project. He’s on a hut trip for a few days but when he gets back I’m sure he can help if you strike out.

    I used to have a Ramer shovel shaft kicking around here but I don’t see it. If I had the clips I’d send them to you.


  43. silvertonslim February 15th, 2013 12:09 pm

    Lou-That is exactly the part I want…you the man….let me know if you are ever in Silverton area…..I’ll show you the cabin project I’m still busy with on my mining claims…..cheers

  44. silvertonslim April 19th, 2013 10:38 am

    I’ve modified my 1980’s RAMER shovel; fabricated a longer shaft that fits the handle and shovel just like the original. I’ve wanted to do this for awhile so when I am using the shovel for around camp digging, I don’t have to bend over as much. I have photos but can’t see a way to post here.
    THX again for the link to snap link. cheers

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