“I will trade you shovels.”
Those are the words you do not want to hear when you show to the trailhead with your riding or skiing partner. Those five words imply that you have an inferior avalanche (avy) shovel, and the logic being that if they become buried in a slide, you will have the proper tools to rescue them.. On the other hand, the inferior avy shovel you traded with your partner is now your life line…
Let’s face it, when it comes to any rescue gear, it just isn’t worth it to cut corners. When it comes down to the wire it can it can be a life you gambled to save a few bucks on.
There are numerous avy shovels on the market, made for a variety of different uses, designed for different locations, and anatomical design. In Colorado along with much of the Continental snowpack, snow goes through a metamorphic phase when a slide occurs. The result once the slide stops is a concrete ice mixture that is often bullet-proof.
Avalanche fields are no fun to dig in, but can offer perspective on your equipment. Try to time yourself in a debris field with friends and see how long it takes to dig out a beacon – you might be surprised… Remember, you have around 10 minutes. After 10 minutes the chance of survival diminishes exponentially with each passing minute.
Some avy shovels are designed for different snowpacks. A larger spoon may be ideal for coastal or powder snowpack. A tempered steel or T6 aluminum may be ideal for ‘Sierra Cement’ or Colorado snowpack. The size can also depend on your strength and flexibility. In no circumstance will a plastic or composite shovel be ideal, it’s just not worth it. If you show up with a plastic shovel at the trailhead, your partner will likely want to trade with you.
Whichever shovel you choose, be informed about how to choose the right on for YOU. Equally important is making sure your shovel will fit inside your pack. Never carry a shovel on the outside of your pack, it will be torn off if you are caught in an avalanche. This rule goes for pretty much any equipment, but particularly with a shovel.
My personal favorite for Colorado is the The Voile Mini TelePro T6 shovel. I tried some other shapes and brands, and realized that I would want nothing else. The top brands were published in the February 2009 issue of the American Avalanche Association’s Avalanche Review, the article named “Shovel performances span heaven and hell.”, Voile shovels received top honors for performance and functionality.
The Voile shovels come in a Telpack & Telepro series. The Telepack series have a T-Handle and stow more compact, while the Telepro have a D-handle with a slightly longer length. Voile also makes the shovel in four different sizes which are denoted by their color.
All voile shovels are interchangeable (handles, shovel heads, etc). Often avalanche professionals, guides, patrollers, and rescue teams will interchange the shovels depending on the conditions of the terrain and time of year. You can see all of the options on Voile’s shovel page.
T6 is the level of hardness reached in the aluminum heat-treating process, more accurately pro-grade, ultra durable 6061-T6 heat-treated aluminum. The shovel blade has deadman holes for emergency use as an anchor or for rescue sled construction. In the case of an anchor; the slots would provide a place for webbing and in practice is used along the same lines as an ice-axe anchor.
A shovel that fits you, will benefit you the most. There are lots to choose from that span across a variety of intended uses. The number one use for a shovel is of course as a spatula flipping burgers at the end of the day with a cold beer.