I’m down in New Zealand, in the thick of winter, dealing with avalanche terrain and associated equipment. Yep, shovels take on new meaning when you’re living at a resort and out every day. Luckily, I’ve been testing the new Backcountry Access Arsenal Shovel with 35mm Saw and Companion Blade. I was able to get a hold of it a few days before I left, which was great, since my old BCA Tour shovel/probe was getting worked after several years of heavy use.
The Tour shovel was small and super light, which was great, but over the years I have come to realize that a bit beefier shovel, with slightly more blade area, would be safer and more useful. After all, it is BCA themselves who opened my eyes to how important shovel strategy is when you’ve got an avalanche burial — easily as important as your beacon skills.
When I first unpacked the Arsenal/Companion shovel, I was super impressed by the design. My previous shovel had a probe that was stored in the handle, but getting it out meant taking out the push button that held the shovel together. Not only did you have to take the shovel apart, but the probe sometimes got jammed inside the handle, an annoying and potentially dangerous hassle.
At WildSnow HQ we actually received two new shovels from BCA, along with the Arsenal/Companion, the other in the quiver is an Arsenal with Tour blade and 240cm probe in the handle. The blades will attach to either handle, and the probe can fit in the saw handle, although not vice versa. With both, the most impressive design feature is that the probe and saw slide out of a nicely designed handle that has a section of the handle that pops out when you press a button. This is a WAY better design than my old shovel, since the shovel doesn’t have to be dismantled to get at the probe or saw.
The Companion blade is fairly large, but it is still very light, I think because it is thin aluminum. Nonetheless it seems plenty strong. The handle extends to about 1.5 times its original length. The saw is integrated into the handle beautifully, although it rattles a bit if you leave it in the shovel while shoveling, which is annoying. I have used the shovel to dig a few snow pits, and also for various ski patrol duties at Cheeseman, it’s holding up fine. The blade tends to deflect a little bit when shoveling really hard snow, but the flex isn’t enough to change the efficiency of shoveling. I also like the fact that the blade is flat and square; not only does this make nice snow pit walls, but is a much better stove platform than my old shovel (especially after it is modified).
I have never owned a snow saw before, mostly because I never encountered a layer in a snow pit that couldn’t be chopped through with the tail of a ski. That all changed in Washington last winter. In a few pits, I couldn’t chop through a particularly hard layer without demolishing everything around it (including my nice column). So I decided it was time for a snow saw. Luckily, just around that time the box arrived from BCA. Their 35 mm snow saw is nicely made, integrates with the shovel well, and is sharp and light. I haven’t had a chance to attack any rain crusts with it, but I have encountered some pretty hard snow layers down here in the Southern Hemisphere. The saw also cuts through wood pretty nicely, although I have never understood why snow saw manufactures always advertise that their saws cut through wood as well as snow. I guess if you are lugging a saw around, you might as well be able to cut wood with it. Perhaps it helps in Pacific Northwest bushwhacks, or extricating someone from particularly nasty avalanche debris? (I don’t even want to think about the latter.)
In all, I am truly impressed by the new BCA Arsenal shovels — they are definitely a step up, while still being light enough to pass WildSnow muster!
Louie Dawson earned his Bachelor Degree in Industrial Design from Western Washington University in 2014. When he’s not skiing Mount Baker or somewhere equally as snowy, he’s thinking about new products to make ski mountaineering more fun and safe.