The plastic vs aluminum shovel debate continues to rage on web forums and during private conversations. A number of people have asked what I use, and why I depict a minimal plastic shovel in my photo of a gear kit for springtime lightweight ski traverses. Let it be known that we’ve got a variety of shovels here at the WildSnow.com world headquarters (steel,plastic, aluminum) and pick our shovels based on the goals and style of our trips. Some of our spring ski tours have little to no avalanche danger, and for those trips we might carry a modified shovel that’s been cut down for less weight and easier packing. Since such trips may involve dangerous travel on steep frozen snow, carrying a lighter shovel might allow us to haul iceax; crampons; rope — items we might leave behind if our pack was already too heavy.
During other trips we’re going for backcountry powder, so we carry the shovel we think is the best compromise between weight and performance for digging out an avalanche victim. That shovel could be the best quality aluminum models, or the best quality plastic ones, both of which I believe perform fine for avalanche rescue. Avalanche debris do set up and “freeze” a while after the avalanche happens (a “while” meaning after nearly all hope of live rescue is gone), and digging such snow might require more shovel then any of the packable aluminum or plastic models available. Bear in mind when I’m writing about avalanche shovels I’m talking about party self-rescue within minutes of a burial. Anything else is body recovery in a frozen tomb, and even the vaunted aluminum shovels sold for self-rescue may not be up to the task of digging out a corpse frozen in a virtual block of ice.
So what shovels do we use? Here are a few picks from our pile (in random order):
– Indigo SnowLogic
– Voile XLM (weighs 17 ounces rather than the advertised 16)
– Life-Link plastic (various models, some modified)
– Black Diamond Lynx
– Backcountry Access (don’t know exact model, I think it’s the “Tour”)
– Steel spade (kept in truck, for getting unstuck or mountain rescue volunteer work during avalanche body recovery)
– other shovels we play around with modifying and testing.
Everything can be improved, so I’m always trying to figure out the best shovel size/weight/durability compromise, and also trying mods such as lightning holes and methods for using an ice axe or ski poles as a handle. Indeed, for our overnight spring ski traverses I may switch to a small aluminum shovel such as the Voile XLM. Why? It can be used as a stove platform. Why not? A dark plastic Life-Link shovel works well as a solar snow melting device. Perhaps one of us will carry the alu, and one the plastic. Yeah!
In the meantime I’ve got to get my first aid card renewed. Anyone else need that?
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.