(Editor’s note from Lou: Someone asked me about shovels this morning. As far as I can tell, BCA makes some of the best and we like they’re a USA company. So I thought I’d bring this post from last spring up to the front this weekend. An upgraded latest shovel makes a nice gift, hint hint.)
Ah, the lowly and sometimes lovely avalanche rescue shovel. Extra weight 99.9 percent of the time for most backcountry skiers. Then, the .1 percentile occurs and it is hopefully love at first sight.
No clear nor industry-wide standard is in use for avalanche rescue shovels for mountaineering. Instead, the person who does the most visible test and has the strongest opinion seems to rule the design process. Recent industry trend is for much stronger shovels due to the Austrian Alpine Club Genswein Test of a few years ago. In my opinion some of that test was misguided (as in worrying if a shovel can be stomped on hard enough to decapitate a moose in one stroke), but it did inspire an industry-wide improvement in shovels that continues to this day.
One of this season’s best examples of a better shovel is the Backcountry Access “B” series. Comprised of three sizes, B series provides a shovel for just about every backcountry traveler out there — even a big one with D-handle (B-52) for Alaskan style adventure. By virtue of engineering such as reinforcement dimples, oval shafts and welded shaft/blade sockets, the B Series shovels are virtually the same weight as previous BCA shovels, but stronger. They also look better with a modern touch of color and form that inspires confidence.
We tested and are still using the two more “normal” versions of the B series: B-1 and B-2.
During safer tours or snowpack, or tours with large groups, our go-to was the B-1 which at 90 square inches (9″x10″, 23 x 25.5 cm) is right in there as the smallest size most people agree is still practical for actually performing a snow digging rescue. I did my usual torture tests by wedging the shovel in place and levering on it with gusto. Pass. Shape of the blades is fine, with reduced profile for easier packing. Extendable shaft locks in with a positive “snick” of the spring buttons, has acceptable amount of play. Grips feel fine and nice to see the D handle on the big guy, as in my experience that’s the best way to configure a shovel for use in extreme environments (we’re also assuming the B-52 D handle can be used with the other BCA blades).
Cons? Only two: 1.) how about a few more lashing holes in the blade, and 2.) I think it’s time we started seeing some avalanche companion rescue shovels that were significantly lighter yet strong enough.
This brings me to a thought: depending on your size and strength, your shoveling ergonomics will, to some degree, dictate what size shovel is going to yield the most efficient dig-out of a buried friend. This is especially true if you’re by yourself. My recommendation is if you’ve got the upper body strength of an average fit male and are traveling with just one companion, you go to the next size up from the B-1 form factor, to the B-2 at 110 square inches, (10″x11″, 25×28 cm). If you’re a smaller person or traveling with a group that’s going to be teaming up for “strategic digging” during a rescue, shovel size is not much of an issue. Carry what you feel is appropriate (perhaps the smaller blade if you’re a smaller person); once a rescue dig begins the correct shovels for the different tasks will quickly sort themselves out.
Also in terms of shovel sizes, I’ve found it useful to have a quiver of several to choose from at home during the get-ready at home. In terrain that’s likely or somewhat likely to produce avalanches during backcountry skiing, I like having an extendable shaft as that’s key to really moving snow. Along with that, when I’m with just one other person I prefer something more the size of the larger B-2. On the other hand, in low avy hazard terrain or conditions (such as consolidated spring or summer snow) I carry a smaller blade and non-extend shaft. The BCA variety supports this idea. For example, buy a B-1 with a fixed length shaft and a B-2 with extendable. The shafts will work with either shovel, mix and match for the day. Nice. They should sell the duo as a package deal — “My BCA quiver, shovel love!”
B-1 comes in three versions, extendable (596 grams), fixed length (525 grams), and fixed length with stowed probe (666 grams).
B-2 in two versions, extend (723 grams) and no extend (624 grams).
B-52 one version, shaft extends for super efficient total shovel length of 39.5 inches, 100 cm. (879 grams)
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.