When an avalanche comes to rest any buried victims must now be excavated. Avalanche debris may be very loose and fluid during the slide but will set rock hard when it come to rest. The energy in an avalanche may even melt some of the snow crystals. This water or water vapour will freeze when the avalanche comes to rest forming an hard bond. Often the slide will be travelling at 60 - 80 km/h (or faster) and will stop in a few meters. This deceleration compresses the loose snow into a solid mass. Old avalanche debris is extremely hard and difficult to cut but even fresh debris is hard to move. Certainly not a job for hands or skis. When you consider that up to half of all beacon wearers die in the slide rescue times, including shovelling snow, are an important factor.
Ortovox Basic Avalanche Shovel
An avalanche shovel needs to be light but strong enough to cut through blocks of ice and snow. It will take a single rescuer 10 minutes to dig out a skier buried 1 meter below the surface with a shovel. It would take more like 45 minutes with hands or skis. Choose a shovel with a proper handle, we have a preference for metal blades, nothing beats them for cutting through ice, although there are some very tough plastics such as those used with the Ortovox shovels. Keep the shovel in the car and it will also prove useful for clearing snow on the road.
The Black Diamond Deploy and Nic-Impex shovels have handles that slide into the blade to save space and this also reduced the chance of losing or forgetting the handle when you go out. The BD Deploy has a curved handle, this means it can slide over the blade and also means that the shovel shouldnt spin round when digging. It is available in two sizes.
The Mammut Raptor has won the Volvo Active Safety award in conjunction with Mammut Pulse avalanche beacon. It has a strong oval shaped handle and its D-grip at the top of the blade helps shovelling power and efficiency. The blade can be used as a snow anchor. Both Nic-Impex and Raptor use man-made materials for the blade.
Remember that every year off-piste skiers die for the lack of probes and shovels, two basic pieces of equipment. Check out the PisteHors news pages and you will see fatal accident reports where the lack of proper equipment was crucial. You should also read the Backcountry Access Paper on Strategic Shoveling.