Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Strategic Shoveling

While we are trapped in skier purgatory waiting for more snow, now is a good time to review effective avalanche rescue procedures for future (hopefully practice) implementation in the field.

Shoveling is typically the most time consuming part of avalanche rescue, especially for deeper burials.  You can save considerable time by using strategic shoveling techniques, as described by Edgerly and Atkins (International Snow Science Workshop Proceedings 2006) and Edgerly (International Snow Science Workshop Proceedings 2010).  Both articles are well worth 10 minutes of your time as they will save you critical time if you are put in the unfortunate position of needing to do a rescue.

In addition, here's an excellent Backcountry Access YouTube video describing the basic technique.

A larger party would seem advantageous for excavation, but quickly and efficiently organizing the party to dig strategically can sometimes be challenging.

Courtesy "Steve the Cook"
In the event of an incident, there can be leadership confusion and the challenges of organizing a large party.  This includes not only the shoveling stage, but also other stages of rescue.  Practice this critical component of avalanche rescue with your partners.


  1. Thank you for this information. So far none of the avalanche awareness education/training I have had has not focussed on shovelling techniques. This was very informative.

  2. Lisa:
    That is very surprising. I take a ski patrol or NPS course every two or three years. Those courses present both avalanche awareness and in the field avalanche rescue training. I first ran into the strategic shoveling approach in 2008 at a joint ski patrol/NPS course at Taos and that has been in the curriculum ever since. The course sponsored by the Utah Avi Center in 2012 (?) at Brighton, put a lot of emphasis on the need to have efficient organization when you have a bunch people involved in a search.

    Avalanche awareness is not the same as avalanche response training. If you are going into the back country at all, you should have both the knowledge to evaluate danger and the rescue training to deal with mistakes in evaluation.

    1. Tommy,
      I'm still a novice when it comes to exploring the backcountry in that I have only had two one-day training classes that were pretty far apart in years and distance (a few years - one in Tahoe and one in BCC). That's likely the reason I have not had training on shoveling techniques. I'm eager to get more experience and learn more. :)

  3. I've taken training in J'Hole (private sector program), at Taos (NPS/Ski Patrol) and in the Wasatch at Brighton in a program run by the Utah Avalanche Center. The UAC program was very well organized and run and the Center can furnish any needed equipment, such as beacons, shovels and probes. They also run specialty programs for snowshoers and for women only. I found the UAC program to be the best organized of the three. Avi 101 is the course title for learning beacon searches, digging snow pits for evaluation of the risk, strategic shoveling for finding victims and the importance of organizing the search team instead of everybocy running off in all directions.

    Web site with dates and places is http://utahavalanchecenter.org/avalanche-classes

  4. Hi Tommy,
    I took the UAC Avi 101 for women last February. I agree. It was a great class - an evening of classroom instruction followed by a day in the field at Brighton. We worked with beacons, skinned up to the saddle above twin lakes, dug a snow pit and did some shoveling. However, upon reading the paper that Dr. Jim sites, the information I received about shoveling techniques from the 101 class was not nearly as in depth as the information in the paper.