Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Avalanche Shoveling Technique

One of the most overlooked techniques in avalanche rescue is how one shovels. This is the most time consuming part of any avalanche rescue.

The following video was put together by Backcountry Access, a company that develops avalanche beacons, shovels, probes and backpacks.

Following is a review of the key points from the video:

Technique for Rescue with One Person
  1. Start downhill of the probe strike.
  2. Make the hole approximately a wingspan wide.
  3. Begin shoveling 1.5 times the burial depth downhill.
  4. Save energy by shoveling snow to the sides of the pit.
  5. Once you have dug down to a point where the snow surface is above your waste, begin to shovel the snow downhill.
  6. Attempt to get at the victim's face as soon as possible.
  7. When you get to the victim, uncover the head and chest and establish an airway.
  8. Only leave the scene for help if there is a surplus of manpower or the victim has been excavated.
Technique for Rescue with Two People
  1. In a shallow burial (less than 1 meter) start shoveling just downhill of the probe.
  2. In deeper burials one rescuer should start just downhill of the probe. The second rescuer should start to dig downhill 1.5 times the burial depth.
  3. Rescuers should shovel snow to the sides until the hole is waist deep. Once it becomes necessary to lift snow above your waist, then start shoveling the snow downhill.
  4. If the victim is unconscious when you reach him, the first thing that you should do is to clear the airway and begin CPR.
This element of an avalanche rescue is often overlooked. But it is an extremely important part of rescue process and should be practiced alongside the use of a beacon and a probe.

--Jason D. Martin


Geoff said...


This is great advice. My climbing buddy and I have recently been debating about what sorts of avalanche safety gear to bring when we go climbing. For instance, we've climbed on a number of routes where we're the only ones around, so we've argued about whether transceivers are necessary since we'd likely both be caught or could find the buried partner by following the rope that connected us. Shovels and probes in this situation also seen to be important only if we both carry them. Could you weigh in on this and discuss your normal "kit" in terms of avalanche preparedness when climbing glacier routes.

Jason Martin said...


The situation for climbing glaciated routes is dependent on the time of year, the approach and the mountain.

In most spring or summer climbing situations, on peaks like Mt. Rainier or Mt. Baker, your idea about "following the rope" after an avalanche makes a lot of sense.

We generally have multiple shovels on a team until mid-June when the avalanche danger in the PNW becomes extremely stable.

In winter climbing scenarios, teams often make approaches through avalanche terrain before they are roped up. As such, this should be treated just like skiing. Everybody should have a beacon, a shovel and a probe.

Additionally, if a team is hit by a large avalanche, even while on a rope team, the rope may not be easy to follow as it may be deeply embedded in hard snow. As such, you may spend precious minutes trying to free the rope before you get to the victim.

The take away here is that in a mountaineering situation you have to decide for yourself what level of security you want for avalanches...

Jason D. Martin