Plastic or aluminium avalanche shovel?

I’ve owned a backcountry, collapsable shovel for a good while now, probably 4 years or so. It’s one of the plastic sorts, from Ortovox. When I bought it, the primary aim was to help with building the occasional kicker in some soft snow. Separating into two parts makes it easy to fit in your back pack, and it’s does just fine building the odd jump, off-piste; it’s not like I build huge booters! Here’s an example…

Now, I’ve heard the argument more than once that plastic shovels aren’t as good as their aluminium counterparts; a couple of seasons ago when I bought an avalanche beacon, I considered swapping the plastic for aluminium…

The way that I’ve heard the argument is this: plastic shovels are great for building jumps, but if you need to dig someone out of an avalanche debris pile, you’re going to struggle. When an avalanche comes to a stop, the snow is supposed to settle into a really tough mass – nothing like the fresh snow you scoop up when building a jump.

To me, this is all hearsay. It’s not that I doubt the hardness of the snow after an avalanche – I’ve just never witnessed it for myself. Taking a quick look at some available shovels, it seems that they’re almost all aluminium.

Well, there’s been a fair amount of snow in the North of England over the last couple of weeks. I decided to put the plastic shovel into practice, and used it to dig out my car and driveway. It was this experience that triggered this post: some of the snow was quite hard and it made me question the shovel. I had the feeling – not too sure I’d want to use this to dig a friend out of an avalanche…

OK, it’s not a direct comparison, far from it. But it did bring the issue back to my attention – are plastic shovels up to the job?

I want to hear what you have to say; have you got a view on plastic vs. aluminium? What do you own/use? Has anyone tried digging in an avalanche pile before? How tough is it? Do you take plastic?

avalanche shovels

5 Comments

  • Reply December 14, 2010

    citizensofshred

    im the same as ive never had to dig some one out of an avalanche so cant say from experience but dont you find that shovel very small and flimsy? my brother and buddy had those shovels and they didnt like them at all for building kickers cos there tiny. http://www.hot-zone.tv/en_GB/index.php?screen=dstore.shop.view&tnid=16296&pname=Hotzone_Alaska-Shovel-Hotzone-:-Black&cname=Lawinenausruestung&scname=- this is the one i got. once its set up it feels almost as sturdy as a garden shovel and is around the same size i love it.

  • Reply December 14, 2010

    Gavin

    Hey Zak,

    not sure about it being _very_ small, but it doesn’t look as big as some of the others… as for flimsy, it is a bit washy. I definitely noticed that recently. The thing is, I’ve not compared it was another shovel, and the handful of times we’ve built a kicker, there have been two of these being used – no one else had a different shovel to compare it against.

    That said, just by looking at the different shovels out there, and the one you linked to for example, it’s pretty plain that the plastic one I’ve got is less sturdy; it’s defo no where near a garden shovel!

  • Reply December 14, 2010

    Alf

    haven’t had to dig an avalanche, but have ridded over avi’ debris and its like riding over rocks

  • Reply December 14, 2010

    Adrian

    I spent 7 weeks last winter training to be a guide with Alaskaheliskiing.In a rescue situation plastic just won’t cut it……avalanche debris can set like concrete so give yourself the best chance.All the guides I worked with have aluminium shovels and they always keep them inside there backpacks so they don’t get ripped away and lost if caught in a slide themselves

  • Reply December 14, 2010

    Gavin

    @Alf, yeah that’s pretty much what I’ve heard, it settles tough, like concrete

    @Adrian, thanks for that – it’s interesting to know from someone with good experience that plastic doesn’t cut it. I had expected that guides would always opt for aluminium – apart from cost, there’s pretty much no reason to go for plastic, and like you said, when it comes to an avalanche, you want to give yourself the best possible chance.

    Cheers.

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