Shoveling an Avalanche

No matter how good you are at searching with a transceiver, if you don't have a probe and shovel the victim will probably die—the transceiver leads to the probe, the probe leads to the shovel, and the shovel leads to the victim.

During training, it is easy to get so focused on the time that it takes to locate the victim using your avalanche transceiver that you forget that excavating the victim is the most time-consuming portion of most avalanche rescues. Just as it is important to practice using your avalanche transceiver, it is important to practice shoveling.

The initial goal of shoveling is to expose the patient's airway and to remove snow from the patient's torso ("brow to belt") so they can breathe.

Practice

It is important that you practice shoveling—it's the most time-consuming part of a rescue! And at a minimum, you should practice rapidly deploying your shovel every time you practice using your transceiver.

Shoveling Strategies

There are two basic shoveling strategies. Which one you choose should be based on the number of rescuers available. These strategies are explained on the following pages.

Companion shoveling is appropriate when there are a limited number of rescuers—typically one to four. It moves the most snow with the minimum effort. When you have more resources (i.e., more rescuers, more muscle, and more calories to burn), conveyor belt shoveling will blast through a large amount of snow rapidly.

Shoveling Tips

Rescuers Extricating an Avalanche Victim
  • Leave your probe in the snow when it hits the victim. This will keep you on target and reduce the likelihood that you will be standing on the victim (who may be struggling to breathe).

  • Begin digging on the downhill side of the probe at a distance of approximately 1.5 the burial depth (i.e. probe depth). This makes it easier to remove the excavated snow (there is less snow downhill of the probe) and prevents the shovelers from struggling at the bottom of a cone-shaped hole.

  • Avoid injuring the victim with your shovel blade. Exercise more caution as you near the tip of the probe.

  • Depending on the density of the snow, it is usually faster to "chop and sweep" hard snow rather than to "scoop and throw" it. When the snow is softer, it is usually faster to sweep or hoe it downhill.

  • Rotate the lead shoveler every minute or two to reduce fatigue. The other shovelers should help by moving the discarded snow further downhill from the hole.

  • The final hole will need to be approximately one wing-span wide to extract the victim, but you'll need to first access the patient to determine his or her orientation.

  • Effective shoveling can also create a flat platform where you can provide medical care.

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