By Andy Wenberg, Backcountry Access
The cold, snowy, mountainous terrain in which we work and recreate is continually evolving. Avalanche rescue is no different, including how we shovel and what kinds of avalanche shovels are available. BCA videos provide solid education about strategic shoveling. But when and how should you use traditional vs. hoe shovel mode for avalanche rescues?
Over time, avalanche rescue has transitioned from very reactive, relying heavily on organized third-party rescue to more proactive — communication, prevention, and education aimed at avoiding getting caught in an avalanche. Groups now are more likely to travel one at a time through avalanche terrain, to observe snowpack conditions regularly, and to know how to recognize red flags and high hazard days.
Transceiver search times in real-life rescue scenarios have improved dramatically since the inception of digital avalanche transceivers, becoming the quickest and easiest phase to conduct. Excavation with avalanche shovels remains the most time-consuming effort in almost any rescue.
With a burial depth of 1.2 meter deep, a shoveler(s) can plan on moving 1 to 1.5 tons of snow. That’s a lot of work and is physically demanding. It’s essential to allocate manpower appropriately and bring the right tool for the job. Metal shovels with the ability to assemble quickly and stow well in your bag have always been the standard criteria for shovels–and functionality was straight forward. A few years ago that changed, when manufacturers began introducing shovels that transformed to function as a hoe. Hoe mode shovels added a new functional element to consider.
Traditional vs. hoe mode shoveling best practices
While I was attending the Avalanche Science program at Colorado Mountain College-Leadville (CMC) last year, we did some extensive shoveling tests and on-snow drills. The results provided best practices for when and how to use traditional shovel mode vs. hoe mode for avalanche rescues.
Traditional shovel mode scenarios and applications
Traditional shovel mode excels in any scenario where excavation takes place deeper than 0.5 meters. Traditional shovel mode should be used when digging deep, in hard avalanche debris, and when there is a need for accuracy and craftsmanship. Hoe mode was more effective for shallow excavation scenarios (a stuck snowmobile), for softer snow, and for secondary rescue shovelers moving snow downhill.
1. One rescuer is available. In an avalanche rescue situation where there is only one rescuer available for excavation, leave your avalanche shovel in traditional shovel mode. Seeing as the average burial depth in North America is 1.1. meters, the chances are high that you will need to dig around a meter deep. A traditional shovel excels at digging deeper compared to when used in hoe mode.
2. Primary shoveler in group excavation. The primary shoveler, closest to the probe strike, in an avalanche rescue should always be using traditional shovel mode. The primary shoveler(s) dig deepest and are often working close to another shoveler. Traditional shovel mode techniques take up less space, making it more efficient for working in tight areas and when digging greater than 0.5 meters deep. Also, the primary shoveler is often responsible for chopping the debris into chunks, then starting the process of moving it downhill. Traditional mode is superior to hoe mode for chopping, especially if you stomp on the top of the shovel blade with your feet.
3. Excavating in large avalanche debris with a hardness of P or K. Avalanche debris that is pencil (P) to knife (K) hard is best excavated using traditional shovel mode. Traditional mode allows for easier chopping, stomping, and paddling through additional leverage, reach, and mobility. To get through hard debris like this in hoe mode, the user has to swing the shovel, which requires lots of energy and is dangerous in close quarters.
4. Snow profiles and stability tests. A shovel in hoe mode is handy for initially starting to dig a hole for conducting snow profile and stability tests. As you dig deeper, begin to sculpt your pit walls, and isolate columns, you will want to use the shovel in traditional mode. This method will ensure clean, vertical walls and increased accuracy in test results. In a snowpit, time isn’t as crucial as in an actual rescue, so it’s worth taking the time to switch modes.
5. Cornice mitigation. A shovel in traditional mode has a more extended reach than when in hoe mode. When doing cornice mitigation, it is also important to be able to use the prying motion that can be delivered by a traditional shovel.
6. Clearing landing zones and operational use. Traditional mode is usually more efficient for on-snow workers when digging out snow fencing, lifting tower pads, and building landing zones for mechanized guiding.
Hoe shovel mode scenarios and applications
Hoe shovel mode excels in shallow excavation scenarios and may also be the choice when shoveling for very long periods. A shoveler using hoe mode appears to fatigue less than a shoveler using the traditional mode, at least when used appropriately. This fatigue may be attributed to hoe mode using larger muscles in the shoveler’s body as well as a more efficient shoveling motion. Generally, “hoeing” takes one motion — pulling, while “traditional shoveling” requires three motions — chopping, scooping, and throwing. An avalanche shovel in hoe mode is very effective for moving the upper 0.5 meters of the snowpack and is not optimal for shoveling at depths greater than 0.5 meters.
1. Secondary shoveler in avalanche rescue. rescue scenarios are unique. If you have the manpower available for using multiple shovelers in an avalanche rescue, the team of secondary shovelers should begin the excavation process in hoe mode. As secondary shovelers, they are working more in the upper portion of the debris, creating a ramp down to the probe strike and moving snow passed down from primary shovelers. Hoe mode also allows the secondary shovelers to conserve their energy. However, as secondary shovelers rotate through and take turns as the primary shoveler, they will use traditional mode as they excavate deeper just downhill of the probe strike. When rotating like this, it’s advisable to leave your shovels in place rather than bringing them with you and spending valuable time changing modes.
2. Initial excavating for snow pit observations. Hoe mode efficiently removes the top layer of snow when initiating excavation in a snowpit. As the snowpit gets deeper than 0.5 meters, switch back to traditional shovel mode.
3. Snowmobile excavation. BCA advises that snowmobilers carry your probe and shovel in your backpack or airbag, not the sled, so you never get separated from them in an avalanche. We also recommend bringing a secondary (hoe) shovel on the snowmobile for sled extrication, along with the rest of your less-urgent rescue equipment (such as overnight gear). If your sled is stuck when exposed to avalanche terrain, snowmobilers can leave their pack on—especially important when wearing an airbag–and use the shovel in their tunnel bag for digging out the sled. Since snowmobiles usually only get stuck in soft snow, then a shovel in hoe mode is the best tool for the job.
4. Backcountry snow camping. Hoe mode is especially effective for leveling and packing down the snowpack for tent and camp assembly when winter camping.
In our research, we found that having some type of horn where the blade and shaft make a 90-degree connection is critical for hoe mode to be useful. A horn provides a positive grip for the hand closest to the blade, giving the shoveler maximum power and control.
Excavation will continue to be the most time-consuming phase in avalanche rescue. With the introduction of the hoe feature, it’s essential to know when to use it and in what situations it can be beneficial. The bottom line is that traditional shovel mode should be used when excavating to depths greater than 0.5 meters and when working in close proximity to additional shovelers.
In the context of avalanche education and rescue, winter backcountry travelers should continue to focus on avalanche avoidance, practicing avalanche rescue techniques, and knowing when to visit terrain based on the avalanche hazard and problem of the day. Many critical factors lead to a successful recovery, especially proper shoveling. But many times, once an avalanche catches a victim, it may already too late.