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Feb 16 2015

Alpenglow hosts “Can U Dig It?” Competition

Two of Team MSR dig furiously to rescue a dummy buried 0.8m deep.

Two of Team MSR dig furiously at the first “Can U Dig It?” shoveling competition.


The proverb, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is poignantly true in the case of avalanches. Better to avoid getting caught than to have to deal with a rescue. It is also better, just in case, to be prepared for the worst rather than not be. Since practice makes perfect, as part of their third annual Mountain Festival, Alpenglow Sports will be hosting a “Can U Dig It?” shoveling competition on February 27th, near Mt. Rose at Noon.

Death by avalanche is a fate to be feared, and though not unexpected, it is still sad that in spite of an increase in the number of skiers taking classes to learn how to recognize the conditions that cause them, and avoid them, the number of people killed in avalanches continues to grow. Not as fast as the number of new skiers heading into the backcountry, but still not zero.

Strategic Shoveling

Team Ortovox and Team BCA dig for bragging rights. BCA won. Ortovox had some carnage (broken shovel).

Team Ortovox and Team BCA dig for bragging rights. BCA won. Ortovox had some carnage (broken shovel).

Most backcountry skiers practice beacon searching to be able to know where to dig should disaster strike while hunting pow. Anyone who does this exercise knows, some days you’re hot, some days your not. Only by practising can you be confident you’ll be able to help if you ever need to. The same holds true for shoveling, only more so. Except even fewer people practice shoveling, even those who live where they have to regularly remove snow; digging into a pile of avalanche debris to extract a full sized human is a lot different than clearing a walkway. Not only are the consequences different, so is the strategy, and to be successful, you need more than one digger, so you need teamwork. Since the average burial depth is 1.5m, you’ll need strength and stamina too.

Which is why Alpenglow Sports is hosting a shoveling competition so Tahoe locals have an event that allows/forces them to practice this skill. When set in a competitive environment the urgency of a real rescue is mimicked. Anyone who wants to compete needs to assemble a team of three and register with Alpenglow Sports by calling and informing them. Let’s see how tough Tahoe’s backcountry community can be when it matters most.

Competition Results

As you might expect, as the results of the first two competitions I’ve hosted show; teamwork and strategy are the most important ingredients to short extraction times. In each case, the burial used what is best described as a one-legged, six-foot, Lincoln log style dummy. It consisted of a 3 foot torso weighing approximately 30 pounds, with a skinny 3-foot stick for a leg and a ski boot on the end attached to a ski. Simple but representing the size and potential complexity of a burial. Multiply the complexity if it were a snowboard.

Shiek Yerbouti helps set the course with a Lincoln-log dummy buried 0.8m deep in bermcrete.

Shiek Yerbouti helps set the course with a Lincoln-log dummy buried 0.8m deep in bermcrete.

To keep it simple, the first contest had the dummies buried fully extended, 80cm (30 in.) beneath the surface. The scene was set the day before, so the snow that covered the dummies was foot-stomped for consistency and allowed to freeze hard overnight. At the second competition, hosted again by Outdoor Retailer at their On-Snow Demo Day at Solitude resort, the depth was 1.5m (5 feet).

In January 2014, at the first competition, it was clear what teams had been thrown together at the last minute, and which had worked together, or had some semblance of digging strategy. The first and second place teams, BCA and Black Diamond respectively, used shovels with a hoe function, and the two slowest teams had shovels break. At first glance it appeared that maybe the hoe function made the difference, until I interviewed members from each team later on.

It turns out the third place team, from Mountain Safety Research, was only about a minute behind the winner, team BCA, and a mere 30 seconds behind Black Diamond’s crew. When I spoke with Chris Clark, one of the diggers on MSR’s team he mentioned that they accidentally removed the probe marking the dummy’s location, and dug past the dummy, costing precious seconds, perhaps a minute of time which was the difference between being third or second, who knows, maybe first place. In a real rescue that could mean the difference between life or death.

This underscored the importance of strategy, something I observed with a more critical eye in the second “Can U Dig It?” shoveling competion, held at Solitude Ski Resort at the On-Snow demo day for the annual Outdoor Retailers Winter Trade Show in Salt Lake City.

At the second event the burial was deeper, but the teams were more prepared mentally and all three adopted a pretty similar strategy, the same as the winning strategies in the first comp; two people chopping and tossing snow back for a third to move it further down hill from the burial location. Two things were more obvious in the second competition. First, since it was a deeper burial, after about five minutes everyone on every team began slowing down as they each reached their anaerobic limit and needed to shift to a pace they could maintain. Secondly, the man/woman in back spent half his/her time dodging snow instead of moving it, and the snow did pile up behind the front line, rather than get moved further downhill as Genswein’s report on shoveling strategies suggests.

In the scenario presented the Lincoln log dummy was actually pretty easy to extract and not having the snow removed behind the front line wasn’t critical. However, if a real person needed to be extracted, having a level platform to pull the body out on to to perform possible first aid would be important. Thus, while the extraction times were impressively fast, it is clear that to improve times to less than ten minutes, the strategy and teamwork need to be adjusted.

Here’s hoping a ton of Tahoe locals come out of the woodwork on this to see who’s the baddest blade wielder in the area. Even if you’re not there to prove anything, come on out and see if you and your friends are prepared to deal with a rescue if needed. It’ll be exhausting, but fun.

Register with Alpenglow Sports HERE.

Related Posts:
BCA Wins Can U Dig It shoveling competition, 2014
The Human Snow Conveyor, by Manuel Genswein

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