Avalanche Burial: Strike Team Shovel Method – Part 1: Positioning And Rotations

April 2019 Feature Jordy Shepherd, Backcountry Access Ambassador

Best practices in shovelling techniques, equipment and strategies continue to evolve in Avalanche Search and Rescue (AvSAR). Smart shovelling methods are critical, as shovelling consumes most of the time during an avalanche rescue.

The Strike Team Shovelling method is a new angle that takes the best of the “strategic shovelling” and “V-shaped conveyor” methods commonly taught in avalanche rescue courses. This three-part series provides a detailed overview of the strike team shovelling, which the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) started teaching in the past couple of years in all CAA AvSAR courses.

Shovelling practices have improved dramatically over the past 10 years. Edgerly and Atkins’s “Strategic Shovelling: The Next Frontier in Companion Rescue” and Manuel Genswein’s “V-Shaped Conveyor Shovelling Method” have introduced new ideas to improve shovelling efficiency and effectiveness.

The new Strike Team Shovelling Method incorporates many techniques from these other methods. Strike Team Shovelling seeks to simplify the spacing, communication, and rotation of shovellers with a focus on teamwork and clear leadership during the shovelling phase of an avalanche rescue.

This method fits nicely into the Incident Command System (ICS), a function-based emergency management system often used by search-and-rescue organizations. One level of the ICS structure is the strike team. Strike teams are made up of groups of similar resources (such as shovellers). Of course, the Strike Team Shovelling Method can be used by both recreational parties and AvSAR teams during both companion and organized rescues.

To determine where to start and how long you will need the excavation corridor to be, first assess the angle of the slope you are on. It’s easier to shovel on a steeper slope, since there is a slope to throw the snow down. If you are on a > 25-degree slope angle (steep debris pile), the length of the excavation corridor should be equal to the burial depth.

It’s much harder to shovel in flatter debris because there is no slope to throw the snow down. The excavation corridor needs to be longer if you are on a <25-degree slope angle (low angle debris pile), and the length of the excavation corridor should be about two times the burial depth. This will also create a lower angle ramp for extricating and packaging the subject for transport.

Next, determine how many strike team shovellers will be necessary. Divide the required corridor length by about 80cm of space needed for each shoveller.

Examples:

  • For a 2m deep burial on steeper debris, the excavation should be about 2m long, and about three Strike Team shovellers are optimal. (200cm / 80cm = 2.5 shovellers > round up to 3 shovellers).
  • For a 2m deep burial on flatter debris, the excavation corridor should be about 4m long, and about five Strike Team shovellers are optimal (400cm/80cm = 5 shovellers).

Strike Team Shovelling – Positioning

Line up the strike team to the downslope side of the probe (or in any direction from the probe if the debris is flat). Line up in a straight line. Position 1 (the lead shoveller) should have one shoulder touching the probe.

With shovel shafts fully extended, measure with a fully extended shovel from the hip of the forward shoveller to the elbow of the next shoveller (about 80cm) as the space between each shoveller. Each shoveller is responsible for 80cm of the excavation corridor. Shovel right down the probe if you get a probe strike.

The excavation corridor should be about three shovel blades wide at the probe and should widen to a maximum of 2m, at which point the corridor walls stay parallel. The side walls should be kept vertical.

Initially, throw snow to the sides, but as soon as you have shoveled 20-30cm down, all snow then gets conveyed to the person behind you. Chop and dig down, and then sweep the snow back that is conveyed from the person in front of you. Only move snow to the person behind you; do not waste energy by moving snow too far back in the conveyor.

Consider doing “positional probing” if the avalanche burial depth is greater than about 2m and you have extra resources (probes and probers) available. You might be able to determine how the victim is positioned so you can center the excavation more precisely. Shovelers start digging down the original probe strike, then use another probe or several probes to determine the boundaries of the buried subject. Position a probe in the center of the buried avalanche victim and reposition your shovelers to dig down that probe. When positional probing, make sure you don’t trample the area around the original probe strike; this could impact the victim’s air pocket.

Avalanche debris is often firm, so chop the snow into blocks, then scoop the blocks back toward the shoveller behind you, while lifting it as little as possible. Do not lever your shovel like a garden spade; you risk breaking your shovel. Try “paddling” or “sweeping” rather than lifting each shovel full of snow. Avalanche professionals recommend sturdy, aluminum shovels for strike team shovelling over plastic in real avalanche debris. If steel rescue shovels area available, request they be brought to the avalanche site as soon as possible.

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