Gear Crush: My Shovel. My Dear, Sweet Shovel.
Backcountry skier Adam Morrey has always loved his Voile shovel. But after an avalanche buried his wife in Millcreek Canyon, Utah, he and his shovel are now inseparable. Read Adam’s story below.
In the years that I’ve been plodding out into the wintery world, I’ve cycled through many pieces of equipment: two beacons, three daypacks, five shell jackets (soiled and tattered beyond the standards held by transients), three pairs of pants (also excessively soiled), two probes, seven boots, countless gloves, goggles, and hats, five sets of climbing skins, and too many pairs of skis. Almost every item has been replaced or upgraded at least once. All except my Voilé shovel.
At the time I bought it, no other shovel approached its durability and function. Today there are several fine shovels that are lighter, more compact, and nearly as tough. That’s all fine and good, but I will never be persuaded to “upgrade.”
“Minutes were passing, and I was still unable to free myself, let alone rescue my wife.”
I have thoroughly used and abused this shovel, and it’s done all the things one would expect a backcountry shovel to do. It’s also chiseled ice from my front steps and functioned as my stove platform for multi-day winter excursions. It’s moved tons of snow, as well as a few scoops of mud and rocks. I’ve built many snowy shelters, dug out vehicles, opened beers, and scraped up frozen vomit after a night of over-indulging on a yurt trip. It had long exceeded my expectations by the time I found myself face down and pinned against a stand of small pine trees by an avalanche. Meanwhile, my then girlfriend (now wife) was fully buried further down the slope.
I’m not proud of how we ended up in that situation, but I’ll leave that story for another day. This is about my shovel. I was pinned, head downhill, with my left ski hung up on a small pine tree. My body was completely stretched, as if I were on a medieval torture rack. I squirmed and flailed to try to free myself, but my left ski would not budge. I called for my wife … there was no response. Still stuck, I unzipped my jacket, retrieved my beacon and switched to receive. Immediately, I picked up her signal. Panic was setting in, as I was unable to do anything to help her and I knew her situation was worse than mine.
I struggled and freed my right boot from my tele binding. I was then able to reposition my body, and I dug down to reach my left binding. There was so much force being applied to my binding and my body in such an awkward position that I was unable to release it by hand. I tried to yank my foot from my boot, but this was too painful and would have likely broken my ankle if I’d continued. I used my right ski to try to smash my heel lever. No luck. I tried my ski pole. No luck. Minutes were passing, and I was still unable to free myself, let alone rescue my wife. I yelled, moaned, and grunted, wishing we were not in this situation. I wanted to cry, but urgency prevented me from doing so. I took my pack off and removed my shovel blade. This was my last chance. I forced the blade between my boot and the heel lever of my binding. Instantly, I felt that this could work. At first, I failed. Then I took a few big breaths, pushed down on the top of the blade with my left hand to keep it wedged, and applied leverage with my ass. It felt positive, and with a few grunts I was able to pop the lever free. I was once again mobile and charged with a deep sense of determination. I assembled my shovel and gathered my probe. I set off down the slope, watching and listening to my beacon. In another couple of minutes I was able to locate my wife, and I began to dig her out. When I uncovered her face, she was barely breathing. She stopped breathing as I excavated her, and I had to resuscitate her. I’d gotten to her with, literally, no time to spare.
Without that shovel, things could have ended much differently, and I will forever be grateful to have such a bomber piece of gear.
Barring loss or theft, I will carry this shovel on every winter adventure, and no amount of bells and whistles will convince me otherwise.
Visit avalanche.org for nationwide avalanche information.