Gear Review- Avalanche Safety Gear Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

For the third installment of this multi-post series on avalanche safety gear we take a look at the Ortovox line of avalanche shovels.

Ortovox Avalanche Shovel Comparison
Ortovox Avalanche Shovel Comparison- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Part 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Like your beacon and probe you should put some thought into what you want out of your avalanche shovel and Ortovox has models that cover the full range of desires! In order to determine which model is right for you I will point out the key differences between models within the Ortovox line and highlight my favorites!


Ortovox Badger Shovel $49.95

Ortovox Badger Avalanche Shovel
Ortovox Badger Avalanche Shovel (1 lb 6 oz)

The lightest and most affordable option in the Ortovox line this shovel performs well but lacks some of the things I really like in avalanche shovels, i.e. telescoping shaft and optional “trench” mode. None-the-less for the price point this model features high end materials and efficient design and is an excellent choice for those who spend limited time in avalanche terrain or digging snow-shelters, pits, tent platforms, etc.


Ortovox Beast Avalanche Shovel $59.95

Ortovox Beast Avalanche Shovel
Ortovox Beast Avalanche Shovel (1 lb 9 oz)

For $10 more and 3 ounces more weight the Ortovox Beast adds both a telescoping shaft and a rubber coated glove friendly grip that allows better power transfer and control when digging furiously for your partner. A solid mid-range choice but for $10 more the feature list grows considerably!


Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel $69.95

Ortovox Pru Alu III Avalanche Shovel
Ortovox Pru Alu III Avalanche Shovel (1 lb 12 oz)

The added flexibility of this lightweight and pack-able shovel has won me over as to this being my favorite shovel on the market, which led to a long form review here. The telescoping handle and rubberized “power grip” is nice but where this shovel shines is how it has an intuitive and quick to use “trenching mode” as well as pairing with the incredibly innovative Pocket Spike to provide an extra layer of “fall protection” on those ski tours where you didn’t think carrying an ice axe would be needed. I demonstrate this awesome feature in a short YouTube clip I did last year:


Ortovox Kodiak Avalanche Shovel $89.95

Ortovox Kodiak Avalanche Shovel
Ortovox Kodiak Avalanche Shovel (1 lb 12 oz)

A behemoth in the category of avalanche shovels this model boasts a 3.1 liter blade with telescoping capability and a mitten friendly D-shaped handles. If you suffer from cold hands and ski or ride with mittens, or are a member of professional search and rescue, this is the model for you! It’s still my go-to when I am winter camping or doing heavy snow-pack analysis and less focused on counting the ounces in my pack. I posted a long form review of this 4 years ago and still love this model! I highlighted this model quite a few years ago in this YouTube clip:

 


Protip

Like avalanche transceivers (beacons, and probes, avalanche shovels require practice to become proficient with. Store your shovel in a dedicated avalanche tool pocket in a quality avalanche backpack and practice deploying it on a regular basis. Do not take for granted the seconds that can be lost when you are unfamiliar with your equipment!


Training

Consider upgrading your rescue skills with the all new 8 hour AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course! This is a fantastic addition in the field of avalanche education and something you should consider if you’ll be spending time in avalanche terrain in the future! If you haven’t taken an AIARE 1 course yet, or maybe it’s been awhile, it’s not to late to get in on a course this season! See what dates we have left here! (Use promo code “DavidNEM” when booking)!


Purchase

All of these models can be purchased directly from Backcountry.com here. A small percentage of your purchase will go to Northeast Alpine Start to support creating content like this. Thank you for your support!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Part 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Affiliate links above support this blog. Author is an Ortovox Team Athlete and so received any product mentioned at no cost.

Gear Review- Avalanche Safety Gear Part 2: Avalanche Probes

For the second part of a multi-post series on avalanche safety gear we will take a look at avalanche probes and answer some questions to help you pick the right model.

Part 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Ortovox Avalanche Probes Review
Avalanche Probe Reviews- photo by Cait Bourgault

An avalanche probe is so much more than just a rescue resource! In fact it is one of my most used tools to make snow-pack observations, both formal and informal.

For example, tracking average snow depth over the terrain helps me better understand the high degree of variability in our terrain. By “gently” probing I can feel for denser layers over weaker layers (possible slabs) and get a sense of how complex the snow-pack I am traveling over is, including the number and prevalence of melt-freeze crusts in our snow-pack, which often are quite relevant to assessing snow stability.

When taking the time to look more closely at the snow-pack via digging a snow-pit the probe helps me identify the depth of any questionable layers. Finally the probe must deploy quickly and reliably in the event of an avalanche accident and provide that critical piece of info, burial depth, once you get a “probe strike”. For all these reasons I would suggest you think critically about what probe you should carry, and below I will help you narrow the field to the model that is right for you.

Aluminum vs Carbon vs Steel

Aluminum probes are likely the most common out there. A solid balance between weight, durability, and affordability. Carbon probes are gaining popularity. Ounce counters will justify the higher cost to save a couple ounces. Steel probes are the choice of organized rescue teams around the world, trading extra weight for long-term durability.

*One experienced reader (@whats_thematterhorn) has pointed out that those who spend a lot of time in glaciated terrain might avoid carbon poles… frequent probing through glacier hard snow/ice to designate “safe areas” and assess snow bridges can lead to pre-mature wear or failure of a carbon probe. In addition a longer probe might be more beneficial in big mountain terrain (Alaska) than in our lower 48 BC terrain.

Length- 240 cm, 280 cm, 320 cm?

Avalanche probe length can vary, with the most common length for recreational users being 240 cm. Considering the average burial depth is 1.4 meters this gives us an extra meter in length over “average” to account for deeper burials. Longer probes do allow one to probe deeper without having to bend over but are best suited for professional rescue where weight/pack-ability isn’t at a premium. The extra length, unfortunately, is more for “recovery” rather than rescue as someone buried over 2 meters deep has a very low chance of survival.

Let’s look at some of the Ortovox models and who they would be best suited for…

Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe $39.95

Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe- 200 grams (7 ounces)

A “budget” choice but one that really beats any other model at this price on the market. 5 cm depth markers, a high visibility first section combined with a visible 1 meter mark and quick lock system all make this a very fine option at a bargain price point.

Ortovox Alu 240 PFA Avalanche Probe $59.95

Ortovox Alu 240 PFA Avalanche Probe

A significant upgrade in the Ortovox Aluminum line the 240 PFA model adds a faster assembly system, a strong and light steel tensioning system (instead of the thin rope used in the Alu 240), and a better top hand grip for precise control during a systematic probe search. This would be my best recommendation for the majority of recreationalists!

Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Avalanche Probe $89.95

Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Probe
Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Avalanche Probe- 185 grams (6.5 ounces)

The lightest probe in the Ortovox line this is the model of choice for those who like to shave ounces from their kit, yet it still has great durability and the quick lock assembly system as well as the “visual guide system” that is a feature of all Ortovox probes. If you like to streamline your kit this is the one to look at!

Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe $99.95

Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe 355 grams / 12.5 oz

Longer than the 240 cm models and extendable (can be extended with another probe) this model is the choice of mountain guides and rescue groups around the world. Light weight carbon with a high strength steel tension system and the rubberized top grip make this a solid choice for, ski patrol, rescue, and mountain professionals everywhere.

Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Probe $109.95

Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Avalanche Probe- 670 grams (1 lb 7.6 oz)

The biggest and most robust of the line-up, the high weight of this work-horse really lends itself to professional rescue and the back-country snowmobile crowd where an extra pound of weight will not be noticed.

Practice

No matter what probe you have it is imperative that you practice with it regularly. From my experience of teaching avalanche courses for over 10 years I can say that most people, even those who have owned a probe for a few seasons, have not practiced with them enough. How should you practice? Consider running “deployment” drills where you must remove your backpack, access your pack, and deploy your probe correctly, all under a stopwatch. Race your friends and touring partners. Make it a game. You will be surprised how much people can fumble and struggle with the locking mechanism on their probe. The bottom line is in an avalanche rescue every second counts and a lot of time can be lost if you are not efficient at deploying your probe. Take the time to get proficient!

Pro-tip

Don’t take your avalanche probe storage sack into the back-county. Leave it at home and use it for home-storage and travel. Taking it into the field slows your ability to deploy your probe quickly and they often get blown away and lost in the lightest of winds.

Summary

I hope you’ve found this post informative and educational. At the end of the day there are a ton of great probes on the market these days from quite a few different companies. I obviously love the Ortovox line and I think when you objectively compare features and get some hands-on time with any of these models you’ll feel the same way.

Training

Consider upgrading your rescue skills with the all new 8 hour AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course! This is a fantastic addition in the field of avalanche education and something you should consider if you’ll be spending time in avalanche terrain in the future! If you haven’t taken an AIARE 1 course yet, or maybe it’s been awhile, it’s not to late to get in on a course this season! See what dates we have left here! (Use promo code “DavidNEM” when booking)!

Purchase

All of these models can be purchased directly from Backcountry.com here. A small percentage of your purchase will go to Northeast Alpine Start to support creating content like this. Thank you for your support!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Part 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Affiliate links above support this blog. Author is an Ortovox Team Athlete and so received any product mentioned at no cost.

Gear Review- Ortovox Tour Rider 30 Backpack

For the majority of the winter I have been touring in the Ortovox Tour Rider 30. Ultimately it’s a well thought out design that rides well but it did have a couple small quirks I’ll share in my review.

Ortovox Tour Rider 30 Backpack Review
Ortovox Tour Rider 30 Backpack Review, photo from http://www.ortovox.com

As always let’s start with the manufacture description and specs before digging into the details.


Description

The Tour Rider 30 is the ideal backpack for long day tours. In addition to a separate safety compartment, the backpack is also equipped with ski and snowboard fastenings, front and rear access to the main compartment and an ice axe and hiking pole fastening. As with all ORTOVOX backpacks, the Tour Rider 30 has an integrated signal whistle and chest strap. The body-hugging cut, the load control cords in combination with the foam back and ergonomic straps make this the perfect backpack.

Features

  • Chest strap with signal whistle
  • Ice axe and hiking pole loops
  • Bright Inside
  • Water-resistant zipper
  • Separate safety compartment
  • Helmet net
  • Access to main compartment: front
  • Hip pocket
  • A-Skifix
  • D-Skifix
  • Compression strap
  • Hydration system compatible
  • Access to main compartment: back

Specs

WEIGHT 2 lb.

MATERIAL 450D Polyester + 600D Polyester


Ortovox Tour Rider 30 Backpack Review
Touring up the west side of Mount Washington on an epic east coast powder day, photo by @cfphotography
Now let’s look at some opinions on this model!

What I love

Access

This pack has a front panel that allows almost complete access to every nook and cranny in the main compartment but if what you are looking for is tucked away at the very bottom the whole back panel zips open for total access.

Comfort

The foam panels in the back panel and the gel-like closed cell foam used in both the shoulder straps and waist belt is the perfect material for helping this pack carry well on long up tracks. The pack rides a little high on me which worked well when I was using it with a ski mountaineering harness.

Lightweight and Streamlined

Weighing only 2 pounds and having tapered sides and bottom this pack has that “bullet” feel to it and is unlikely to get caught while bushwhacking your way into the next drainage in search of fresh lines.

Ortovox Tour Rider 30 Backpack Review
The author chases powder while testing the Ortovox Tour Rider 30 Backpack

What I would change

There is a small zippered pocket on the top that at first appears to be a goggle pocket but isn’t fleece lined or quite big enough for a pair of goggles. I used it to keep my headlamp, knife, and a few snacks handy but I’d like the option to stow my goggles in that area. The avalanche gear storage is a bit interesting on this pack. The probe and shovel handle have dedicated slots inside on the back panel while the shovel blade fits best in a zippered pocket on the outside of the pack. I prefer to keep my tools all in one spot and generally lean towards external avalanche safety gear pockets (like on the Ortovox Haute Route that I am also reviewing) that do not require accessing the main compartment to remove or stow.

Summary

For short to medium length back-country ski tours this is a really nice option. Small enough to be useful for side-country touring and big enough to stretch into a full day tour this is a solid choice in a line up of well designed Ortovox packs and one you should consider taking a look at!

Disclaimer: Affiliate links help support this blog. Author is a DPS and Revo ambassador and Ortovox Athlete and has received product support from these companies. 

Gear Review- Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel + Pocket Spike

I carry an avalanche shovel about 3-4 days a week all winter long. For a piece of gear I rely on almost daily throughout the winter I am a bit picky when it comes to what model shovel I will carry. This winter I have been thoroughly testing the latest version of an Ortovox classic, the “Pro Alu III“, and I’ve been quite happy with its performance. Here’s a quick 60 second video review followed by a long detailed review below!

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel- photo from Ortovox.com

Let’s start with a quick look at the manufacturer’s description and specifications then I will get into my personal review of the product.


The best PRO ALU of all time. In this latest iteration of an ORTOVOX classic we’ve used the most innovative materials available and cutting edge production methods to achieve the best weight-to-rigidity ratio possible. Stabilization ribs and high sidewalls give the anodized blade rigidity, while the integrated shaft socket makes it easy to pack. With the new quick-lock, the blade and the fluted telescoping shaft can be put together in one motion. The new T-Grip Pro is revolutionary. It can be inserted for both right and left-handers – and also facilitates economical clearing. One hand grasps the long grip side, which serves as an ergonomic lever, while the other hand has maximum hold on the shaft’s rubber-coated grip zone.

  • Rubberized grip zone

  • T-grip pro with flexible left and right-handed function

  • Rapid locking without pressing a button

  • Oval handle cross section

  • Telescoping handle

  • Non-slip step grooves

  • Sharp, protected edge

  • Pack-friendly

  • 90° clearing function PRO ALU III

  • Rescue sled function

  • Compatible with Pocket Spike

  • Groove-shaped handle cross section


After extensive testing while instructing avalanche safety courses almost every weekend of the winter I’ve formed some opinions on the design of this tool. Here’s my $.02.

Weight

An important consideration of everything I take into the back-country, let’s start by comparing the weights within my current fleet.

Black Diamond Deploy 3 Shovel: 565 grams (1 lb 4 oz)

Ortovox Beast 3.1: 782 grams (1 lb 12 oz)

Ortovox Pro Alu III: 806 grams (1 lb 12.5 oz)

So the Pro Alu is the heaviest shovel in my assortment.While it might weigh 8 ounces more than the Black Diamond Deploy 3 it gains a ton of functionality that I will go into greater detail but for now basically: much better handle, almost a foot in telescoping shaft length, slightly larger and more technical blade, ice axe compatibility.

Pack-ability

Another concern when touring with only a 30 liter pack is how well your avalanche shovel will pack. I’ve been testing the Ortovox Tour Rider 30 (review coming) for most of my day tours this season and the slim design leaves little imagination for where you store your avalanche tools. The blade of the Ortovox Pro Alu III fits snugly in the outer pocket as if they designed the pocket for the exact dimensions of the blade.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Perfect fit for the shovel blade

The shaft and handle fit easily enough in the dedicated shaft slot on the inside of the pack and the handle is less obtrusive than the larger D shaped handle on my Ortovox Beast making it easier to fishing around for my water bottle or some grub.

Durability

The blade is made of a very rugged feeling anodized aluminum. Ribs and raised side walls add overall strength to the material. I’ve probably moved close to 50,000 pounds of plowed up refrozen snow while demonstrating shoveling and rescue techniques during this winter’s avalanche courses and the blade is still looking great.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Just a few small scrapes. Considering the amount of crud I dig through on a regular basis this blade and anodized coating is holding up very well!

Comfort and Convenience

Like most Ortovox shovels a rubberized grip low down on the shaft improves grip as well as provide a little bit of insulation.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Good grip and warmer during extended digging in cold weather!

This second opinion isn’t mentioned anywhere from Ortovox but having dug about a dozen snow-pit demonstrations this season, often in arctic temperatures, I do think that little bit of rubber there feels warmer than grasping straight metal.

The “T-Grip Pro” handle is reinforced with metal for durability but encased in a dense plastic. Having been use to a D-shaped handle for so long I was hesitant to how this style would perform. During my first couple test runs something felt off. I then discovered that the handle could be set for either left hander’s or right hander’s! Once I reset it to the right dominant hand the grip felt much more natural in my hand.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Remove the inner shaft and reinsert based on hand dominance

Quickly assembling an avalanche shovel in an emergency is a skill we encourage students to practice. Ortovox makes it a little bit easier by using “self-feeding” slots that depress and guide the locking button into place. No need to try to push a small button while assembling the shovel. Just line up the grooves and firmly push the shaft into the blade and you are ready to start digging. A tapered and plugged shaft end aid quick assembly and prevent snow from getting jammed up into the shaft.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Avalanche Shovel Review
Well crafted thoughtful design

Bonus Versatility!

Ok so let’s get to the coolest thing about this shovel! Like a Transformer there is more than meets the eye here! With the addition of the Ortovox Pocket Spike you can convert this shovel into a substantial mountaineering axe!

Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Ortovox Pocket Spike

Let’s take a quick look at the manufacturer description:


Our new POCKET SPIKE is simply ingenious! Although usually tucked away in your backpack or pants pocket (hence the name), the POCKET SPIKE can quickly be retrieved in tense situations, for instance, when you’ve only got a few feet to the summit or if you have to cross a steep slope. In two steps, you can mount it on to the PRO ALU III shovel handle for added protection. The POCKET SPIKE has two parts: the tough axe blade made from AL 7075 T6 and the spike, which is attached in place of the shovel blade. The two parts snap together to form a single piece with no sharp edges and weighing just 95 grams. This tool is perfect for tours where you are happy about some additional support when you’ve only got a few feet left to the summit.


Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Carrying case included

THIS is what I’m talking about! I can think of far to many times I’ve been kicking steps up steep terrain in Tuckerman Ravine wondering why I didn’t bring an ice axe that day.

“Conditions will soften up early”

“There will probably be a well established boot ladder”

You’ve been there too perhaps and justified leaving the mountaineering axe at home to save a pound or two. Well this thing only weighs 95 grams (or 4 ounces with the included carrying case). Combined with this shovel it feels like a super solid self arrest tool. The T-shaped handle makes it feel like you could easily bear down and slow or halt a slide before things got ugly. The over all ruggedness of the whole design inspires more confidence to me then a Black Diamond Whippet. I still think the Whippet is a great”better than nothing” option but this Pocket Spike option is as solid feeling as a real mountaineering axe.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Solid protection in steep terrain!

This can be used as a short axe at about 48 cms or fully extended to 68 cms! Here it is next to my 70 cm Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe at both lengths for comparison.

Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Crushing Mode
Ortovox Pro Alu III Shovel Review
Cruising Mode

Summary

Ortovox is an industry leader when it comes to innovative snow safety products. This fully functional avalanche shovel that transforms into a solid alpine axe is a great example of careful design and thought. Taken on its own the Ortovox Pro Alu III is an excellent if somewhat heavier avalanche shovel choice. When you consider the increased efficiency and functionality from a telescoping shaft, trenching mode, and the ability to quickly convert it to an effective self arrest tool it is a phenomenal choice for those who spend a lot of time in steep snowy places.

Like the review? Have a favorite avy shovel? Please leave a comment below!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimers: Climbing and skiing in the back-country is inherently dangerous. Seek qualified instruction from certified guides and instructors in the use of the above tools. Attempting to use anything described in this review in any situation could result in injury or death. Recreate in the mountains at your own risk. I received this product from Ortovox as part of their Ambassador program but the opinions I’ve stated here were not influenced in any way. Affiliate links help support this blog.