Weekend Report- AIARE 1 Avalanche Course, Bates Outing Club, Backcountry Ski Festival, 2 Avalanche Accidents

Holy smokes what an amazing last four days and another Nor’Easter, the third one in 10 days, hits tomorrow!


Thursday

I spent Thursday at Wildcat wrapping up a Northeast Mountaineering Guides AIARE 1 Avalanche Course. It was a true powder day and we got in 3 solid laps including Thompson Brook while making snow-pack and weather observations and getting in some Companion Rescue practice.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Checking layers in a wind loaded aspect near the summit of Wildcat
AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Making some turns in Thompson Brook- photo by @cfphotography

Friday

On Friday I met 7 students from the Bates College Outing Club at our classroom space at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center. Due to epic field conditions we focused on covering the majority of classroom on our first day so we could get two full field days in over the weekend.


Saturday

Saturday morning we met at the Northeast Mountaineering Bunkhouse to learn a little about Companion Rescue before working up a trip plan to Hermit Lake and potentially into Hillman’s Highway. The mountain was quite busy with traffic as this weekend was also the 2nd Annual Mt. Washington Backcountry Ski Festival, a killer event hosted by Synnott Mountain Guides and Ragged Mountain Equipment.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Busy day at Pinkham Notch!

As our class arrived at Hermit Lake a member of Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol informed us of two avalanche incidents that had just occurred. A skier in Gulf of Slides had triggered a slab avalanche and been carried in the “middle finger”. No injuries reported but he lost a ski and had a long trip back to Pinkham Notch. The 2nd incident was two skiers getting hit by a natural avalanche in Hillman’s Highway while they were ascending. They reported being carried about a 100 or so feet but were also not injured.

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Chatting with Mt. Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and Andrew Drummond of Ski The Whites

We decided to head up that way and see if we could spot the avalanche debris. Just past the dogleg near the bottom of Hillman’s we could see a small debris pile about 100 feet above the dogleg. We climbed up a bit further before transitioning to our descent. We enjoyed some pretty epic powder on the Sherburne Ski Trail, especially when we ducked into the woods on the right side at a few spots!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Hillman’s Highway Tour

After we debriefed our tour at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center I headed to the vendor gathering at Ragged Mountain Equipment and enjoyed a cold one courtesy of event sponsor Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery. I bumped into a few former avalanche course students who were attending the festival and it was great to catch up and see them out there getting after it!

I then made my way over to the Apres party at Beak Peak Base Lodge where Tyler Ray of Granite Backcountry Alliance kicked off the evening where keynote inspirational speaker, The North Face athlete, and professional ski mountaineer Kit DesLauriers, would be presenting. I saw a lot of former students in the crowd here as well! Speaking of GBA I’m excited to announce I’ve joined their “Granbassadors” team! Such an awesome organization to be a part of. If you are reading this you likely ski in the back-country so you should check the mission out and subscribe here!


Sunday

Sunday morning had us planning a Gulf of Slides tour in the pack room at Pinkham Notch (along with quite a few other avalanche courses!). We skinned up into the Gulf by 11 AM and made our way over to the yet-to-be-filled-in South Snowfields. I then navigated us up to a bit of a bench and traversed us back over to the main gully stopping at about 4620 feet. Here we had a great small test slope that allowed us to see some really reactive new wind slab. After practicing some stability tests we used travel techniques to cross the main gully and then descend a smaller finger of amazing powder down to the lower half of the gully. It was by far the best run of my season so far!

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course
Gulf of Slides GPS Track

Fun turns all the way down the Gulf of Slides ski trail saw us back to Pinkham by 2 PM where we squeezed in a little more Companion Rescue practice before reviewing our tour and debriefing the course.


Relive ‘Gulf of Slides’

 

A huge thank you to the Bates Outing Club students who were super motivated to learn through-out the course and brought some endurance and solid skill that allowed us to access quite a bit of terrain over the course of the weekend! And to my former students that came up to me at both Ragged, Bear Peak, and on the mountain thank you for saying hi! So rewarding to see people out there applying skills they acquired in one of my courses years ago! You all rock!


Video Highlights From the Weekend

 

Ok… I’m still feeling the high from the last few days and can not believe we have another foot of snow coming tomorrow!!!


Useful Info

If you are heading up there don’t for get to check both the Avalanche Advisory and the Higher Summits Forecast!

Still need to take your level 1 avalanche class?

We have seats available for this upcoming weekend and the conditions on PRIME!


See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

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!


If you plan to carry a shovel and an ice axe consider the ingenuity of the Pro Alu III Shovel + Pocket Spike! Currently you can use “Take20November” at checkout to get 20% off!


I demonstrate this awesome feature in a short YouTube clip I did last year:

 


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.

First Avalanche Course of the Season!

This weekend we conducted our first AIARE Avalanche Course of the season and it was so lit! Seriously we couldn’t have hoped for better weather and conditions! Combine that with our NEW classroom space at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center and we had a fantastic 3 days! Here’s a quick recap!

Friday

After a morning of classroom we headed outside where a perfect terrain feature provided a realistic avalanche rescue demo for our 13 students.

Saturday

After another morning of engaging classroom discussions we were out the door just after lunch to conduct our “Observational Outing” in a shallow yet dynamic snow early season snow pack. After wrapping up class we got to drive back through the notch in quite the snow squall! Here’s some short clips from my Instagram story that afternoon!

Sunday

For our final day we met at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and the students, armed with recently acquired knowledge, dove into trip planning sessions to plan our tour. By 8:45 am we were skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to put to use everything we had talked about the previous two days. The following photos are all courtesy of Alexandra Roberts.

AIARE Avalanche Course
AM Student Led Trip Planning Session
AIARE Avalanche Course
Writing down the plan helps avoid some heuristic traps
AIARE Avalanche Course
Heading right into winter on Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine Trail
AIARE Avalanche Course
Quick break and observations at Hermit Lake
AIARE Avalanche Course
Discussing route options
AIARE Avalanche Course
Hands on learning about snow stability
AIARE Avalanche Course
Upper Sherburne ski trail was in pretty good shape!

Back at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center we reviewed our ski tour and debriefed the course before parting ways. By all accounts the first avalanche course of the season was a huge success. A big thanks to the 13 students who made it a great course by asking great questions and staying motivated through-out! Hope to see you all out there practicing your new skills!


Thinking of signing up for an avalanche course this winter?

Some of our courses have already sold out and many are close!

course dates

Course price includes two nights of lodging at The Bunkhouse!

You can book here, and use promo code “DavidNEM” to be entered to win a free guided trip of your choosing!

Thanks for reading!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course and hello Spring!

The last weekend of winter provided one of the most spectacular 3 days of higher summits weather I have ever seen in March! Blue skis and almost non-existent wind led to some really enjoyable ski touring on Mount Washington during our second-to-last American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) course.

Day One

We kicked off the course on Friday with some lively classroom sessions and small group exercises.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Benny discusses identifying avalanche terrain on day 1.
AIARE Avalanche Course
Small groups learn vicariously while discussing a local case study

Day Two

We met early to learn some advanced trip planning skills using CalTopo.com and the Avenza App. The Higher Summits Forecast called for southeast winds around 10-15 mph so we planned a tour on the west side of Mount Washington.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Powerful trip planning software that is 100% free!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Adjusting layers while skinning up the Cog
AIARE Avalanche Course
Small pockets of 2-3 mm Surface Hoar were found on sheltered north aspects above Waumbek Tank but below tree line
AIARE Avalanche Course
Benny demonstrates some snow pit observations near Jacob’s Ladder
AIARE Avalanche Course
Some cool wind effect and cornices nearby
AIARE Avalanche Course
We contoured around the rim of Ammonoosuc Ravine until we could drop the main gully or “Center Ammo”.

We concluded our tour with a debrief at the trail-head before calling it a day.

Day Three

AIARE Avalanche Course
Student led trip-planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail
AIARE Avalanche Course
Hermit Lake Snow Study Plot
AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up between Lobster Claw Gully and Right Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Snow-pack Observations

Avalanche danger was LOW and we had plenty of time to spare so we booted up Lobster Claw and traversed over to the top of Right Gully.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Ready to boot up Lobster Claw
AIARE Avalanche Course
Bluebird!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Sherika after descending from pit location
AIARE Avalanche Course
300 pound block of ice came from somewhere

Some video of our descent:

AIARE Avalanche Course
All smiles after a good run!

We wrapped up the course back in the pack room with discussions about continuing to learn about traveling in the back-country. It was a real pleasure having each of you in this course. Thank you all for staying engaged and contributing through out our three days!

Tomorrow, and beyond!

Only one more avalanche course next weekend after a Mountain Skills Course tomorrow and Washington Climb on Thursday. It might seem like the winter season is winding down a little but we are set up for a fantastic Spring ski season! The warm rock climbing can wait this year… I still have a lot of skiing goals to accomplish including reviewing some new ski mountaineering gear from CAMP/Cassin, Ortovox, Petzl, and DPS. Expect a lot of gear reviews to be landing April/May after I get back from Iceland.

Yup, Iceland!  Been awhile since I’ve been out of country so I am SUPER amp’d about this upcoming trip.

Want to try backcountry skiing?

Maybe you just bought a setup or still need to rent a touring package (a few places in town rent touring gear). Maybe you’d like to avoid the maddening crowds in Tuckerman Ravine and check out some new to you terrain ? Consider learning about the joys of back-country skiing with me. The snow-pack we have in the alpine right now combined with more stable Spring weather is a GREAT time to book a back-country ski day!

You can read a bit about the program here but reach out to me directly at nealpinestart@gmail.com to check on available dates before trying to book!

Did you get out this weekend? Whatcha do? Let me know in the comments below!

Well thanks for reading, and welcome Spring!

See you in the mountains!

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. 

Eastern Snow Avalanche Workshop

A couple weeks ago I attended the sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop and wrote a brief summary of the event with a few photos. Here, with permission, is a special sneak preview of the more detailed report my friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz has written for The Avalanche Review before it goes to print! Enjoy!

6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop
6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop

Sixth Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)

by Jonathan S. Shefftz

The sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”) on November 5 attracted approximately 150 attendees at Fryeburg Academy, just across the state border from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range.

This year’s ESAW was as always a collaborative effort.  The organizing partners included the Snow Rangers of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center (“MWAC”) and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (“MWVSP”).  ESAW once again relied on a grant from our lead sponsor the American Avalanche Association (“AAA”), to be led here soon by Eastern Representative-elect Mark Renson, with your faithful correspondent as AAA Member Representative.  Additional support came from our headline industry sponsor Outdoor Research.  Registration fee proceeds over and above hosting costs benefitted the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, which provides avalanche education to youth of the Northeast.

ESAW kicked off the prior Friday evening with a social event hosted by the Friends of MWAC and fueled by Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing at the International Mountain Equipment shop and guide service.  Then Saturday morning the avalanche presentations started up at Fryeburg Academy.

Chris Joosen, MWAC former Lead Snow Ranger (only the third since its 1951 formation) and outgoing AAA Eastern Representative, flew back East from his new Oregon home to serve yet again as our MC.  Also flying out East was our first presenter, Simon Trautman of the National Avalanche Center (“NAC”), who introduced us to “Avalanche Danger Scales and How Forecasters Use Them” including data to compare/contrast ratings distributions across the forecast centers of different nations.

We then retreated well below treeline as Tyler Ray of the newly formed Granite Backcountry Alliance (i.e., for the “Granite State” of New Hampshire) joined MWAC Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer for “Backcountry Skiing on Public Lands: The Creation of Legitimate and Sustainable Glades.”  Although New England backcountry skiing guidebooks reference only official ski trails (many cut by the famed Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression) plus the avalanche terrain at and above treeline, much of the backcountry skiing here actually takes place on the “down low”:  glades illicitly cut on public lands for “forest fire prevention” and other in-the-know euphemisms.  This was brought into the open in 2007 when two would-be Vermont backcountry skiers were criminally charged with felony-level violations for chainsawing a prominent line (aka “Jailhouse Chute”).  But recent collaboration in Vermont with the USFS between non-profit groups has created glades that are both nicely skiable and legitimately accessible.  The increasing availability of such terrain can offer a safe alternative to skiing at and above treeline when avalanche danger is elevated.  And fortuitously for the Granite Backcountry Alliance, the off-season position for Snow Ranger Hoffer is the USFS Trails Manager for much of the Presidentials Range.

Next, AAA’s Executive Director Jaime Musnicki returned to her native New England to make good on her plan to attend as many regional SAWs as possible, and also to present on “Personal Reflections:  Making Sense of Our Own Close Calls in Avalanche Terrain.” As if the incident she described in detail weren’t already harrowing enough, her partner had been her new boyfriend at the time, out on their first ski tour together.  And not only did Jaime come out on top of the debris, four years later the two of them are still together.

On a similar note, Jon Miller, of Dogy Down Films, although unable to attend in person, presented to us on “Risk, Rewards, and the Balancing of Mountain Experiences and Goals” via a tailored video introduction and debriefing for us to sandwich his film “Season on the Brink.”  His life-threatening fall this past spring in a Mount Washington couloir was extensively written up at the time, but the video footage he showed us — from both a partner and his own helmet cam — was especially terrifying.  Just as memorable were the assessments from the party members of “What really sticks with me is that we just shouldn’t have been there” and “A series of little details and little errors that added up.”  After a helicopter airlift, Jon spent a month in hospital care before regaining the ability to talk and walk normally.

Dallas Glass, our fourth Western presenter of the morning, here to lead the avalanche instructor training the following day for the American Avalanche Institute for Research and Education (“AIARE”), presented on “Blue Skies, Powder Days, and Las Vegas: Minimizing the Role of Luck in Avalanche Terrain.”  For ESAW regulars over the years, Dallas’s presentation was the perfect follow-up to the 2012 presentation to us by Blase Reardon (then of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center, and now of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center).  Back then, Blase had emphasized that the backcountry snowpack does not provide a consistent environment with regular feedback, but rather its feedback is inconsistent and often fatal.  (Remember Bruce Tremper’s analogy of playing soccer in a mine field.)  “Experts” are often just those who have gotten lucky over time, like many stock pickers who have beaten the market over a selected time period.  This year, Dallas explained how debriefing your day is the feedback loop that completes the risk management process.  Professional guides always hold a debriefing as part of their standard operating procedures.  To help recreationalists aspire toward this goal, Dallas quoted an incentivizing line from his fellow Pacific Northwest guide Larry Goldie:  “Why having a beer at the end of the day could save your life.”  It (the debriefing, not necessarily the alcoholic content!) allows us to identify when we got lucky and thereby recalibrate, so that on future trips we aren’t relying on “luck” to stay safe.  We have all gotten lucky in the mountains, but we need to recognize when that occurs so that we don’t need an incident to provide us feedback, and instead we can use “no event” days to learn from and grow as backcounty travelers.

After lunch, Jaime Musnicki explained the upcoming split between recreational versus professional tracks in U.S. avalanche training.  Fortunately the details need not be reiterated here, since you the dear reader have of course already carefully read every single prior TAR article on this subject.  (Right?)  This fed into a panel discussion on avalanche education with Jaime Musnicki, Jeff Lane (previously a MWAC Snow Ranger for ten years), Simon Trautman, and Dallas Glass, moderated by MWAC Snow Ranger Frank Carus.

Thus far we had been getting off lightly on the technical side.  To ratchet everything up several notches, as always we could rely on Dr. Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (in Hanover, NH) after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab and field research in snow crystal bonding and wet grain relationships.  In his fifth year of ESAW presentations, this time Sam explained “Why Skis Slide on Snow.”  The answer is not simply “because it’s fun” since that’s why we use skis to slide on snow, as opposed to why they are actually able to slide so well.

And those skis slide especially well on very steep terrain with lots of blown-in snow, which was the focus of the presentation by Frank Carus on “Forecasting Avalanche Danger in Inherently Dangerous Terrain” regarding the couloirs in the at-treeline glacial cirques on our Mount Washingon.  Next, Simon Trautman presented on “What are we doing now?” at the NAC, following up on the presentation at the 2014 ESAW by the NAC’s Director Karl Birkeland.

And finally, Chris Joosen wrapped up with “Reflecting on a Life with Avalanches” incorporating his 26 years working on Mount Washington.  His conclusion was followed by a standing ovation from all attendees.  And from all us who have depended for so many years on Chris’s work and his direction of the MWAC Snow Rangers, thank you!

We concluded with our annual expo, including rep displays for AAA, AIARE, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, Catamount Trail Association, Bryce & Ronnie Athlete Safety & Security (“BRASS”) Foundation, DPS Skis, Friends of MWAC, Granite Backcountry Alliance, La Sportiva, Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, Mammut / Barryvox, MWVSP, Mount Washington Weather Observatory, Petzl & Adventure Medical, Salomon, Northeast Mountaineering guides, Ortovox / Deuter, and Outdoor Research.  Throughout the day we had raffled off and auctioned donations from these sponsors plus ARVA, Dynafit, Hagan, MSR, Pomoca, Ski the East, and Toko.  

Jonathan Shefftz patrols at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and daughter (who notched her first-ever October ski outing this season). He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and AAA governing board member. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or “coaching” his daughter’s skiing (i.e., picking her up off the snow), he works as a financial economics consultant and has been qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. He can be reached at JShefftz@post.harvard.edu or just look for the lycra-clad skinner training for his NE Rando Race Series.