For the later part of this season I have been planning the logistics of some much longer trips that I want to do in the next few years. Along with longer trips comes larger and heavier packs, so I have also been researching and testing new ultralight gear in hopes to lighten the load. I already have some pretty high end, light weight gear so I wasn’t sure how much more I could save to be honest and I was worried that the even lighter stuff wouldn’t perform as well.
When it came to shedding off grams in the mountaineering aspect of my kit I started researching new ice axes and found the Shaxe Tech Avalanche Shovel by Backcountry Access. At first I was a little put off by it, was it wise to mix a climbing tool with a safety tool? I mostly wondered how easy it would be to switch from axe mode to shovel mode in an emergency or if the axe pick was jammed from refrozen snow could I shovel with it attached regardless? Am I missing some reason why this isn’t a good idea? It seemed a bit too good to be true at first.
After about a month of looking at the Shaxe online and reading a few articles about it I got my chance to see it in person while in Banff. I practiced switching back and forth from axe mode to shovel mode. I mock shoveled with the axe pick still in place. I attempted to bend or distort the product any way I could. After playing with it for 30 minutes I gave in and purchased it, “I’ll give it a field test” I thought, compared to my current shovel I was gaining an ice axe for about 250g.
Ice Axe Field Testing
The first chance I got to test the Shaxe in the field was climbing a couloir that I have skied before, found along The Great Divide off highway 93s, the Kindergarten Couloir (aka Boom Lake Couloir). The full run is roughly 600 vertical metres with the couloir feature being about 300 vertical metres. It’s fairly wide but not overly steep, probably in the low 40s as you get near the top. When we got there in the morning we found that the run had previously avalanched multiple times and refroze, likely cornice triggered as almost all of the regular cornices were gone. Bad skiing but easy climbing and a good test for the ice axe.
Since the snow had multiple layers of refrozen and firm avalanche debris we opted to start boot packing on the fan, at first with poles as the axe is a bit too short for walking with on lower angled terrain. Once in the feature the angle steepened and it was time to try the axe. It worked as any good ice axe should, planting and swinging were great. The handle was grippy due to having something like skateboard grip tape on it. The snow was very uneven and firm and the climbing became just a little more technical/steep than normal for this run so we put on crampons to speed up the climbing. The axe performed well cutting a platform for standing on and as an anchor as to not loose balance while attaching my crampons. We continued climbing and the axe again performed to any other axe’s climbing standards while wearing crampons and in slightly steeper and firmer snow.
Shovel Field Testing
I didn’t think I would get a chance to test the shovel section on this trip but with only a few metres left to climb the worst happened, I got nailed by a large refrigerator sized block of cornice from an unseen area to the climber’s left of the couloir. I attempted to test the self arrest abilities of the axe but with the steepness of the slope plus the uneven nature of the snow it was no use. As I became buried in the avalanche I gave up my axe in order to attempt to swim to the surface as my mouth had begun to pack in with snow. Luckily I was shot out and onto the surface of the slide but as I looked up the couloir and could not see my partner I realized the major flaw of my new weight saving product…
As I painfully begun a beacon search with only a shovel spade in my hand I remember back to one of my professional avalanche courses where we discussed the time differences of using a shovel, a ski or snowboard or hands to dig in avalanche debris. I knew even if I found my partner quickly that there was almost no way I would dig him out in time unless it was a very shallow burial. Luckily, after what felt like an eternally, I see my partner slowly skiing down the couloir coming around the slight bend in the feature that had blocked out sight of each other, (he had heard me yelling but for whatever reason I could not hear him).
If you would like a more detailed version of the story it can be found here:
Ace Of Spades
After my first and only day using this product I knew I would not only never use it again but also outright refuse to ski with partners that insisted on using it. The bottom line is that if you some how loose your axe then you loose your ability to dig someone out of an avalanche. A spade can be used to dig but slows you down due to lack of leverage. Although the situation where this product fails may seem specific, it is not unheard of in the world of steep skiing. Is saving 250-500g worth being in the situation that I found myself in?
From Bad To Ugly
After my field test day I wrote a review on the BCA site explaining why I thought the product is flawed. A couple of days later I received an email from the Vice President of BCA. He asked “Perhaps the answer it to put a leash on the axe—or provide a leash as part of the kit. Would you agree?”. I didn’t agree and after discussing it with a few skiing partners I remembered why I don’t climb with leashes to begin with, 1) I don’t want to be stabbed, 2) I don’t want to be anchored deeper into the snow (remember being told not to put those ski pole wrist straps on while in avalanche terrain?), 3) I don’t want to be anchored deeper into the snow and have a broken wrist, 4) I don’t want to be anchored deeper into the snow, with a broken wrist and likely upside down, 5) attempting to swim/fight your way to the surface could result in being stabbed, breaking your wrist or if anchored would be impossible anyway. I’ve also been searching for reviews on backcountry ski forums about this product and have found a few people suggesting that a leash should be used to solve the loosing axe problem, to me this just makes a bad situation turn ugly, again to save a very little amount of weight.
Is It Really Lighter Anyway?
For the week after my little run in with a 1000+ lb block of snow and ice I looked around and actually found an ice axe by Petzl that weighs only 248g (listed in marketing as 240g), which when combined with my old but time tested shovel comes in about 10g lighter than the Shaxe did anyway. Not sure how I missed that before I bought the Shaxe but I was probably blinded a bit by the new and exciting Shaxe concept. I have yet to test my new Petzl ice axe but I will not be surprised when it performs just as well as any of my other axes.
The big question for me is “should this product even exist?”. For me the answer is no. Maybe the situation I was in will never happen again but I won’t be surprised if I hear a similar story someday. Maybe it has already happened but the party didn’t report it, maybe they were too ashamed that they didn’t think of the basic flaw that this product presents? Either way I know I won’t be using it and won’t be skiing with people who want to use it. In the end the risks we take in the backcountry are ours to make, whether it be with gear, lack of gear or skiing in tricky/unsafe conditions. What is important is that we know the risk we are taking exists and that is the point of this review.