You just can’t mess around with an avalanche shovel. There aren’t very many pieces of gear that, when they’re needed, are so desperately critical. Crevasse rescue equipment and harnesses come to mind, and it’s not a bad comparison – in both of those cases, someone’s life is literally hanging on the product in question. With an avy shovel, the case is different – the person is buried beneath what may be feet of cement-like debris. This is what you need to keep in mind when considering avalanche shovels, and it’s what we’ll keep in mind as we talk about the MSR Responder Avalanche Shovel.
MSR Responder Avalanche Shovel Features:
- 6061-T6 high-strength aluminum
- Two-section, positive locking, non-rotatable aluminum shaft extends to 32 inches
- Compact blade, reduced scoop angle and neckless design for packability and strengt
- Flat, serrated blade for chopping
- Ergonomic T-handle
- Weight: 1lb. 6oz.
- MSRP: $59.95
Essential gear for saving lives
There are a number of critical features that go into an avalanche shovel, and for this one I want to survey them systematically to see how well the Responder stacks up. If you’re new to avalanche shovels and want a broader basis for making your purchasing decisions, I highly recommend this helpful article from the Austrian Alpine Club (link will open a PDF). The points that I’m going to consider are alloy quality, blade design, handle and shaft design, weight and performance. Here we go!
There are a number of different alloys on the market in terms of aluminum blends, but the widely acknowledged front runner is the blend called 6061-T6 aluminum. This is a blend of aluminum and other metals which is finally heat treated to give the alloy artificial aging. This means essentially that the alloy’s material properties will not change significantly over its usable life due to aging. A few other companies offer either their own ‘proprietary’ blend or alternative blends; the proprietary blends may be very good, but the trick is – who knows. 6061-T6 is the acknowledged leader (it’s aircraft-grade, after all) and the MSR Responder has it. So, on this front, the Responder is doing well.
Blade design is central to a shovel’s performance. The right blade can be durable, efficient and packable. MSR chose a ‘neck-less’ design with the Responder, meaning that the handle slots into place in the body of the shovel, not in an extended neck. This is helpful because the neck is often a failure point on cheaper shovels; I’ve broken two necked shovels in the past. Additionally, the welds holding the slot for the handle in place on the shovel blade are smooth and even, suggesting good craftsmanship overall.
The Responder’s blade features a relatively flat surface with slight walls to move snow efficiently; that’s also important, obviously. MSR supplements the flat blade with a flat serrated chopping surface. The lack of significant curves on the shovel’s chopping and shoveling axes means that it can build smooth snow pits and square bricks. I personally think that flat shovels are easier to control when they’re full of snow, too. Additionally, the Responder’s blade is flat on the top, which is important for being able to step on the shovel when digging through really hard snow. It’s not a huge surface to put your boot on, but it’s flat and sturdy enough.
Another benefit of the Responder’s blade design is the several tie-in holes that are punched through the blade. This means that you can easily strap the shovel securely onto your pack, or it could be of more use in an improvised stretcher. Either way, the option is nice to have. The angle the shovel makes relative to the handle is fairly shallow. This helps it be packable, but it also makes it a little tougher to control when heavily loaded than a more aggressive shovel.
MSR built the Responder with an extending shaft that stretches the length of the whole shovel (blade to handle) from 23″ to 32″. I personally can’t stress the value of having a long handle enough. Snow is heavy and avy debris is hard – it’s important to be able to work as efficiently as possible in emergency situations. Keep this in mind when a store rep is telling you how ‘packable’ shorter shovels are – they are life-saving equipment, not optional extras, in the backcountry.
The shaft of the handle is hexagonal, meaning that it won’t twist around and the locking pins will always slot into place. I never had a problem with the locking pins freezing over, and they’ve held up to quite a bit of abuse well – lots of chopping into ice, which is tough on them. If you’d like to cut some weight because you don’t anticipate needing to excavate a buried victim (because, say, you’re saying on the valley floor) you can pop out the lower section of the shaft and take only the upper section with the handle into the field. It works just as well.
The handle isn’t my favorite design, but MSR has done a good job at making it functional. It’s a T-grip, and I generally prefer D grips that you can really get your hand into. A problem with T grips in general is that they’re impossible to use with mitts, but MRS has alleviated this problem by carefully crafting the T grip to have a solid lip on the backside that you can grip with almost anything. It’s a good, workable solution.
- 6061-T6 Aluminum is the most reliable alloy
- Blade design is durable, efficient and packable
- Telescoping shaft is fool-proof and offers plenty of leverage
- Multiple options with the shaft is a nice touch
- Serrated blade and flat surfaces make for smooth snow pits and efficient chopping
- T-grip handle is not my first choice, though they’ve done a good design
- Shallower angle makes the shovel slightly harder to control when loaded
The Bottom Line: MSR Responder Shovel
MSR has always had a solid R&D department. They’re not flashy – instead, they’re dull in the best possible ways. The Responder doesn’t try to look cool or to do anything ‘new.’ Instead, it’s just a really durable shovel made out of the best materials that has a good, efficient design. Plus, at $59 and 1lb. 5oz. it’s right in the middle of the pack in terms of price and weight. Do your research well before buying an avalanche shovel, and go to look at them in person at your local outdoor retailer. They’re an important piece of gear, but only fools blow them off.
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