Avalanche probes a time-tested tool in rescue

by • January 27, 2016 • UncategorizedComments (0)5271


Courtesy Graham Predeger The Alaska Mining and Diving crew practices strategic shoveling during a free avalanche rescue workshop with Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center forecasters.

Courtesy Graham Predeger
The Alaska Mining and Diving crew practices strategic shoveling during a free avalanche rescue workshop with Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center forecasters.

With the early season behind us and already a few near-miss avalanche incidents in the Alaska backcountry (see article on Page 20) I received a question on Facebook from a snowmachiner who expressed concern that his riding partner doesn’t carry an avalanche probe in his backpack.

As an avalanche forecaster and educator, I teach that a probe is one of the three key pieces of equipment (avalanche beacon, shovel and probe) needed to affect a successful avalanche rescue. Airbag packs are quickly becoming the fourth piece of critical safety equipment.

The probe outdates avalanche beacon technology by decades (or more) and was first used in avalanche rescue situations to help locate buried skiers, climbers or workers who perished in avalanches.

Nowadays, with digital beacons and companion rescue techniques more thoroughly understood, the low-tech probe is now considered a life-saving device. With three-antenna beacons, satellite phones, GoPro cameras and Bluetooth connectivity from your snowmachine to your smartphone, a probe is about the lowest-tech piece of equipment we leave the trailhead with. It also happens to be the cheapest. So, when I got this question, I was somewhat concerned and slightly entertained for the reasons his partner gave to not carry an avalanche probe in the backcountry.

Question: One of my backcountry riding friends does not carry a probe. He has the newest tracker beacon, a shovel, and an avy airbag. He is seemingly knowledgeable about the snowpack and the season history in the zones he frequents. He has good route finding abilities both on skis and sleds, but he does not carry an avalanche probe. Today he wrote me his reason why: “One of my biggest fears is getting stabbed through the eyeball during a search (don’t probe, just start digging for me). Now that beacons are so fast and accurate, I think probing is unnecessary and a waste of precious time. And if the victim is buried at any depth, you have to dig such a big hole to extract them that you are going to find them during the digging process.”

Can you provide me any good facts that could persuade him to carry a probe?  Or do you feel there is some validity to his opinion?

Answer:  Without sounding too harsh, there is no validity to your friend’s claim. His not carrying a probe is doing YOU a big disservice. If you are buried in an avalanche and your partner doesn’t have a probe, it is going to take him longer to pinpoint you under the snow surface. Without a probe, valuable time is wasted digging a hole that may or may not be in the right place. Yes, a probe is old-school technology but it still proves the best technology for PINPOINTING a victim under the snow and provides you an exact depth which is critical for the shoveling phase of an avalanche rescue. If you learn to use your shovel/ probe in unison and practice strategic shoveling, (stepping downhill 1.5 times the burial depth and digging in toward your probe) that will be your best bet to affect an efficient and successful rescue.

If your friend still isn’t convinced, I’d recommend burying a couple backpacks (with beacon) 4 to 6 feet deep. See who can affect the quicker realistic rescue; you with your beacon, shovel and probe or him with only a beacon and shovel. Try the strategic shoveling technique. Don’t just yank the packs out when you get to them. In a real accident you will have to carefully extract the victim and clear the snow from their face, so practice that.  I’m pretty confident you’ll be the winner as time and again probes prove they can knock precious minutes off rescue times in an avalanche situation.

As for his fear of being poked in the eye … Wear goggles?  Not sure what else to say about that one other than him not carrying a probe won’t protect his eyes (you still carry a probe I presume).  If you strictly look at surface area of the human body, the chance of getting probed in the eye has got to be 500:1 or more.  Besides, eye patches are sort of cool and I’ll take a probe strike to the eye any day over asphyxiation under the snow! Hope that gives you a bit of ammo to persuade your friend, but if for no other reason, he should carry a probe cause it’s you he’s going to be looking for you under the snow if things go bad.  It’s the same reason I always ensure my partner has the biggest shovel and the freshest avalanche beacon, think about it!  And one last note; as we’ve seen multiple times over the last 12 months in Alaska, your group may be called on to assist in a nearby avalanche incident.  Carrying your full complement of rescue gear and knowing how to use it should be as natural as putting your boots on before a ride.  Be prepared to help a friend or a total stranger and we can all help to make the backcountry a little bit safer for everyone.

Graham Predeger works as an avalanche specialist with the Chugach NF Avalanche Info Center (CNFAIC) based in Girdwood.  He can be reached at graham@chugachavalanche.org.

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