To Probe or Not To Probe

| December 28, 2010 | 20 Comments

I’ve been called a moron for not carrying a probe, but in truth, I’m only a 3/4 moron as I do carry one occasionally, namely on expeditions or when skiing with a large group of people. I like them for expeditions as they serve many uses – marking caches, anchoring tents, probing for crevasses or perhaps body recovery after a big avalanche.  I carry them if I’m skiing with a large group of people as the potential for somebody getting caught and buried is much higher with large groups and if there are already three people digging, probing can’t hurt.  I’ve carried a probe on the few occasions I’ve guided as it makes me appear more responsible.  Probes are also handy for avalanche forecasting work, both for feeling layers and the scale on the side.

Hmmm, a dehydrated avalanche dog that fit inside a shovel handle might be a cool backcountry product...

My personal probe history:
1) I took four different probes to a beacon test park and came away with the conclusion that the only ones worth carrying were the big, burly aluminum ones.  The dinky shovel handle versions bent like a pretzel when you tried to ram them into hard snow and were worthless.  On one of the small diameter carbon-fiber models, the pierce point was so hard to extract that it ended up splintering the tensioning device at the other end of the probe.   The beefy ones held up, but they are heavy and bulky.

2) The one time I’ve been buried, my legs were sticking out and a probe wasn’t needed.

3) The one time two friends were killed in a Class 5 avalanche, probes made no difference.

4) The one time I’ve dug a friend out of a 8′ burial, it took all four of us digging at 100% just to get down to the 6′ level.  At that point, we probed with a flipped-over ski pole and although we got a strike, we were already digging straight towards the victim and the probe or lack of it made no difference in the eventual outcome. Big shovels are more important than probes, IMO.

Probing in-bounds at a ski resort after an avalanche - a place where probes definitely make sense since not everybody wears a beacon when resort skiing.

I prefer to ski with a small group of people (group of 3-4 at the most) or if the group is larger, stick to mellower terrain.  If I’m only skiing with one partner and one of us gets buried, getting the person excavated is the #1 priority, and if it is a deep burial I think my time is better spent shoveling and working a beacon signal than probing.  My beacon, like most of them nowadays, has an incredibly accurate fine search mode to it and will go down to .5 meter, in which case you could probe with a shovel blade or ski pole grip.

I’m not sure how probes became part of the holy trinity of backcountry safety gear – beacon, shovel & probe.  The idea of probing for bodies predates beacons by decades, but that doesn’t mean that they actually saved many lives, but more that there was just no other options.

I’m sure there are studies out there proving that probes save lives, but there are also studies on helmets, sat phones, PLB’s, CPR masks, cell phones, Avalungs and radios which prove beyond a doubt that you’d have to be a moron to go without, yet I don’t carry any of them either.  As Steve Bullock commented on a previous post, it is a trade-off between freedom and risk, as almost everything is in backcountry skiing.  I could see carrying a probe as part of a sidecountry or slackcountry kit, or as a Ski Patroller where your pack was light to begin with, but for a full day of touring, carrying a big beefy probe (again, the only ones I think are worth carrying) is right at my personal weight  threshold.

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Category: Random

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (20)

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  1. Tim Bondy says:

    Moron for not carrying a probe? Seems like some people need to get a life. The only people that matter are the people you ski with. If they are OK with your decision and the consequences then who care what they think.

    Love your website by the way! Keep on posting all the fun articles and enjoy life on your own terms.

  2. goatroper says:

    a probe is vital to pinpoint your shoveling effort and saves minutes on recovery times. i used to test rescue workers on beacon searches daily. those with poor skills probing have the longest recovery times bar none.

  3. Edge says:

    It used to be that with a single-antenna beacon you could only narrow the victim’s location down to a box with dimensions that grew with the burial depth. With a multiple-antenna beacon, you can reduce their location down to a point instead of a box. With a three-antenna beacon, this point can be quite accurate, depending on the model. So in my opinion a probe is less important than it used to be, as long as you have a three-antenna digital beacon. However, there are other reasons to bring a probe: testing the snowpack before digging a pit, probing for crevasses, etc., but also there’s a possibility your touring partner forgot to turn his or her beacon on, it’s not working, or you might be involved in searching for someone in another party that’s not wearing a beacon. If I had to decide between bringing the extra weight of a probe (and a few other things) or the extra weight of an airbag, it would be a no-brainer (bring airbag)!

  4. Bobski says:

    Agreed. No Probe needed functionally (expect for the guilt of not having one). I just carry one of the little ones in case I need to help in the rescue of another group of un-safety minded BC skiers/boarders without beacons. I see slackcountry folks all the time with no gear whatsoever and I would feel pretty helpless without a probe to find their frozen bodies. I also carry a big shovel and feel it is worth the extra weight not just for digging people out but for an emergency snow cave or fiding buried skis etc.

  5. Greg Pfeil says:

    “I’m sure there are studies out there proving that probes save lives, but there are also studies on helmets, sat phones, PLB’s, CPR masks, cell phones, Avalungs and radios which prove beyond a doubt that you’d have to be a moron to go without, yet I don’t carry any of them either.”

    The difference between the items listed above and a beacon/shovel/probe is that the above items are for your own safety, while the beacon/shovel/probe are for your companions’ safety. Not to say that a probe is needed, but there’s a bigger hurdle to cross, since you don’t want to convey the message “your safety isn’t worth the weight of a probe” to your friends.

    One thing I‘ve considered is randomly shuffling safety gear between everyone at the start of a tour – keeps you from packing the flimsy shovel, because it might be needed to save you, but also keeps you from packing the backhoe, because you still might have to carry it yourself. Haven’t actually tried this approach though….

  6. Kirk says:

    I’m with you on probes. I see all these drones who wouldn’t think of skiing without beacons probes and shovels but I doubt most of them can use any of that stuff. I will take a strong partner with snow sense over an army of probes any day.

  7. Lil'C says:

    I mostly use my probe to point out dangerous terrain to snowboarders and the bro-shoe crowd. I whip that fucker out, extend it, point up into the trees in Mill Douche (notoriously rad terrain), and say, “Dude, you have to be way sicker than you are to center-punch that gnarly fucker.”

    I also used my probe once to verify that we’d been sleeping on a bunch of murderous Alaskan crevasses for three weeks. Of course, that was after my tent buddy got his nuts punched falling into one. I whipped that probe out, and said, “Dude, this place is fucking Swiss cheese!” Of course, we were to tired to give a shit, and went back to sleep in the same spot over the same hole.

    Early today, my friend said, “I’m not carrying a probe.” I said, “Oh.”

  8. Bob says:

    We’re talking about 300 grams here, right? For a decent probe?

  9. Howie says:

    I like probes. I’m not calling you a moron when I say that, or even a 3/4 moron (which btw sounds to me like someone less intelligent than a full moron). They don’t weigh much and the lighter carbon fiber models work well in most realistic conditions (i.e. not beacon basins) with proper technique. Kind of like any piece of avalanche rescue equipment.

    You admit probes are “handy” for avalanche forecasting, but aren’t you forecasting locally when you step into avalanche terrain? Probes can help to verify or deny discussions in the avalanche bulletin, and can quickly enable one to assess the existence or variability of deeper snow layers across terrain. I like them for traveling corniced ridges and skiing glaciers too.

    They are also handy for rescue. This has been well proven both professionally, anecdotally, and scientifically. Some of these studies suggest that spot probing in likely areas might be more effective than using a beacon for the uninitiated or out of practice. Others show it as an essential component of efficient shoveling strategy. I trust these studies, along with my own experience that says otherwise, more than your argument supported by 4 personal probing experiences, 1 of which was in a beacon basin and 3 where probes were not used (featuring a 75% fatality rate), and 1 where the victim who survived (you) could have been recovered alive without a beacon or shovel either.

    IMO, it is just as moronic to blindly pack something as to blindly unpack it. Do the research and decide with intention what you want to bring. It will be affected by the level of risk you and your buddies want to accept. If weight is critical and the avalanche risk is minimal maybe the probe is the first thing to go. Just be able to explain that choice.

  10. Andrew says:

    Hmmm, yes, all good points. I didn’t just one day decide to pitch my probe, and over the years I’ve carried them on/off about 50% of the time. Still, if I am out with one friend and he/she gets buried, I feel my time is better spent digging them out. Whipping out a probe, assembling it and probing until you get a strike might take, what, a minute? But I think that minute would be better spent digging, especially if you have to move a lot of snow. The argument could/is made that a positive probe strike means less chance of a misdug hole, but beacons are so accurate nowadays that they can easily bring you to within 18″ of the target. I guess for that matter, if you probed and hit a boot, then dug straight to it, you’d then have to excavate the victim’s head, in which case a probe would hinder the rescue.

    Unlike avalanche airbags, beacons and shovels which have a proven rescue record, I don’t feel that probes play a decisive role in rescues. Yes, there are tons of rescue stories where probes were used (“We located a signal, probed, got a strike and dug him out.”) but I’m not 100% sold on the idea that the rescue would have been a failure if the probe was missing from the equation, ie “We got a signal, and dug him out.”

    To me there is also the question of where probes are most effective. If the person is only buried 12″ deep, your beacon is going to be howling and you can probably get to the victim in a shovel stroke or two, so probing is just burning up valuable seconds. If the victim is 8′ deep, every second counts and you are going to be lucky to dig the victim out alive in the first place. Plus, with an 8′ deep burial, you could spend quite a bit of time probing as an 8′ radius probed to full depth of the probe (200-240cm) could take many minutes. I’d rather start digging, do a quick beacon check, dig, beacon, dig, probe with a ski pole, etc..

    As far as carrying it for my partners safety and not my own, I am 100% okay with my partners not carrying a probe and if I was buried, I would hope they’d start digging ASAP.

    Carrying a probe in case you come across numbnuts in the BC who get caught and don’t have beacons? Hmmm. Very low odds of that, and for that matter you might as well carry an oxygen cylinder and/or defibrillator in case you come across a heart attack victim.

  11. Rich Meyer says:

    Thankfully the beacon of today is getting us wayyy closer to our buried friends. And there is no question that shoveling might just be the thing we should be practicing…. But, leaving the probe at home would be next to impossible for me to do. (much less recommend) If you happen to start digging just 6-12 inches off the mark at the surface, you could be well away from your buddy once you get 3-4 feet down… Easily erasing that “wasted time with the probe”. And although we rarely bury a person in an avalanche class, we frequently see students digging endlessly for a pack that is only a foot or two away because they began digging too early…. (before getting a positive probe strike). I have to go with the numerous studies and successful rescues when it comes to the probe discussion…. And I have to admit, I cringe at the thought of your readers (or my partners) ditching their probes this winter so they can save some ounces….

    Sending a msg to the public if that friend happens to have a beacon that isn’t operating

  12. Rich Meyer says:

    oops sorry about that straggling fragment of a sentence at the bottom… you can delete that. great discussion by the way!

  13. mc says:

    I’ve always carried a probe but in the last couple of years, I have considered ditching it for day tours namely for the reasons listed above. Not that I have ever been involved in an avalanche scenario, but I’ll bet that I would forget that I even had the probe and start digging.
    Perhaps under a multi burial scenario they would be useful in order to see who is deepest as you marked each signal.
    As to Andrew’s last point, you would be amazed at some of the things I’ve seen in the side country off Whistler. Darwinism at its finest. I’d hate to be standing over a beacon-less moron’s slide debris wondering where is this guy? I guess the probe stays for those trips.

  14. ron says:

    I just noticed that my wife (ex-favorite ski partner) took the probe out of her pack, thanks a lot.

  15. Freeheelgirl says:

    This is a terrific discussion, and I thoroughly appreciate Andrew’s arguments against carrying a probe. However – I mistrust any piece of safety equipment that depends on batteries and electronics. Batteries and electronics fail regularly, and where equipment failure ends, human error takes over to exponentially increase the odds that your safety gear will be useless at a crucial moment.
    Probes and shovels, on the other hand, are totally analog – even if a beacon is the better tool for locating a buried victim, well, if either the rescuer or the victim’s beacon isn’t working, your probe will be there to help.
    I’d say carrying a probe is analogous to carrying a reserve parachute when you jump out of a plane – you hope to hell you’ll never need it, but it’s way better to have it than not when the — hits the fan.

  16. Andrew says:

    Freeheelgirl – I personally don’t carry a probe all the time, but think it is a great idea for other people to carry them. ;) Same with first aid kits, extra food, hot tea, helmets, etc..

  17. Freeheelgirl says:

    Oh, Andrew – if we ever ski together, I’ll bring a thermos of your favorite tea, if you’ll carry my probe for me. ;-)

  18. John S says:

    No probe means I can carry more Single Malt!

    Seriously, I see both sides of the decision. Three antenna digital beacons are so damned fast and accurate, there seems to be no reason not to trust them.

    I think, like Andrew, I’d make the decision on a trip by trip basis. I use my probe on glaciers quite a bit, so no way I’d venture onto on without it. I have also used it in tricky spots during white-outs to “see” around me, so if I’m going to go alpine, once again, I’d have to have it with me.

    But, for yo-yo laps in familiar close-civilization terrain, I’ll have to think about it. Great discussion!!

  19. Aaron says:

    Unsupported: Beacons pinpoint faster and more accurately than a probe

    a. I’ve seen people spend much more time pinpointing burials with their beacon than if they had used their probe to pinpoint.

    b. Your beacon’s distance readout is a relative number, not a true distance. Without a probe, you may be way off when attempting to perform strategic shoveling. In fact, using only a beacon requires digging techniques that are not optimal!

    c. In companion rescue with more than one searcher per burial, the second searcher should probe during the beacon search and in front of the beacon searcher.

    d. I think you are over estimating the accuracy of your beacon in a deep burial under stress. I’ve seen people mis-pinpoint by 1-3m with their fancy beacon! The probe confirms prior to spending 5min, 15min etc digging.

    e. You are not guaranteed that you or your partner’s beacons will work after a slide. You are not guaranteed that you are looking for your partner.

    f. Most people do not have 3-antenna beacons.

    g. If you are attempting to target your comments to “very accurate” 3-antenna beacon users, do you realize that several of these beacons revert to a battery saving 2 or 1 antenna search mode if the batteries are low? This goes for my Pulse and the S1!

  20. Aaron says:

    Your personal anecdotes do not support your conclusions with any confidence.

    a. You found in-shovel probes to be flimsy, but write all other probes off as too heavy? This is presents a false dilemma! A 220g in-shovel probe is OK but BCA and BD large diameter carbon probes of equal weight are not? Even the burliest Al probe is only 310g.

    b. You were partially buried, therefor your probe is never needed? Does this mean your beacon is not needed either?

    c. That your friends were sadly killed in a D5 slide means probes are not needed? Again, by that reasoning a beacon and shovel are not needed either, right? Few slides are D5.

    d. That you were able to use a flipped ski pole to probe for someone who statistically should be dead based on burial depth does not mean that the next slide won’t have a much harder debris!

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