Probing an Avalanche
Probing for a Victim

After completing the transceiver fine search, it is time to begin probing for the victim. The probing stage of the search is sometimes referred to as the "pinpoint" search.

Pushing a stick into the snow might seem archaic, but it is extremely reliable. Although you may mistakenly think you hit the victim when you haven't (a false positive), your probe will never pass through the victim (a false negative).

Once you start probing, trust your probe and avoid the temptation to return to your transceiver. The time you "waste" probing a larger area is usually small compared to the time you will waste returning to a beacon search.

Hold the probe firmly with both hands (don't hold onto your transceiver with one hand—you are probing now). Insert the probe at 90 relative to the snow, not relative to gravity. This is because your transceiver will take you to the closest location relative to the transmitting beacon, which is not necessarily directly above the victim.

The exception to probing at 90 to the snow is when an organized group of rescuers is doing a probe-line that is not based on a transceiver search. In that case, the probes should be inserted vertically.

Your first probe should be at the location where your avalanche transceiver reported the strongest signal (i.e., the shortest distance). Subsequent probes should be in circles (or a spiral as proposed by Manuel Genswein in 2002) from this center point at no more than 25 cm (10 inch) intervals. This small distance ensures that you will not miss the victim. It is better to "waste" a little time probing tightly than to miss and have to repeat the probing.

Even if you encountered a spike and your first probe is not over the victim, continuing to probe every 25 cm (10 inches) will eventually locate your victim. For most people, this approach is faster than trying to interpret the spikes (my rough time estimate is that probing a one-meter radius will take up to five minutes).

When you hit the victim with your probe, leave the probe in place and begin shoveling.

Selecting a Probe

When purchasing an avalanche probe, only consider a dedicated sectional probe. Convertible ski pole probes are okay as a backup, but they are too short, too difficult to assemble, and are lousy at penetrating dense avalanche debris.

Your dedicated sectional probe should have an assembled length of at least 220 cm (although make sure that the stowed probe fits in your favorite pack). Shorter probes will require that you bend over each time you insert the probe. Longer probes are necessary only when probing an unsurvivably deep burial (and are more appropriate for patrollers and search and rescue teams). Etched depth indicators and contrasting segments are helpful for determining burial depth and measuring snow pits.

Look for a simple assembly mechanism that locks by pulling on a handle or cable and that does not require any additional locking. Avoid probes that require you to position a knot in a tiny groove and don't buy any probe where the tubes can accidentally come off the string. And make sure you can reliably deploy the probe with your typical winter handwear.

(The Pieps iProbe is a unique solution to probing. Learn about it here.)

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