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Avalanche Rescue—Probing an Avalanche

(The rescue information on these pages is quite detailed. If you are short on time or looking for a quick review, you can jump to the Avalanche Rescue Summary.)

Probing is Caveman-style Searching

Probing is a continuation of the search that began with a visual search for clues and proceeded through the transceiver search. The search isn't complete until you find the victim with your probe.

Compared to using a digital avalanche transceiver, finding a buried person by pushing a stick into the snow is caveman-style searching. However, probing is reliable. Yes, you may mistakenly think you hit the victim when you haven't (a false positive), but your probe will never pass through the victim (a false negative).

There are three types of probing: transceiver probing, spot probing, and probe line probing. All three methods are discussed on this page.

A probe that hits a human body, or a backpack, has a slightly springy, "boingy" feel. Don't press too hard. Your job is to locate rather than perforate. Branches can also have a springy feel (and occasionally I've smelled the scent of pine on the tip of the probe). A probe that hits skis, a boot, or a snowmobile has a much different feel. As you would expect, rocks have a hard feel and can make a clicking sound. Ice layers (and sometimes frozen dirt) can have a "sticky" feel where the tip of the probe is momentarily held by the ice. If you are unsure whether your probe is contacting the victim, probe several times around your initial probe hole to gauge the size and "feel" of the object.

When you find the victim with your probe, leave it in place and begin shoveling. It is important that you leave your probe in place so you dig in the correct location. The probe is also a good reminder to not stand on top of the victim.

Selecting a Probe (click to expand)

Transceiver Probing


25 cm Probe Spacing

Transceiver probing takes place after completing a transceiver fine search. It is an important step to confirm that you are in the correct location before you begin digging.

After completing the fine search, you should stow your transceiver so it doesn't interfere with probing and shoveling. And after 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 transceiver search.

Hold the probe firmly with both hands (don't cling to your transceiver with one hand—it should be stowed). When probing for a transceiver signal, insert the probe at 90° relative to the snow rather than 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. If you mistakenly hold your probe vertically (a common mistake), the transmitter will be uphill of your first probe. (When spot probing, the probe can be held at any angle; when used in a probe line, the probe should be held vertically to gravity.)

You should first insert your probe 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 between holes ensures that you will not miss the victim. It is better to "waste" a little time probing tightly than to miss and have to re-probe the entire area.

If your fine search was decent, you should find the victim within the first or second circle (i.e., a 20 inch radius). Even if you encountered a spike (which is very uncommon with modern, three-antenna transceivers) or your fine search was sloppy, continuing to probe every 25 cm (10 inches) will eventually locate your victim. (My rough time estimate is that probing a one-meter radius [which would be a huge miss] at 10-inch intervals will take less than five minutes.)

When you find the victim with your probe, leave it in place and begin shoveling. Leaving the probe in place will help you stay on-target as you shovel and will remind you to not stand on the victim which might compromise his airway.

Spot Probing

Spot probing involves probing high-probability areas. It is used when the victim doesn't have an avalanche transceiver or when the transceiver has stopped transmitting.

High-probability areas include probing downhill of clues (e.g., skis or a snowmobile), uphill of catchments (e.g., trees, bushes, rocks), in depressions, near the toe of the avalanche, downhill of the point last seen, etc.

During spot probing, it is advisable to not probe deeper than 2 meters (6 feet). Surviving a such a deep burial is extremely unlikely; it is a better use of your time to search more locations.

You can hold your probe at any angle when spot probing (when probing after a transceiver fine search, the probe should be held at 90-degrees relative to the snow surface).

Probe Line Probing (click to expand)