For the second part of a multi-post series on avalanche safety gear we will take a look at avalanche probes and answer some questions to help you pick the right model.
Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)
An avalanche probe is so much more than just a rescue resource! In fact it is one of my most used tools to make snow-pack observations, both formal and informal.
For example, tracking average snow depth over the terrain helps me better understand the high degree of variability in our terrain. By “gently” probing I can feel for denser layers over weaker layers (possible slabs) and get a sense of how complex the snow-pack I am traveling over is, including the number and prevalence of melt-freeze crusts in our snow-pack, which often are quite relevant to assessing snow stability.
When taking the time to look more closely at the snow-pack via digging a snow-pit the probe helps me identify the depth of any questionable layers. Finally the probe must deploy quickly and reliably in the event of an avalanche accident and provide that critical piece of info, burial depth, once you get a “probe strike”. For all these reasons I would suggest you think critically about what probe you should carry, and below I will help you narrow the field to the model that is right for you.
Aluminum vs Carbon vs Steel
Aluminum probes are likely the most common out there. A solid balance between weight, durability, and affordability. Carbon probes are gaining popularity. Ounce counters will justify the higher cost to save a couple ounces. Steel probes are the choice of organized rescue teams around the world, trading extra weight for long-term durability.
*One experienced reader (@whats_thematterhorn) has pointed out that those who spend a lot of time in glaciated terrain might avoid carbon poles… frequent probing through glacier hard snow/ice to designate “safe areas” and assess snow bridges can lead to pre-mature wear or failure of a carbon probe. In addition a longer probe might be more beneficial in big mountain terrain (Alaska) than in our lower 48 BC terrain.
Length- 240 cm, 280 cm, 320 cm?
Avalanche probe length can vary, with the most common length for recreational users being 240 cm. Considering the average burial depth is 1.4 meters this gives us an extra meter in length over “average” to account for deeper burials. Longer probes do allow one to probe deeper without having to bend over but are best suited for professional rescue where weight/pack-ability isn’t at a premium. The extra length, unfortunately, is more for “recovery” rather than rescue as someone buried over 2 meters deep has a very low chance of survival.
Let’s look at some of the Ortovox models and who they would be best suited for…
A “budget” choice but one that really beats any other model at this price on the market. 5 cm depth markers, a high visibility first section combined with a visible 1 meter mark and quick lock system all make this a very fine option at a bargain price point.
A significant upgrade in the Ortovox Aluminum line the 240 PFA model adds a faster assembly system, a strong and light steel tensioning system (instead of the thin rope used in the Alu 240), and a better top hand grip for precise control during a systematic probe search. This would be my best recommendation for the majority of recreationalists!
The lightest probe in the Ortovox line this is the model of choice for those who like to shave ounces from their kit, yet it still has great durability and the quick lock assembly system as well as the “visual guide system” that is a feature of all Ortovox probes. If you like to streamline your kit this is the one to look at!
Longer than the 240 cm models and extendable (can be extended with another probe) this model is the choice of mountain guides and rescue groups around the world. Light weight carbon with a high strength steel tension system and the rubberized top grip make this a solid choice for, ski patrol, rescue, and mountain professionals everywhere.
Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Probe $109.95
The biggest and most robust of the line-up, the high weight of this work-horse really lends itself to professional rescue and the back-country snowmobile crowd where an extra pound of weight will not be noticed.
No matter what probe you have it is imperative that you practice with it regularly. From my experience of teaching avalanche courses for over 10 years I can say that most people, even those who have owned a probe for a few seasons, have not practiced with them enough. How should you practice? Consider running “deployment” drills where you must remove your backpack, access your pack, and deploy your probe correctly, all under a stopwatch. Race your friends and touring partners. Make it a game. You will be surprised how much people can fumble and struggle with the locking mechanism on their probe. The bottom line is in an avalanche rescue every second counts and a lot of time can be lost if you are not efficient at deploying your probe. Take the time to get proficient!
Don’t take your avalanche probe storage sack into the back-county. Leave it at home and use it for home-storage and travel. Taking it into the field slows your ability to deploy your probe quickly and they often get blown away and lost in the lightest of winds.
I hope you’ve found this post informative and educational. At the end of the day there are a ton of great probes on the market these days from quite a few different companies. I obviously love the Ortovox line and I think when you objectively compare features and get some hands-on time with any of these models you’ll feel the same way.
Consider upgrading your rescue skills with the all new 8 hour AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course! This is a fantastic addition in the field of avalanche education and something you should consider if you’ll be spending time in avalanche terrain in the future! If you haven’t taken an AIARE 1 course yet, or maybe it’s been awhile, it’s not to late to get in on a course this season! See what dates we have left here! (Use promo code “DavidNEM” when booking)!
All of these models can be purchased directly from Backcountry.com here. A small percentage of your purchase will go to Northeast Alpine Start to support creating content like this. Thank you for your support!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)
Affiliate links above support this blog. Author is an Ortovox Team Athlete and so received any product mentioned at no cost.