Gear Review- Avalanche Safety Gear Part 2: Avalanche Probes

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 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

Part 4: Avalanche Airbags (coming soon)

Ortovox Avalanche Probes Review
Avalanche Probe Reviews- photo by Cait Bourgault

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…

Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe $39.95

Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Alu 240 Avalanche Probe- 200 grams (7 ounces)

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.

Ortovox Alu 240 PFA Avalanche Probe $59.95

Ortovox Alu 240 PFA Avalanche Probe

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!

Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Avalanche Probe $89.95

Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Probe
Ortovox Carbon 240 Superlight Avalanche Probe- 185 grams (6.5 ounces)

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!

Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe $99.95

Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Carbon 280+ PFA Avalanche Probe 355 grams / 12.5 oz

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

Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Avalanche Probe
Ortovox Steel 320+ PFA Avalanche Probe- 670 grams (1 lb 7.6 oz)

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.

Practice

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!

Pro-tip

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.

Summary

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.

Training

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)!

Purchase

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 1: Avalanche Transceivers (Beacons)

Part 2: Avalanche Probes

Part 3: Avalanche Shovels

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.

Mid Winter Season Check-in

I hope you have all been having a great winter so far. For me the early season ice climbing was great with a couple Black Dike ascents getting it off to a good start.

ice climbing black dike cannon cliff
Early season ascent of The Black Dike, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire- photo by Peter Brandon

Then we got 82 inches of snow in December followed by another foot the first week of January and it appeared we were about to enjoy an epic snow year. Then between January 11th-13th we received 3 inches of rain and lost over two feet of our snow-pack.

avalanche courses new hampshire
January 10th. Green is over 2 feet of snow
avalanche courses new hampshire
January 14th after 3 inches of rain

A highlight of this event was a massive wet slab avalanche that was larger than one recently retired Snow Ranger saw in his 10+ years of service there! Standing out on the debris with students two days after the slide one could not help but be impressed by the power of Mother Nature. It made regional news headlines and I saw quite a few people trek up to the floor of the ravine just to get a first hand look at it!

avalanche course tuckerman ravine mount washington
Students of an AIARE 1 course checkout the scale of the massive wet slab avalanche that occurred around 1/14/18- photo by Cait Bourgault

January failed to recover our snow-pack finishing the month with a total of only 29 inches (12 of which were washed away during that rain event). That is less snow in January in more than 10 years!

While it seemed a bit devastating the bright side was we started seeing ice form in strange places and ephemeral routes like Gandolf the Great and Hard Rane came in FAT!

Ice climbing Frankenstein Cliffs
Benny Allen follows me on a rarely fat Gandolf The Great- Photo by Ben Lieberman

All this ice was great for the 25th annual Ice Fest and despite a burly cold first day of the event folks seemed to have a great three days at the event.

Avalanche Courses

We’ve been having another great year for our avalanche courses with 6 AIARE 1 courses behind us, an Avalanche Rescue course, and an AIARE 2 course that just ended yesterday (with ski conditions that signaled ski season is definitely back!)

avalanche course tuckerman ravine mount washington
Making snow-pack observations during an AIARE 1 Course- photo by Alexandra Roberts

We only have one more AIARE 1 Course that isn’t sold out

NEW: March 3-5

One more Avalanche Rescue Course:

March 16

One more AIARE 2 Course:

March 17-19

Here’s some footage showing our last day of our AIARE 2 course which should get you stoked for the rest of the ski season!

 

If you do book any of these courses be sure to use “DavidNEM” in the promo/notes box to be entered into a drawing for a free guided adventure.

Gear Reviews

I have been testing a ton of great new gear this season from companies like Petzl, Sterling, Black Diamond, Kailas, Arcteryx, DPS, Dynafit, and many more. Expect to see a lot of new gear reviews posting in March and April as I find time to give these products honest and detailed reviews.

ice climbing Cathedral Ledge
Testing the Kailas Entheos II Ice Tools and clothing- photo by Peter Brandon

Looks like another nice dumping of snow (totals up to 14″) is coming Wednesday so I’m really looking forward to this weekends avalanche course! Hope you get out and enjoy the snow and thanks for reading!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

A Year in Review, 2017

As usual New Year’s Eve has snuck up on me with uncanny stealth. My general lack of calendar awareness certainly helped with my last minute realization that another year has gone by. What hasn’t gone unnoticed is how amazing this year was and I’d like to share some of that here.


Employment

Without a doubt the biggest change of the year was leaving Eastern Mountain Sports after 24 years of service. Anyone close to me knows that this decision at the end of 2016 was one of the toughest I’ve ever had to make. Leaving a big corporation to work for a small, relatively young, guide service felt risky and uncertain. However within weeks of working for Northeast Mountaineering I discovered that the owners, Corey and Brett, had created a culture that celebrated mountain life, guiding, stewardship and social responsibility. It was the perfect place for me to land after a seemingly major career move.

Every guide and ambassador I would meet and get to know over my first year working for NEM seemed to share the best possible qualities you’d want in a co-worker, climbing partner, or friend. The encouragement, support, and positive stoke at just about every turn has made this past year as memorable as it is.


Avalanche Courses

Avalanche course in Tuckerman Ravine
Avalanche course in Tuckerman Ravine, photo by Alexandra Roberts

Despite being the first year that Northeast Mountaineering had an in-house avalanche course program we hit close to 100% capacity in the 9 courses we ran. A great snow year allowed us to do a ton of actual ski touring. Along with my excellent co-instructor Benny we had classes tour full length routes in Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines, Gulf of Slides, Ammonoosuc Ravine, and Monroe Brook. Personal highlights of the season were investigating the extent of the historic Gulf of Slides avalanche, seeing my first legit Rutschblock 2 result, and meeting the awe-inspiring Vern Tejas who observed and contributed to one of our mid-winter courses.


Ice Climbing

Drool of the Beast
Drool of the Beast, photo by Brent Doscher

2017 was a solid year for my personal ice climbing. I was able to climb more Grade 4 and Grade 5 routes then I’ve been able to get on in the last few years, partially due to fatherhood and a really busy avalanche course schedule. By the end of the season I felt I was climbing as well as I was pre-parenthood, and that accomplishment felt pretty darn good. I have a few lofty goals for 2018 and can’t wait to get after them (in-between teaching avalanche courses every weekend and family life!)


Skiing in Iceland

Skiing in Iceland
Skiing in Iceland, photo by Matt Baldelli

In April my first international trip in about a decade brought me to the beautiful country of Iceland where I spent just over a week touring and experiencing this amazing place with one of the best groups of people I could ever hope to spend time with. Visiting this country re-kindled my desire to travel after feeling somewhat sedated after experiencing so much of the world in my early twenties and I am really looking forward to repeated trips back there starting with teaching an avalanche course there this March!


Rock Climbing

Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle
Guiding Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, photo by Peter Brandon

Cannon, Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle speed climb, Rumney, and a half dozen “Wednesday Sendsday’s” have re-ignited my passion for rock climbing that has always been there since I first tied into a rope in 1994, but getting to see others close to me fall in love with this sport on an almost weekly basis has fueled my desire to train and challenge myself to higher levels of performance above what my typical guiding requirements demanded.


Cascades

fullsizerender11
West Ridge of Forbidden Peak

In July I was able to fulfill a climbing trip dream I’ve had for over ten years by guiding on Mount Shuksan and Forbidden Peak and climbing Rainer with a friend and intern guide, Peter Brandon. This trip is something I’ve been training clients for for so many years and to get to spend time in this terrain with so many cool people was pretty much the greatest opportunity I have had second to becoming a father in the last 20 years. Seriously mind-blowing conditions, weather, and climbing made this a life time memory for me.


Ambassadorship

Skiing Mount Washington
Best powder day I’ve had on the West Side, photo by @cfitzgerald

I am super excited to join DPS Skis, Ortovox, and Revo for a second year of ambassadorship. I still wonder how I was lucky enough to hook up with these amazing brands. I can go into product details in reviews and debate minutia fabric issues until the end of the internet but without any shame I can say these three companies “get it”. They make stuff that people like me want. Cutting edge ski design, forward thinking avalanche safety gear, virtually unmatched clothing design, and best eye wear, sunglasses and goggles, I have ever experienced. If you want top-notch gear, have a look!


Blogging

It’s been a fantastic year to blog and share these adventures along with reviewing gear for some of the best companies out there. I love sharing my experiences and opinions and really want to focus on more travel guides, in-depth gear reviews, and how-to skill videos this upcoming year. If there is one thing I’m certain about it’s I love sharing my passion with everyone that shares these feelings in the mountains. Spending time in these places with good people is so vital to our sanity, and blogging gives me a slight escape when I’m not able to just head out the door on my next mountain adventure.

I’ve met quite a few readers in person over the past year. I’m so grateful for those of you who visit here, ask questions, post comments, click “like”, share, or even just mention briefly at the coffee shop you are happy with the boots you bought from my review. Keeping this blog going is a fantastic mix of fun, stress, guilt, reward, doubt, and confirmation.


I wish you all a fantastic 2018 and hope you have some amazing mountain adventures this year. I want to thank my family, especially my wife, for helping me experience my own adventures while still raising a family.

I hope to see you all out in the mountains soon shredding, sending, and tapping on shovels (and possibly tossing back a post epic pint at The Moat).

Happy New Year,

Northeast Alpine Start

First Avalanche Course of the Season!

This weekend we conducted our first AIARE Avalanche Course of the season and it was so lit! Seriously we couldn’t have hoped for better weather and conditions! Combine that with our NEW classroom space at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center and we had a fantastic 3 days! Here’s a quick recap!

Friday

After a morning of classroom we headed outside where a perfect terrain feature provided a realistic avalanche rescue demo for our 13 students.

Saturday

After another morning of engaging classroom discussions we were out the door just after lunch to conduct our “Observational Outing” in a shallow yet dynamic snow early season snow pack. After wrapping up class we got to drive back through the notch in quite the snow squall! Here’s some short clips from my Instagram story that afternoon!

Sunday

For our final day we met at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and the students, armed with recently acquired knowledge, dove into trip planning sessions to plan our tour. By 8:45 am we were skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to put to use everything we had talked about the previous two days. The following photos are all courtesy of Alexandra Roberts.

AIARE Avalanche Course
AM Student Led Trip Planning Session
AIARE Avalanche Course
Writing down the plan helps avoid some heuristic traps
AIARE Avalanche Course
Heading right into winter on Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine Trail
AIARE Avalanche Course
Quick break and observations at Hermit Lake
AIARE Avalanche Course
Discussing route options
AIARE Avalanche Course
Hands on learning about snow stability
AIARE Avalanche Course
Upper Sherburne ski trail was in pretty good shape!

Back at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center we reviewed our ski tour and debriefed the course before parting ways. By all accounts the first avalanche course of the season was a huge success. A big thanks to the 13 students who made it a great course by asking great questions and staying motivated through-out! Hope to see you all out there practicing your new skills!


Thinking of signing up for an avalanche course this winter?

Some of our courses have already sold out and many are close!

course dates

Course price includes two nights of lodging at The Bunkhouse!

You can book here, and use promo code “DavidNEM” to be entered to win a free guided trip of your choosing!

Thanks for reading!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course and hello Spring!

The last weekend of winter provided one of the most spectacular 3 days of higher summits weather I have ever seen in March! Blue skis and almost non-existent wind led to some really enjoyable ski touring on Mount Washington during our second-to-last American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) course.

Day One

We kicked off the course on Friday with some lively classroom sessions and small group exercises.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Benny discusses identifying avalanche terrain on day 1.
AIARE Avalanche Course
Small groups learn vicariously while discussing a local case study

Day Two

We met early to learn some advanced trip planning skills using CalTopo.com and the Avenza App. The Higher Summits Forecast called for southeast winds around 10-15 mph so we planned a tour on the west side of Mount Washington.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Powerful trip planning software that is 100% free!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Adjusting layers while skinning up the Cog
AIARE Avalanche Course
Small pockets of 2-3 mm Surface Hoar were found on sheltered north aspects above Waumbek Tank but below tree line
AIARE Avalanche Course
Benny demonstrates some snow pit observations near Jacob’s Ladder
AIARE Avalanche Course
Some cool wind effect and cornices nearby
AIARE Avalanche Course
We contoured around the rim of Ammonoosuc Ravine until we could drop the main gully or “Center Ammo”.

We concluded our tour with a debrief at the trail-head before calling it a day.

Day Three

AIARE Avalanche Course
Student led trip-planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail
AIARE Avalanche Course
Hermit Lake Snow Study Plot
AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning up between Lobster Claw Gully and Right Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Snow-pack Observations

Avalanche danger was LOW and we had plenty of time to spare so we booted up Lobster Claw and traversed over to the top of Right Gully.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Ready to boot up Lobster Claw
AIARE Avalanche Course
Bluebird!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Sherika after descending from pit location
AIARE Avalanche Course
300 pound block of ice came from somewhere

Some video of our descent:

AIARE Avalanche Course
All smiles after a good run!

We wrapped up the course back in the pack room with discussions about continuing to learn about traveling in the back-country. It was a real pleasure having each of you in this course. Thank you all for staying engaged and contributing through out our three days!

Tomorrow, and beyond!

Only one more avalanche course next weekend after a Mountain Skills Course tomorrow and Washington Climb on Thursday. It might seem like the winter season is winding down a little but we are set up for a fantastic Spring ski season! The warm rock climbing can wait this year… I still have a lot of skiing goals to accomplish including reviewing some new ski mountaineering gear from CAMP/Cassin, Ortovox, Petzl, and DPS. Expect a lot of gear reviews to be landing April/May after I get back from Iceland.

Yup, Iceland!  Been awhile since I’ve been out of country so I am SUPER amp’d about this upcoming trip.

Want to try backcountry skiing?

Maybe you just bought a setup or still need to rent a touring package (a few places in town rent touring gear). Maybe you’d like to avoid the maddening crowds in Tuckerman Ravine and check out some new to you terrain ? Consider learning about the joys of back-country skiing with me. The snow-pack we have in the alpine right now combined with more stable Spring weather is a GREAT time to book a back-country ski day!

You can read a bit about the program here but reach out to me directly at nealpinestart@gmail.com to check on available dates before trying to book!

Did you get out this weekend? Whatcha do? Let me know in the comments below!

Well thanks for reading, and welcome Spring!

See you in the mountains!

Repentance, Black Dike, Ice Fest, Avy Course!

What a week it has been! This time last Wednesday I was just topping out the classic hard line Repentance on Cathedral Ledge with my old friend Tom and new friend and fellow Northeast Mountaineering guide Jordan. The route was in excellent shape and felt a few degrees easier than when I first climbed it a few years ago with Bob & Ryan.

Thursday I got to guide NEM regular guest Nick up an equally fantastic Black Dike on Cannon Cliff. It had been years since I’d climbed this route and it was in great shape. We did have to wait for a party ahead of us but completed the climb in 6 hours car to car with some of the best glissading I have ever seen on the descent trail!

Friday we started our 4th avalanche course of the season and students and instructors alike partook in evening social hours upstairs at International Mountain Equipment and watched presentations at the Theatre in the Woods.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Skinning out in Crawford Notch during our Observational Outing during day 2 of our AIARE Avalanche Course

On Monday I started a 2 Day Ice Climbing Course and had the pleasure of introducing father & son team Andy and Peter to ice climbing at Cathedral Ledge and in Crawford Notch. The snow was fantastic and I geeked out a bit over some of the snappy wind slabs we found along our route.

Later that night I heard of a climbing accident on the Black Dike. A climber had fallen during the final moves and severely broke his ankle in the 50-60 foot fall. I spoke briefly with Nick last night and he is in good spirits and incredibly grateful for all of those who assisted him off the cliff.

That brings us to today, a chance for me to do some laundry, get to the dump, and attend to other household errands that have been put off for a bit too long. Another round of snow inbound for tonight so I’ll probably find myself skiing tomorrow before our next avalanche course starts on Friday.

What an absolutely fantastic winter we are having! Hope you are getting out there and enjoying it!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

This winter so far…

What a winter this is shaping up to be! Finding time to blog about any of it is starting to get tricky as I balance 5-6 days a week of guiding with getting my kiddo out on the slopes, driveway cleared, lunches made, dinner cooked, laundry done, say hello and good night to my wife, and wake up and do it all again.

I’m not complaining! This is absolutely my favorite time of the year and for good reason. Skiing and ice climbing conditions have been quite far above par. The transition to a new guide service has been almost seamless and the stoke level is at an all time high!

I’m keeping this post quite short as I have a little more prep to do for tomorrow’s 3rd avalanche class with Northeast Mountaineering but I want to share a couple of my favorite moments this season so far!

Ortovox, DPS Skis, and Revo Ambassadorship

Avalanche Course
Photo by Brent Doscher Photography

Definitely the coolest thing that has happened to me since fatherhood is having these companies support me. A huge shout out to Matt Murphy of Life Style Sales for connecting me with DPS skis, the makers of some seriously legit back-country sliding pro-tech, and Revo Sunglasses, high-end goggles and sunglasses I’ve been sporting for everything from whiteout flat light Tuckerman turns to blue-bird sunny day ice climbing. And finally I somehow ended up on Ortovox’s Athlete Team. I’ve been using their avalanche gear for years and now I have the opportunity to test and promote their incredible clothing and pack line. I am humbled and motivated by this opportunity. Expect to hear a lot more about what they are doing with high-end technical clothing when the dust (snow) settles.

Ice Climbing

ice climbing
Photo by Brent Doscher Photography

I haven’t kept hard numbers the last few years since fatherhood but I can say without a doubt I’ve climbed more ice in the last two months than I remember climbing the last few years, including the first Grade 5 in probably 5 years. I feel strong and look forward to ticking off some routes that have long been on my wish list this season.

Avalanche Courses

avalanche courses
Photo by Matt Baldelli Photography

I love being in the classroom as much as the field when it comes to avalanche education. It’s hard to describe how stoked I can get the minutes before another 3 day avalanche course starts. The excitement of getting ready to engage another group of back-country adventurers and start them on their journey of life-long snow-study and critical decision making produces a natural high to me. Or it could be the triple shot Americano. Either way I love teaching these courses.

Speaking of which I have case studies and agendas to print out for tomorrows course so that’s it for today. Stay tuned for a ton of gear reviews from Outdoor Research, Black Diamond, CAMP/Cassin, Patagonia, Ortovox, DPS, G3, and more.

Oh, and if you book an avalanche course, or any course with us at Northeast Mountaineering, use promo code “DavidNEM” for a chance to win a free guided day.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start