Tech Tips: How To Choose an Avalanche Probe
Avalanche probes aren't glamorous. Sure, you have choices between different materials like steel, aluminum, and carbon, but they're basic compared with other avalanche safety gear in your kit. I mean, when is the last time you were hyped on the release of a new probe? For most backcountry users, the probe simply lives in the pack, serving only as an emergency tool for locating a buried victim under the snow. But, aren't you just a little bit curious about what else your probe can do? For instance, why does it have a color coded mark at 30cm or a change in color at 200cm? Why are there different lengths? Understanding your probe can make it one of the most useful tools in your backcountry kit.
Ortovox on the top. Black Diamond in the middle. Mammut on the bottom.
In this examination, we will look specifically at 3 of our favorite probes:
Length: Probes vary in length, from 240cm to 330cm. In the Northwest, our snowpack can get well over 100 inches (254cm) in the winter, so having a long probe is essential. A long probe (320cm and above) is not only your best bet at a probe strike in the deepest snow, it will reduce the need to bend over as much to probe all the way to the ground. Short and mid-length probes (240cm and 280cm) can be excellent choices in shallower snow packs, or in the early or late season when the snow is firm and the risk of avalanches is low.
Materials: The Ortovox and Mammut probes in this exam are made up of aluminum, while the Black Diamond probe is made of carbon. All have steel tips. Materials play into both price and weight, but another thing to consider is longevity. Most of our guides use aluminum probes, as they tend to withstand a bit more wear and tear than the carbon versions. That being said, all the segments of a probe are tensioned with a cable or cord that creates rigidity and strength when probing firm snow. A 320cm probe is generally stronger than a 240cm probe, due to larger diameter segments.
Numbers and Markers: This is where it gets interesting. I will do my best to breakdown and explain each probe, and it's markings. All the probes in this exam are 320cm in length.
Ortovox Alu 320+ PFA
Marked in neon orange from the tip to 40cm
Marked in blue from 40cm to 80cm
Neon orange mark at 100cm
Black Diamond Quick Draw Carbon 320
Marked in red at 30cm, 90cm, and 200cm
Mammut 320 Speed Lock
Marked in neon orange from the tip to 40cm
Neon orange mark at 150cm
Color change from silver to black around 200cm
What do all these numbers mean? Let's first look at the Ortovox and Mammut probes, as they both have neon orange from the tip to 40cm. This coloration is a safety indicator that you are close to your victim (essentially within a single shovel head). The Ortovox probe has another coloration (blue) from 40cm to 80cm, as another color indication of depth. Think of this as a gradient: 80cm/blue means you're getting close, and 40cm/orange means you're within a shovel blade length of the victim. Next, the Ortovox probe has a neon orange mark at 100cm to mark the average burial depth of a victim. I'm not sure why this is significant, because studies have shown that most victims rescued alive are within 1.5m of the snow surface. For this reason, the Mammut Speed Lock probe has a neon orange mark at 150cm. In other words, this can be used as a quick depth indication when rapidly probing for that first strike. Now, we haven't looked at the Black Diamond Quick Draw yet, because most of it's markings are setup with a different purpose in mind. Rather than rescue focused marks, the Quick Draw probe has marks that are more useful in snow pits. The 30cm and 90cm marks are quick reference when isolating a column, or extended column. Both the Black Diamond probe and the Mammut probe have marks at 200cm, which can be used for the long portion of a Rutschblock test (200cm x 150cm), as well as a maximum probing distance marker. The chance of survival below 2m is less than 5% (Swiss stastistics, 1993), which is why most rescuers do not probe beyond this depth.
Other Considerations: My favorite thing about an avalanche probe is the pull handle + assembly action. When selecting a probe, I want to make sure the handle is easy to use with gloves on, and the segments don't jam up when assembling. All three probes in this post are excellent in these aspects. When touring, make sure your handle is accessible from outside the bag. Another aspect of the probe is it's locking mechanism. Make sure the probe locks AND unlocks easily. From time to time, examine your avalanche probe's locking mechanism to make sure it is in working order.
Handles and locks
Conclusion: While it's certainly more fun to practice with your avalanche beacon and shovel, I encourage you to evaluate your own avalanche probe, and learn what all of it's markings mean. If you're looking at getting a new probe, thinking about what features are important to you. At the end of the day, price and weight differences are negligible, so choose the one that fits your needs the best.
Knowledge is speed, and speed saves lives.
Retail Shop Manager