A metal rod used to probe through avalanche debris for buried victims.

Avalanche probes are a must for the backcountry. They can knock precious minutes off rescue times in an avalanche situation. Collapsible probes assemble quickly, they’re longer and they slide through the snow much more easily than ski pole probes. Finally they are very lightweight and compact in your backpack. Many ski patrollers strap a collapsible probe to their shovel handle along with flagging for marking the perimeter of avalanche debris, clues and the route to the avalanche accident.

Rescue Without Beacons:
The only thing worse than doing an avalanche rescue is doing one without beacons. It’s your basic needle-in-a-haystack situation. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of complete burials without beacons do not survive. Beacons are very inexpensive when compared to a human life, especially your own. Beacons also save your friends from having to spend all night probing for you. Life without beacons is not good.

Rescue without a beacon means using a probe. Hopefully everyone in your group has either collapsible probe poles or avalanche probe ski poles, and if not, then you will need to go ALL the way back to the Stone Age and use tree branches or whatever else you can find.

Initial search
Some people also refer to this as a “hasty search”, but I don’t like that term because it implies that speed is more important than thoroughness. In an initial search, move quickly down or up the avalanche path and concentrate on places where the avalanche debris has piled up such as:
• Debris piled on the uphill side of trees
• Debris collected on the outside of turns
• Debris at the bottom
• Also concentrate on areas around clues such as a ski, glove or snowmobile In each one of these areas:
• Look carefully for something sticking out of the snow–a hand, a glove, a ski, a snowmobile. Probe around these areas. Snowmobile victims are usually found 3-15 meters (10-40) feet UPHILL of their snowmobile.
• Spot-probe these likely areas by randomly probing the likely areas. Don’t spend a lot of time probing at this stage. You should try to cover the entire avalanche path in about 10-15 minutes.

Organized Probing:
If the initial search turns up nothing, then your victim(s) are most likely completely buried. Don’t send someone away from the scene to get help, at least not yet. You need all your resources to search. If you have no luck after about an hour, then send someone to get help.

If you only have a couple of searchers, it’s probably best to continue to do random probing of likely areas. If you have, say, four or more people, then you should organize them into probe lines, but only after doing a complete initial search of the debris.

Start in the most likely area, for instance an area in line with a clue (ski, snowmobile, glove, etc) or downhill from the last seen area. Start at the BOTTOM of the avalanche debris and work your way uphill. For small groups of searchers, say less than about ten, the 3-hole probe has the highest probability of finding someone. Line up fingertip to fingertip. Then probe three times, once to the left, once in the center and once to the right. Keep track of the probes from your partners to keep the probes evenly spaced and watch to make sure everyone stays in a straight line. Probing is much easier if one person can take the lead and call out the signals, “Probe right. Probe center. Probe left. Step forward.”

This kind of “course probing” has about a 70 percent chance of finding a victim on the first pass. Statistically, this is the most efficient use of resources with the combination of speed and thoroughness. Probe all the likely areas. If you have reason to think that you may have missed a victim on one pass, make another pass. Remember that snowmobilers tend to be located just uphill of their snowmobiles, usually 3-10 meters.

If, you have not had any success after, say about an hour, then it’s time to send someone for help. An organized rescue team will come in with search dogs and if the dogs can’t locate the victim then they will form larger teams of probers to cover the entire area. If they have no success with probes and dogs after several days–which is common with very deep burials–they will have no choice but to leave the victim to melt out in spring. And yes, the price of a beacon is always better than putting loved ones through that.