“Every accident, of any kind, is preceded by a chain of events or a series of errors, but each is set into motion at one irreversible moment…” write Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler in their now classic and recently re-editioned avalanche safety handbook “Snow Sense.”
Edited by USFS avalanche scientist Karl Birkeland and Gallatin NF avalanche center director Doug Chabot, the new edition of “Snow Sense” continues the tradition of this book being a concise and easily studied guide that hits every aspect of avoiding deadly errors in how you handle avalanche danger. Early versions were small staple bound pamphlets at around 50 pages; new edition is still hand-sized but perfect bound at 132 pages. The book is a bit large for carrying in the field, but really, everything in this book should be in your head anyway.
“Snow Sense” gives you a valuable walk through the mechanics of avalanches, as well as methods of evaluating hazard. But it’s the decision making an judgment-call advice in this book that’s the strong point.
Most people can remember how to do a snow pit or recognize a dangerous day, but it’s your decisions based on those observations that get you in trouble. More, you can inculcate an effective decision making process one season, then come next season, due to changes in your personality, partners or mental state, you might find yourself mentally unorganized and without a solid judgment process.
To help with decision making, on page 88 “Snow Sense” breaks into the human factor with seven pages exposing how our personalities get us killed. After that, you get the meat of the decision making content. First, Jill and Doug expound on their traffic lights “red light green light” method of making behavior choices based on clues you get from the environment. Next, you’re treated to a concise exposition on route finding in avalanche terrain.
I found it interesting that the author’s “traffic lights” system came about because a basic hazard evaluation checklist they developed was being used AFTER accidents to evaluate why they happened — to identify where the “BUT… we kept going” happened. That wasn’t exactly the point of Jill and Doug’s checklist. Using the traffic lights analogy is thus an attempt to get past rationalizations; the idea being you get in the habit of always assigning each avalanche hazard clue a red, yellow or green light. If you’re getting more than a few yellow lights, you immediately take stock; red lights, whoa, and so forth. The details are a bit too complex to expound here, but the book makes it all clear. In the end, if you follow the Snow Sense methodology you’ve got a pretty good chance of a long life as a backcountry skier without that “one irreversible moment.”
A chapter on avalanche rescue rounds things out. Included is a nod to the incredibly important concept of shoveling strategy, as well as a few paragraphs on Avalung and airbags. Most telling, the rescue chapter begins with the words “The best strategy is to avoid getting caught because avalanche rescue does not work very well.” Studying “Snow Sense” can be a major contributor to that ultimate goal. Many thumbs up.
Shopping for “Snow Sense” is tricky. At this time you’ll only find the 4th edition, while the book reviewed here and the only one you should shop for is the 5th edition, 2011. For example, the Snow Sense on the REI website is the 4th edition. According to the authors, that will change shortly as the 5th edition has been printed and is in distribution. They said both REI and Amazon will soon have the 5th edition.