(Editor’s note: While published some time ago, this is still a useful field guide, perfect for those new to snow safety.)
Through the years, most avalanche safety books have reminded me of my high-school math text — a book with useful knowledge but one I wouldn’t lug around anywhere but in the hallway of Aspen High School (where I enjoyed my teenage formative years.)
In contrast, John Moynier’s handbook of avalanche safety, Avalanche Aware, is compact and lugable. Moynier’s book begins with a well illustrated primer covering the fickle beast’s many guises, from slab to powder to ice.
A few pages later we cut to the gut. John’s system of evaluation is succinct. Simply put, he divides many factors into a triad: Terrain, Weather, and Snowpack. Details are complete, and include crucial caveats such as the weakening effect even a light rain has on the snowpack.
On to avalanche avoidance. He writes, “Safe routefinding is more than just deciding which side of a tree, creek or ridge you should travel on.” That is well said, and imparts the importance of mastering skills such as group dynamics, self evaluation, and map reading. Indeed, avalanche safety should be incentive for backcountry skiers to master every aspect of winter outdoorsmanship.
John’s snow science coverage is refreshingly brief. Frankly, I’ve grown tired of efforts by authors and avalanche safety instructors to take a lab egghead’s approach to safety. For starters, it’s not easy to find a safe study plot you’re sure has the same snowpack as that of the slide path you question. Moreover, even snow scientists with the brains of Einstein can’t predict exactly enough for 100% safe skiing. Human error is a problem, and wind, sun, or rain may change the snowpack in minutes.
Moynier avoids nerding. He keeps bigwords like “equitemperature” to a minimum, and relates snow conditions back to real life events such as abandoning your trip if massive spring slides are likely because of warm nights.
In the book’s chapter about snow testing Moynier does an excellent job of describing tests such as the rutschblock (slide-block in English) and shovel shear. Such trials add grist to your decision mill, but can devolve to crystal ball gazing — especially if they’re done on snow that fails to reflect the true nature of snow on the slide paths in question. E.g, one of my avalanche gurus said, “the only test worth beans is done on belay in the starting zone of the path you plan on skiing.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but you can fool yourself if you don’t. I do know my guru is still alive.
Thankfully, John says “To be on the safe side, treat all test data as inconclusive and back it up with other observations.”
Avalanche Aware distills a complex subject to essentials anyone can understand — given a bit of motivation. Consider being buried alive; crushed in a crypt of cold white marble. Got your attention? Memorize John Moynier’s book.