Snow Sense, New Edition – Avalanche Safety Book Review

Post by blogger | October 5, 2011      

“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.


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11 Responses to “Snow Sense, New Edition – Avalanche Safety Book Review”

  1. Alex Kerney October 5th, 2011 9:02 am

    I met Jill and Doug while they were in photo choosing and final writing mode all while being 8000 miles away from home and trying to communicate the book over SSB. Very nice, incredibly knowledgable, and had many good stories (and food to share). They also have their super smart pup aboard: [img][/img]

    I will definitely be picking up the new copy, and their other books Snowstruck and Rowing to Latitude are great reads that are more story telling.

  2. Ryan October 5th, 2011 10:08 am

    Is there a resource specifically focused on avy accident evaluation much like Accidents in NA Mountaneering? It sounds like the authors above worked from something like that and you routinely see reports and the evaluations but it would be great to have a compilation of consice and consistent reports that the average BC traveller could get his hands on. Showing post-accident pit evaluations, victim/rescuer interviews and the like would be very useful. I’m sure such a thing exists and I’m asking the obvious question so please do me a favor and delete my post when twenty of your other readers point this out to me. Thanks.

  3. Scott Chamberlin October 5th, 2011 11:22 am

    I believe is the best place to get links to the available accident reports within the US. They don’t always have all of them but its the best central resource. Here is the link:

  4. Jonathan Shefftz October 5th, 2011 11:41 am

    @Ryan, the Snow Torrents volumes used to be exactly that, but haven’t been issued in many years — I think 1986 is the last year covered?. Avalanche Accidents in Canada though has been published through 2007.

    Looking forward to the new Snow Sense. I’m required to assign the current edition to my avy courses, but it’s so dated that I never refer to it. Hoping the new edition will be truly updated. My favorite intro-level avy text will likely still remain the avy chapter in the Volken book.

  5. Mark W October 5th, 2011 12:05 pm

    Definitely good reading. I’m glad Ryan asked about any avalanche publications similiar to Accidents in North American Mountaineering as I have found such to be helpful in learning what not to do in the mountains. Learning from others’ mistakes is sometimes very valuable.

  6. Rick October 5th, 2011 4:45 pm


    As you’ve seen:


    This online resource covers incidents through 1996; hardcopy publication is available for incidents through 2007.

    The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) maintains a list as well; CO-specific incidents are covered in more depth:

    The Snowy Torrents covers US incidents through 1986; more recent incidents are being worked on but no promised publication date.

  7. Jim October 5th, 2011 7:43 pm has some good post accident reports and analysis on their site.

  8. snowplower October 11th, 2011 12:16 am

    I have never been in an avalanche, but I would imagine snow plowing can lead to a few if your not careful

  9. Jonathan Shefftz October 20th, 2011 1:46 pm

    This reminds me, I just noticed that the Daffern book came out with a third edition in 2009.
    The previous second edition had struck me as aimed at the same level as the Tremper book (i.e., start out with the very basics, but then move up through and a little past the material in a typical L1 course), but just far inferior overall in terms of presentation, plus really dated.
    Anyone check out the 2009 3rd edition?

  10. Frank Rossi October 25th, 2011 12:26 am

    The organized rescue probeline spacing on page 120 and 121 is not the accepted spacing of 50cm (20″) across the line, and the line advances 50cm (20″) which give a probability of detection on first pass of 88%. Jill and Doug should have added Linda Ballard, Henry Ballard, or Dale Atkins to their list of editors. They have presented several papers on the computer modeling of various probeline spacing and are considered the authorities on this subject.

  11. Lou October 25th, 2011 8:05 am

    Jonathan, I’ve got a review copy of Daffern’s third edition sitting here. Not sure how it fell through the cracks. I like it. More of a textbook than Snowsense. I’d recommend them both, paired.

    Frank, interesting point about the probeline spacing. Not sure it’s all that important for our focus here at, which is prevention and companion rescue…

    Beyond body recovery via probline, Daffern covers the important subject of shoveling for a still living victim on pp 187 of his third edition, with a nod to Bruce Edgerly and Dale Atkins for their research on this all important subject.


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