How To Keep Your Head Above Snow

It might seem that the more years of snowpack assessing you’ve got under your belt, the easier it would be to call a slope safe to enter, ski or cross. But the longer I’ve been out there, the more I realize what I don’t know.  Experience is a tricky thing. Some people safely spend a lifetime in the backcountry with no formal avalanche training. They just have pure luck and never get caught, while the most careful person goes out once and gets taken out. Bad luck? In avalanche terrain I don’t want to push my luck because when your luck runs out, it can be very, very bad.

Here are some quick tips to improve your “luck.”

Everyone should consult the local avalanche forecast before they head out, to get an overall picture of the snowpack and see where to go and not to go. And sometimes people dig a snow pit here and there to get hands-on, live information. All that is great, and I highly recommend doing that. However, as a longtime mountain guide and avalanche instructor, I get most of my information by “keeping my head above the snow,” literally, while observing and skiing. I make the snow talk to me.

Why would I keep my head more above the snow then in a snow pit? The biggest, most sensible, reason is that information from a snow pit is limited to one small area. It’s limited to that elevation and aspect. It gives me a great idea of the overall snowpack and the layering and bonding of snow over time, but it varies from foot to foot. So, while travelling on snow, I observe all the direct and indirect factors that might influence the snowpack and my decision to ski or not ski a slope, such as:

• Temperature changes from the start of the trip to the end of the trip. Warming can be a major factor leading to an increase in avalanche danger, especially in spring.

• Precipitation, in form of rain and or heavy snowfall, as it piles up and increases the danger.

• Wind activity like past or recent snow drifts, how strong it’s blowing, and which direction it’s blowing to and from in order to determine where the snow has been transported to what aspect.

• Solar radiation, as there might be a crust or a crust forming, which might make for bad skiing anyhow.

• Very obvious—but often ignored—is avalanche activity. Look around, observe any activity, and then, ask whether you are travelling in that aspect, snowpack and elevation. It is the only piece of information that relates directly to the stability of the snow.

• Skier compaction, to assess if a slope has been skied a lot or not. Whether others have skied a slope on a regular basis after every significant snowfall has an impact on how a slope might be more stable. 

In addition to observing those factors, along the way I do a variety of easy field tests:

• Do a ski pole test. To get a good feel of the upper snow pack layers, I push my ski pole into the snow to feel the different levels of resistance to see whether there are some weak layers, or inconsistency or consistency in the layers.

• Step out of an already existing skin track to see what my ski penetration is. Also, traveling off the track a bit allows me to better observe a “whump” sound or cracking in the snowpack.

• Kick off the triangle from a kick turn to see how the snow reacts.

• Do a “hand pit or mitt pit” by just grabbing the snow, feeling or squeezing it, and looking at the crystals on my gloves-should be black gloves. This allows me to see the crystals and identify them without a magnifying glass and feel different layers and bonding between them.

• Do a quick hand-shear test to see what the shear strength might be, or do a quick hand-compression test by isolating a small column and do a shear or compression test on it to see how the layers react.

All of these relatively simple field tests and observations can be done while travelling through a lot of different terrain, aspects and elevations. They provide a wealth of information about the bonding, layering and depth of the snowpack. Although all of these tests and observations are inexact and informal, they’re still a lot better then just hoping for a lucky day. I’m not just doing all of this to assess the danger. I also want to know what slope is going to be my best choice to get safe, quality turns.

Once I’ve collected all this information, I evaluate every slope, and lastly I consult one very important factor: my intuition. When I have a bad feeling—no matter the outcomes of all my tests and observations—I do not go. I find an alternative. My intuition has not proven me wrong yet. For that last call of whether to go or not to go, listen to your gut feeling. You have nothing to lose except a ski day if your intuition not to go is wrong, and everything to lose if your intuition is right and you ignored it.

I strongly believe that traveling in the backcountry is not dangerous per se. It’s ignorance of the factors that cause avalanches that creates the danger.  Be armed with as much information and as many tools of assessment as you can.

This is my personal opinion, and of course, entering avalanche terrain will always be risky. You as the reader have to be aware of the risk and take responsibility for your own actions with all the consequences. This article is only a tiny bit of information and is by no means complete.

So have fun out there and don’t forget keep your head above the snow!


Photo by Fredrik Marmsater.