As you dive further into the backcountry lifestyle, you will hopefully have a natural desire to learn more about the snowpack underneath your feet. The more you know, the better your decisions will be on whether or not to tackle a certain slope.
The best way to get informed is to dig a snow profile to study the layers in the snowpack and how they interact with one another. Studying the snowpack behavior in a pit will be able to give you a better idea of how it will behave while you are skiing or splitboarding on a similar slope.
There are a unique set of tools that you need to guage the snowpack, and it is important to have each and every one of these to get as much information as possible. If you are taking an avalanche safety course you will need these tools, so get them now and start practicing how to use them beforehand if you haven’t already taken a course.
The tools essential for proper snowpack study are:
You should already have a shovel in your pack as it is essential for rescuing a buried victim in an avalanche. But a shovel is also used in snowpack study and stability testing.
The best shovel on the market for snow study is the G3 Avitech shovel, as it has a flat base that will allow you to form a flat wall in the snow surface. This makes it much easier to see the layers than from using a round shovel. It is also ideal for performing both compression and shear tests.
Snow study is all about data. A lot of it. From wind direction to slope aspect to the type of snow crystals and many more, there is so much data to analyze you’ll have to write it down. A field book helps you organize it concisely. With columns and rows to display all the data sets neatly, you’ll be able to log the info efficiently so that when you get indoors the data can be interpreted easily and without confusion. The books are printed on waterproof paper, so you need not worry about pulling it out in adverse conditions. Don’t forget to pack a couple pencils as well!
The thermometer is important because every snow layer can have different temperatures. Measuring and observing the differences in temperatures can give you valuable clues to the snowpack’s strenghts and weaknesses. Be sure to get a thermometer that is specific to snow study or it may not work properly in adverse conditions.
A clinometer measures the slope angle of whatever it is measuring. This is important because you can easily gauge whether the particular slope you are traveling on is in the danger zone. Once you become more experienced you will be able to gauge better with your eyes, but as you are starting out it is always a good idea to gauge the slope with a clinometer – slopes can often be deceiving.
A ruler is important for snow study for several reasons. One is that you can easily tell the depth of certain trouble layers, and create a uniform description. When performing compression tests this information is valuable in deciding how dangerous a potential break might be. A ruler is also useful in measuring the depth of new snow vs. older layers, as well as identifying the consistency of the snow by the size of your footprint/ski print (also called “penetration depth”).
Loupe and Snow Crystal Screen
The crystal screen helps you to identify the size and type of the snow in each layer. You simply grab a sample of snow from each layer in the screen, and using the loupe, you can look at individual crystals and determine their consistency. This information is crucial to making informed decisions on the strength of the snowpack. Once you learn the characteristics of each crystal type, you will have knowledge of the inherent risks with each type. This is when an avalanche course is essential, as an instructor can help you differentiate the individual crystal categories.
A saw is used to cut into solid layers of snow, as well as to form columns in your snow profile for compression tests. It is an essential tool that you will use nearly every time you study the snow. There are many out there but the G3 Bonesaw is our personal preference – it stays sharp, can attach to your shovel to extend your reach, and even has a crystal screen and bonus bottle opener! They really have thought of everything you would need in the backcountry…..
Like the shovel, you should already have this in your pack and know what to use it for. But when studying the snow the probe comes in handy. Initiallly you will want to use the probe to find a good spot clear of terrain features underneath. You could potentially waste a lot of time by selecting an area without probing, start digging, and then find a tree or rock one meter down. To avoid digging multiple times, probe your desired area first. Laying the probe down on the snow also helps you easily and quickly mark out the area you are digging in a straight line, allowing for a cleaner structure. After you have dug your pit you can use the probe to easily gauge the depth, as most probes today mark depths out on their side.