We are off to avalanche camp where you have to work and toil, learning about avalanches by doing and doing and doing over and over until it’s second nature. Here, academic knowledge turns into intuitive knowledge. Avalanche boot camp. Get serious, as begins the daily routine that most avalanche junkies perform, without fail, all winter long. First, pull up the local avalanche forecast to get the big picture of what’s going on: what kind of avalanche activity happened yesterday, what they think is going to happen today.
If there’s no forecast for your area, check the internet, bring up the closest one, and extrapolate as best you can. Check the weather to get the latest forecast.
Avalanche intuitive knowledge survival camp, begins the daily routine
Browse through current weather data. Take the latest data and update your seasonal history chart. All of the avalanche professionals I know get completely out of touch with the snowpack if they take a vacation in the winter for more than a few days. When they get back, it takes several days to get back in the rhythm of the weather and snowpack.
If you’re a weekend warrior who lives away from the mountains, then you are already at a disadvantage, but not an insurmountable one. Consult the forecast each day, just like when you’re away from your family for a week and call every day to keep up. Otherwise, when you return home, you will be just another stranger.
Now it’s time to head for the mountains. You will need all your gear: snow saw, hand lens, compass, inclinometer, thermometer, rope, transceiver, shovel, probe, and field notebook. Head for your favorite place someplace you go often and know well, someplace where there are avalanches, someplace interesting. Notice everything. How much new snow? How long since it snowed? What kind of snow is on the surface? Temperature? Wind? Humidity? Cloud cover? How many tracks are on the slopes? Are people triggering avalanches? Do you see any avalanches, and if so, how old are they? How deep? How wide? Which aspect? What elevation? Write it all down in your field notebook.
Whatever you do, don’t go jump on a steep slope. Now is the time to gather information. Head for a small, safe test slope that is as close to 39 degrees as possible. How does the snow feel on the way to the test slope? Do you notice collapsing, cracking, or a slabby feel, or is the snow right-side up and solid underneath? Jump on the slope to see how it responds. Find an undisturbed slope around 30 degrees. Shady aspects are better; thinner snowpacks are more interesting. Dig a snowpit with lots of working room and perform all the tests stability.
Today is the day to go slow and pay attention. Write down everything, including date, time, elevation, aspect, steepness, weather, snow-surface conditions, how far you sink in it on foot, snow profile, temperature profile, results of stress tests, and crystal types. What’s the weakest layer? How weak is it? How much force is it going to take to initiate a crack within the weak layer, and most important, does it propagate? Plan to spend the entire day refining your snowpit techniques.
Dress warmly and try to pick a warm, sunny day so you will be comfortable. Make sure your pit wall is smooth and vertical. Do all the tests properly, and do them over and over until you can do them correctly every time. Spend time identifying all the snow crystals and all the layers. Look at them carefully through your hand lens. Dig other snowpits on the same slope to see how the snow varies from place to place, especially from shallow areas to deep areas.
When you head home, watch for recent avalanches, wind, clouds, new snow, and recent tracks. Are people triggering avalanches, or are they crossing the slopes without incident? Write all of this down in an organized way.