Love, Chocolates and Slope Stability
By Scotty Savage
Let’s try a visualization exercise in honor of Valentine’s Day. Picture yourself opening a heart shaped box of chocolates. Now comes one of life’s great challenges: choosing a piece of chocolate. Which pieces have the good stuff inside – caramel, almonds, pure chocolate – and which are the mines in the minefield, the pieces that look oh-so-good but are actually hiding a center filled with some disgusting, unidentifiable, berry nougat mystery substance? This might be hard to believe, but assessing snow stability on slopes that we want to ride or high-mark is a similar task in some ways.
Avalanches typically occur when a relatively weak layer of snow (the weak layer) is unable to support the denser, stronger snow (the slab) lying above it. We can usually see the slabs, but the layers below, including weak layers, are hidden from view – just like the chocolate fillings. While biting into a foul tasting chocolate might ruin a few seconds of your day, “biting” into a hidden weak layer can have serious consequences. Unfortunately, it’s poor form to nibble on several chocolate pieces, testing them until you find a filling you like. However, we can do something akin to this in the backcountry; we can ”nibble” on slopes, testing them for the presence of weak layers.
• Drop cornices onto the slope – large chunks have a good chance of triggering a slide if unstable conditions exist
• Ski/ slope cut (zip across the top of the slope from safe spot to safe spot) small but similar slopes that have minimal consequences in case you are caught in a slide
• Ski/slope cut questionable slopes while on belay
• Dig quick pits, preferably on similar but less-steep slopes or while on belay on questionable slopes, to determine how widespread the weak layer is
• Learn how to perform and interpret snow stability tests such as compression tests, extended column tests, and propagation saw tests
When we approach a slope we can’t actually see the buried weak layers that may be lurking beneath the snow surface, but the preceding tests do a good job identifying unpalatable slopes. Now if only someone would invent a test for figuring out which chocolate pieces have the goods inside and which ones we should avoid at all costs! Until then, we’ll have to settle for safely sampling tasty lines in the backcountry while occasionally being fooled by inviting-looking orange cherry mint nougat filled chocolates.
Hand in Hand: Romance and Avalanches
Togetherness: A relationship isn’t a relationship without a partner, and a sled or ski tour in avalanche terrain isn’t a safe one without a partner. There’s nothing wrong with a little “me time”, but we should keep the soloing to the flats or on VERY stable days.
A little space: Just as no one wants to earn “ex” status by clinging to the object of your affection 24/7, avalanche partners need to give each other a little room as well. Maintain adequate spacing on the approach, descend one at a time, and always stop in safe places out of the avalanche path or runout zone when you’re watching others tear it up.
“Protect” yourself and your partner(s) with the proper equipment: There are far better resources than myself to speak about romantic protection and equipment, but I encourage everyone to use your avalanche beacons, shovels, and probes as diligently as your romantic, um, “equipment.”
Scotty Savage has spent much of the past two decades with his head in the snow (by design some of the time) while working as an avalanche forecaster in Big Sky, Montana. He is currently studying his and others’ avalanche related mistakes in an effort to reduce avalanche workplace accidents. Scotty is an avalanche educator for the Friends of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. He still can’t believe he found and married his dream girl and that she’s put up with his antics for over 10 years.