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Book Review: The Avalanche Handbook

That feeling of being weightless, gliding through the dry, powdery snow. That feeling of wonder as you gaze at the snow-capped peaks surrounding you entirely. That feeling of relaxation as you realize there’s no work, no computers and no boss within 50 kilometers of where you are now.

Backcountry touring, whether on a splitboard or skis, is like you’re in another world entirely. Yes, it’s an incredible amount of work to reach the top of a snow-covered mountain using your muscles alone but when you touch that summit, when you realize there’s no one else around, you feel the satisfaction of pushing your body and there’s nothing else like it. It’s worth every moment.

Heading into the backcountry isn’t all rainbows and unicorns though, and with such a reward comes an associated risk. With all of the snow that falls each year, comes the risk of that snow moving, of conditions being just right that your weight on that snow will cause it to slide. Better known as an avalanche. Some days its a small risk. Some days it could send you to the hospital, or worse.

Snow science isn’t something easy that you can learn in one day. A huge number of variables come together in an almost unimaginable number of ways to create avalanches that can a metre or take out entire forests or towns. It isn’t magic though, and there are signs you can look for in the snow to forecast what might happen.

Since World War II researchers around the world have been pushing hard into snow science and investigating every possible idea related to avalanches and snow safety. This post is a review of The Avalanche Handbook, an avalanche manual that brings together the best in more than 50 years of avalanche research. The Avalanche Handbook doesn’t contain every single idea from all research but it covers the most fundamental of those ideas, what the authors thought most important.

To give you a quick idea of what The Avalanche Handbook covers, here is the Table of Contents:

Chapter 1 – Character and Effects of Avalanches
Chapter 2 – Elements of Mountain Snow Climates and Weather
Chapter 3 – Snow Formation and Growth in the Atmosphere and Snowpack
Chapter 4 – Avalanche Formation
Chapter 5 – Avalanche Terrain, Motion, and Effects
Chapter 6 – The Elements of Applied Avalanche Forecasting
Chapter 7 – Classes of Factors Involved with Evaluation of Instability and Forecasting
Chapter 8 – The ABCs for Backcountry Avalanche Forecasting and Decisions
Chapter 9 – Safety Measures and Rescue
Chapter 10 – Avalanche Protection

It’s not a light, fluffy pamphlet on avalanches, it goes in deep. The book starts with quotes from popular publications from around the world.

From Off Piste, “Perhaps the definitive book on snow science and avalanche mechanics…The author’s credentials are impeccable.”

From the Pittsburgh Tribune, “The revised third edition of The Avalanche Handbook…could well save your life.”

From Backcountry Magazine, “This book has been the bible for avalanche workers since the first edition came out in 1953…If you ever start to feel cocky about your avalanche forecasting skills, sit down with this gem and I will guarantee you will learn something new.”

From Outside Bozeman, “The Avalanche Handbook is the uber text in the field of avalanche science.”

Textbook and Handbook

To be honest, there are parts of the book that read like a textbook, dense and slow. But other parts are as easy to grasp as, well, picture books. There’s the whole range. That’s why the quote above from Backcountry Magazine is so spot on. You can be at any level of your avalanche training and you could learn something new.

For the beginners, there are the important basics that get you started covering the fundamentals. For the advanced forecasters you can dig deep into the snow science details and all the research behind the techniques and ideas they recommend. And then everything in between. As you get more familiar with what they are talking about, you will advance and take in more information. I’ve only taken basic avalanche training and am in the process of learning more which means there is much in the book that I can’t even grasp yet. There is still lots I do understand and can take out to the backcountry with me.

Learning the ABCs

The ABCs for Backcountry Avalanche Forecasting and Decisions might be the best part of the book. The whole chapter covers simple, straightforward information with the goal of teaching you to make the right decisions in the backcountry in avalanche terrain. If you never get into avalanche terrain, then you can’t get caught in an avalanche. The chapter right after about safety measures and rescue is important reading as well. Rescue is simply a required skill and training that everyone going into avalanche terrain should have. Sadly some don’t.

If you backcountry ski or snowboard at any time, I hope you can take a look at The Avalanche Handbook. With all the science, you may not be able to grasp every single detail right now, but that just means you’ll be able to learn more for years to come.

Get details and download a free chapter from The Avalanche Handbook at the Mountaineers Books.

If you are looking for more avalanche information see the Canadian Avalanche Association  or the Island Avalanche Bulletin for Vancouver Island.

Warning: This or any other book is not a substitute for hands-on training with a qualified professional when it comes to avalanches. Get yourself into a course before going into any avalanche terrain. Reading books after you have some official training is a great idea though. The more you know the better. 

Ski safe,

– Ross

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