Mountain Skills: Making Better Observations

Take an avalanche course and you will certainly spend some time in a snow pit, looking at grains of snow and learning a few basic tests like the compression test or even a Rutschblock. It’s a quick introduction, and you can learn more about those tests here.

Out on the hill, if you want to know, “Is it safe to ski?” it appears “digging a pit” is how sage backcountry skiers get their answers. But turn to someone you trust—a more experienced friend or maybe a guide—and will likely find out that they don’t dig too many pits, and they certainly never trust their life with the information gained in one snow pit. This disconnect can be confusing—after all, we learn to dig pits early in our education, but in reality most skiers don’t bother.

So what’s the trick? How do you ski safely without spending the whole day digging in the snow?

The choice to dig a snow pit—and the quality of observations made in that pit—depends on one simple question: Do you need more information about the snow? Regardless of the answer, there is no excuse to not make lots of relevant observations through a variety of quick, easy tests, which can be performed throughout the day. You need to make observations about the snow. How thorough do those observations need to be? Well, that depends.

[Photo] Grant Gunderson

[Photo] Grant Gunderson

Dig a Snow Pit

Dig a snow pit to learn something about the snow. Maybe the local avalanche bulletin has specified a particular problem and you want to look at this interface between layers more closely so the written description becomes tangible. You can replicate the tests the pros perform and compare your results to theirs.

Or maybe you are skiing in an area with less information and want to get a baseline on the season’s snowpack. Digging a deep hole in the snow can help you identify the layers and see a timeline of the weather for the season.

Maybe your curiosity is more academic. By using tools like loupes, thermometers and density gauges, you can look closely at grains, measure temperature gradients or measure the strength of particular layers. Digging a snow pit isn’t supposed to give you a “go or no-go” answer; it is a way for you to improve your observation skills and better understand the medium in which you play.

Make More Observations…Quickly

While you may not feel the need to dig a pit and perform formal tests, you still need to be observant, and there are a variety of quick, easy tests to help better understand condition.

Plunge your pole in the snow and feel for density changes. Is there hard snow over soft snow?

Ream out the hole, reach into it with your hand and pull out snow grains to look at. Are there facets present?

Use your pole to saw out a small block just above the skintrack and then pull that block down hill. Does it break cleanly and stay as a block?

Look at an interface between layers. Does it look like sugar and feel fragile?

Step off the skintrack. Do you get shooting cracks?

Take a ski off and see how deeply you go without the ski to hold you up. Is it a big difference?

Use your probe to get a feel for the depth of the snow as you travel. Does it change dramatically over space?

Step down hard or jump around on the exits of corners in the skintrack, or on the top of small, steeper banks. Does the snow react? All of these can provide great information and require no time at all.

Think about these observations in context of the avalanche problem (like a wind slab or persistent weak layer) defined in the avalanche bulletin and use these techniques to hunt for the problem and avoid hazardous terrain. And make these observations as often as possible—certainly any time you are on smaller, safer terrain that represents what you intend to ski.

The “Right” Observation

The type of observation needed is a reflection of the complexity of the question. If you are traveling to a remote mountain range with very little information or trying to track a tricky, buried surface hoar layer over complex terrain, these are very complicated tasks and involve thorough investigation (i.e., well-executed snow profiles).

If you are traveling to an area where the history of weather and hazards is more well known, you may only need to collect specific information much more often throughout your tour. For example, when the local avalanche bulletin defines a specific problem, like a storm slab, you need to do a good job of measuring snow depths along the tour.

Start the day with specific questions. If you want to learn about snow, digging pits and collecting more data is informative. If you choose to forego the pit, make lots of observations throughout the day. And while there is no rule or flow chart for exactly what technique to apply in a given situation, you should never trust your life to one pit, profile or test.

Donny Roth is an AMGA-certified ski guide and professional skier. He writes about his adventures at Learn more about skiing with him in Chile at


  1. Great article Donny !! finally somebody nails the “digging or not digging ” dilemma. Clear and concise, well done !! Have a great and safe ski season.

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