Observation Tips 

SAC appreciates your weather, snowpack, and avalanche observations! To maximize their usefulness, please consider these tips:

Submit your observations before midnight. Forecasters begin their work very early in the morning, and your observations are most helpful when they can be incorporated into the next day’s avalanche forecast. 

Use language that you're comfortable with. It’s much better to accurately describe what you saw using non-technical language than it is to incorrectly use technical terms and abbreviations. The Snow, Weather, and Avalanches: Observational Guidelines for Avalanche Programs in the United States (SWAG) is a whole book full of technical terms and abbreviations that avalanche pros use as a reference, but don’t memorize. 

Photos and videos can communicate a lot. Provide context to your photos and videos with brief written descriptions. With a written description, you don’t have to “on-sight” a narration while recording video. Feel free to adjust photos to best show what you intend, and to trim videos to their most valuable content.

Snowpack tests take training and practice. Different tests serve different purposes, so you need to start with a goal in order to choose the right test. What are you trying to learn or communicate? Some tests convey their information very visually, so you’ll see these being used often in videos posted by SAC. Other tests may be just as useful, but not as visual, so they don’t appear in as many SAC videos. Snowpack tests need to be performed neatly and to the standards described in chapter 2 of the SWAG. Messy, poorly performed snowpack tests can produce unreliable results.

Formal snow profiles take training and practice. Use snow profiles to communicate relevant information in a simple format - not to communicate irrelevant information in a complex format. A picture of your snow profile can replace a written or computer-generated graph, but only if your profile is simple and tidy. To create snow profile graphs, SnowPilot is available for free.

Use caution when cutting test slopes! Test slopes, by definition, have minimal consequences. Cutting consequential terrain can be dangerous at the immediate time, and over the long-term if you develop a false sense of security from “getting away” with misapplying this technique. Ski patrollers use slope cuts very differently in-bounds than anyone should in the backcountry. Cutting test slopes is not recommended when Persistent, Deep Persistent, or Wet Slab avalanche problems are suspected. These conditions are likely to fail in unexpected ways or produce “false stable” results.

Consider organizing your observations using the SAC Conditions Alerts:

  • Avalanche Activity. Describe where you saw avalanches, how big they were, how recent they were, what the weak layer and bed surface were, and what the triggers were. As needed, this information can be estimated. If you experience a “close call” or an accident, please don’t allow embarrassment or shame to prevent you from sharing! We need to learn from each other’s mistakes, especially because the mountains don’t always provide second chances.
  • Other Signs of Instability. Did you see shooting cracks, or hear the propagating collapse of a weak layer (whumpfing)? If you performed formal or informal snowpack tests, did they indicate instability? Describe where you found signs of instability, and also include pertinent negatives
  • Persistent Problem. Did you find weak, sugary grains (facets) or surface hoar buried within the snowpack? How deep from the surface or how far above the ground? Did you find facets or surface hoar on the surface? If you looked in multiple locations, describe where you found them and where you didn’t.
  • Recent Loading. Report recent or current loading from snowfall, wind, or rain, and include an estimate of how much loading you observed. If loading is a result of wind, include information about wind direction and any observed distribution patterns. If loading is a result of rain, include information about elevations that you observed it.
  • Rapid Warming. Rapid warming is especially concerning when temperatures go above 32o for the first time in a while, when they go above 32o very quickly, or if they remain above 32o overnight. However, your observations about temperatures and cloud cover are relevant regardless of warming thresholds, and can be estimates instead of measurements.