Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain

I tend to read pretty voraciously--not owning a TV, frequently being away from civilization, and wanting to learn about almost everything will do that to you.  While I will read most anything, I tend to favor non-fiction, especially the informative and personally relevant kind. Since Susan and I will be taking a more serious foray into winter alpine climbing in January, I decided that the next step in my self-education should cover snow and avalanches.

Particularly when I am reading about subjects upon which my life may later depend, I tend to judge the worth of the information in a book on a few things:

Where is this information coming from?  What is its ultimate source?  Is this simply opinion, an assertion based on extensive experience, a compendium of various knowledgeable individuals, or scholarly (particularly scientific) research?  Who is the author/editor/writing team and what is their expertise?

Depth of Coverage
Is the subject in question covered in sufficient depth to provide more than a cursory understanding of the basic principles and underlying mechanisms?  Who is the target audience?  What do I need to know about the subject in advance?

Does the author place the subject in words and context that are easy to understand?  Are analogies clear and relevant?  Are there devices to make the text engaging apart from the subject matter itself?

When it comes to learning about snow and avalanches, my tome of choice is Bruce Tremper's Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. While I have read a half-dozen avalanche texts and references at this point, Staying Alive still takes the prize for the best general-audience book on the subject.

The author, Bruce Tremper, is intimately familiar with snow and avalanches. Growing up in Montana, avalanches were a part of Tremper's childhood education out of sheer necessity.  As a professional skier and then ski patroller, Tremper put in the necessary leg work to truly understand how snow feels and what that means about its stability.  (He even notes the smell of some types of snow in the text!)  As an avalanche educator and professional, he has forecast avalanches across the United States for decades.  Clearly, he can speak with authority.

Equally important are the sources which back up Tremper's writing.  He unobtrusively cites numerous scientific studies throughout the text and includes more than 20 additional avalanche- and weather-related books in the bibliography.  Tremper's work on international committees lends additional credence to his coverage of the subject matter.  Finally, the author knows what he doesn't know.  While he is extremely knowledgeable about a wide selection of avalanche environments and terrain, he openly admits that he is most familiar with his home mountains Salt Lake City, Utah.

I feel that the depth of coverage in Staying Alive is near perfect.  The text addresses such basic yet complex topics as weather, snow pack, and snow stability while maintaining a respect for practical needs through the discussion of terrain management, routefinding, and rescue.  It lacks the depth of McClung and Schaerer's Avalanche Handbook but is much easier to digest for anyone who is not an avalanche professional.  Tremper does not gloss over important subjects, though, covering key points repeatedly, unlike in Ferguson and LaChapelle's painfully brief The ABCs of Avalanche Safety.  For example, it is quite clear to the reader that good terrain management is far more useful in staying safe than knowing how to dig a perfect snow pit.

Finally, the prose is remarkably readable.  Tremper expertly injects humor, dry wit, and clever analogies that not only keep the reader entertained and interested in a seemingly mundane subject but also aid in comprehension.  To the benefit of the reader, everyday objects such as a magazine, a bag of tortilla chips, and a rubber band are used to explain complex natural phenomenon like slab avalanches, granular flow, and stress fractures propagation.  Tremper has taught numerous avalanche clinics to novice outdoor enthusiasts, and it shows through the manner in which he writes.

Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain offers the reader an in-depth look at the important aspects of avalanche formation while avoiding boring and overly complex dissection of snow types that would leave all but long-time avalanche professionals utterly confused.  The work is remarkably easy to read with simple yet effective analogies.  The pragmatism laced throughout is sure to engage the reader, guaranteeing they know how to appropriately manage risk to themselves and companions when traveling and recreating in avalanche terrain.

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