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Suppose I am out in the mountains and I want to do a snowpack (in/stability) test before traversing across a slope. I have not, however, carried a saw - to cut a snow column. I have on me regular mountaineering gear - including a shovel, hiking pole, and iceaxes.

How can I cut a possibly cut a column of snow on which to do the stability test (by patting down with a shovel on top of the column)?

Would it be any different if I had skis?

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  • Do you have an "avalanche school" in your area? A one day course of avalanche training will be invaluable -- much more valuable than reading a description of how to test for snowpack stability. As to shovel vs saw, from what I have read, a shovel will work adequately -- of course, you have to know how to read the cross-section.
    – ab2
    Commented May 14 at 22:13
  • Oh, I've done the course. The instructors used a saw to cut the columns. Much later, it occurred to me what if Im not carrying a saw. Hence the question.
    – ahron
    Commented May 15 at 1:11

2 Answers 2

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You have several options, but all would be less desirable than carrying a snow saw (especially if there are ice crusts and other dense layers within the snowpack). Carrying a snow saw is definitely a key tool for analyzing a snowpack. The results from a snow stability test are only as good as how consistently and uniformly you can isolate a sample and perform the test.

From worst to least worst, some alternatives are:

  • Use to shovel to completely dig out a column by excavating everything around it. Incredibly laborious and difficult to do without disturbing the column you're isolating.

  • If the snowpack isn't too dense, take a long straight object (ski pole w/o basket, ice axe, avalanche probe, shovel handle) and clear a small trench around the column using a combination of poking, levering, and sweeping/slicing. The tail of a non-rockered ski can work quite well.

  • After clearing out an even pit face, place an upright pole at each of the back corners of the column to be isolated. Using a thin piece of cord, guide it around the upright poles and saw back and forth to cut down through the snowpack and isolate the column. 10' of parachute cord with an overhand every 6" to act as a saw tooth can work quite well. This is probably the most common method for isolating larger blocks for, e.g., the Extended Column Test (ECT) or Rutschblock Test.

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I would use the blade of the shovel to cut a column. Given all the uncertainty around snow stability tests, it might be good enough.
However, I would not put much faith into a single stability test, no matter how you created the column. No spot is representative for the whole slope, and getting a similar spot in terms of steepness and exposure is hard as this will expose you to the same avalanche risks as on the slope. Given the limitations of stability tests, the recommendation is to follow a statistical method

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