Dust Cloud Proceeding an Avalanche

Avalanche Safety Workshop


HPSS 2286

Course Website

  Studying Snow Crystal With a Microscope





Stellar Snow CrystalAvalanche Safety (HPSS 2286)

Ron Watters, Professor Emeritus
Department of Human Performance and Sport Studies

Idaho State University

HPSS 2286 - 1 Credit - Spring Semester Only

Brief Description:  Avalanches are, by far, the most serious mountain hazard in the winter, and this course helps equip winter travelers with the knowledge and skills to minimize or avoid these hazards. Lecture topics include: snow crystal identification, snow pack metamorphism and factors influencing avalanche formation. Field sessions include: snow pit analysis, use of transceivers, rescue techniques and backcountry safety considerations. 

For more information:


Class Syllabus 

Avalanche Safety in the Backcountry (Concise guidelines for winter travel.)

Blank Snow Pit Charts (PDF downloadable snow pit charts used in the class.)


Recommended References:


Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper. Tremper is the man. If you get one book on avalanche safety, this is the one to get.

Avalanche Essentials by Bruce Tremper. This is a more compact, shortened version of Tremper's Staying Alive book above. If you would like a reference book that is simple and to the point, this is the one for you.

Ken Libbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes. Ken Libbrecht is a physicist and the high wizard of snow crystals.

Snow Sense by Alaskans Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler. This small guide is easy to understand and very sense-able (sorry, couldn't resist).


Recommended Hand Lens, Compass & Portable Microscope:


Hand LensDonegan V341-T Triple Folding Pocket Magnifier. This is my favorite hand lens for snow crystal work. It's inexpensive, has 5X, 10X, and 15X magnification - and the best feature for use in snow pits is the larger lens size. (Approximately $18)


CompassSilva 515 Ranger Compass. This link takes you what I feel is the best compass for avalanche work and outdoor navigation, and the pricing is the best I've found. I own a Silva which I've used for 40 years, and yours will last that long as well. If you do some comparison shopping, check to make sure that the compass has a separate black arrow which is used to measure slope angle (called an inclinometer or clinometer). That's important. Also check the degree scale. It should run from 0 to 360. There's a version of the Silva Ranger compass in which the degrees are divided into quadrants from 0 to 90. It usually has a Q in the model name, like Silva 15CLQ. Don't buy it. It's nearly impossible to use quandrant compasses for outdoor navigation work. Rather make sure that the compass has a full 360 range. (Approximately $90)

Portable Microscope25x Portable Microscope. (Carson MagniScope LED Lighted 3-in-1 6x18mm Monocular, 25x Power Field Microscope). This is the small, portable microscope that we used in the field sessions. In addition to viewing crystals, you can also use it as monocular (like binoculars). The current price is around $40 which is an incredibly low price compared to almost all other portable microscopes. True, it's not super quality optics but I've never really noticed a difference.


New York Times Article on the Tunnel Creek Avalanche:

Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek    

Other Information: 

Avalanche Advisories.  This takes you to map of the western part of the US. You can click on colored locations to either get concise advisory information or more extensive information on local forecasts.

Teaching Avalanche Courses. This not a required paper for the course, but if you'd like some background on the class, it provides details on my philosophy of teaching avalanche courses, the teaching progression I use for the class, and reasons why I cover certain types of material. The original paper, written quite some time ago, was one of the first to articulate an approach to avalanche education and one of the references used when the national Level 1 certification course was developed.

Avalanche Class








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