Climbing in snow is a fundamental part of mountaineering. Snow adds beauty and challenge— but even if you wanted to avoid snow, it wouldn't be easy. Climbers work in a world in which their medium, the mountains, is sculpted by the action of snow, ice, and water. To avoid snow would mean climbing in only a select few mountain ranges or for only a few months each year.
Climbers like snow for at least a couple of reasons. First of all, it makes many climbs a lot easier by providing a pathway over brush and other obstacles on the approach hike and reducing the danger of loose rock on the ascent. It also brings new beauty to the mountains at the same time that it conceals the impact of people.
Snow is a complex medium that shows up in many forms that continually change, making snow travel trickier than trail hiking or rock climbing. Snow falls in a form that varies from tiny crystals to coarse pellets, depending on temperature and wind. Once fallen, snow begins to change as it is acted upon by sun, wind, temperature variations, and precipitation.
A rock face stays basically the same, while snow goes through many changes. It may start as a dusting of snow over a brush slope, progress to an unconsolidated powder bowl waiting to avalanche, then to a solid surface offering rapid ascent to a ridge top, and finally back to a brush slope with only scattered snow patches. Even in the course of a day, the snow can change from rock hard in the morning to thigh-sucking slush in the afternoon.
The changeable nature of snow means mountaineers have to be flexible in their mode of travel, ready to use snowshoes, skis, or crampons instead of boots alone. Snow conditions also affect decisions on route and climbing technique. Should you hike up the comfortable, snow-covcred valley bottom or on the ridge top away from avalanche hazard? Should you go for the easy step-kicking of the sunny slope or the firmer, more stable snow of the shaded hill? Do the conditions mean it is safer to travel roped or unroped?
In this chapter we'll take a look at the equipment you need to travel in snow and techniques for traveling quickly and safely—with special emphasis on avalanche recognition and rescue.
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