Avalanche Awareness in the New Zealand Backcountry. By Penny Goddard, New Zealand Alpine Club, 2013 (second edition). Softcover, 112 pages, $35. Available through www.alpineclub.org. nz.
Crisp conditions, gorgeous low light, and snow-plastered mountains; winter can be one of the best times to be in the mountains. But there are added challenges: less daylight, more chance of hypothermia, and the higher risk of avalanches. Is there a more ominous sound in the mountains than the sharp rifle-retort crack, followed by the roar, of an avalanche? Many a tramper, safely perched at Mueller Hut, has watched one tumble from Mt Sefton.
In the second edition of this book, mountain guide and avalanche expert Penny Goddard (one of only three New Zealand women to have climbed Everest) presents easily digestible facts on the subject.
Avalanches are divided into two main groups: loose snow, and slab, with the latter far more dangerous and harder to predict. As they can travel at over 200 kilometres per hour, thinking you’ll outrun one is foolish. Avalanches have killed 144 people in New Zealand, of which 55% were climbers, 15% skiers, and 8% trampers. Males in their early 20s are overrepresented; which reflects not only the less risk-adverse nature of this group, but also the fact that they are the most active.
There’s good information about what makes the New Zealand snowpack different from other alpine areas of the world, and advice on trip planning and safe travel. ‘The feeling of the snow changes under your feet as you travel. Learn to feel the differences between breakable crusts, solid frozen surfaces, wet heavy snow and light dry snow. Feel for any sudden collapse or ‘whumpf’ as you step on a slope (a clear sign of danger). Cracking around you as you travel is another instant red light. Snow that feels stiff, hollow or drummy may indicate slab conditions.’ Personal accounts also provide cautionary advice from avalanche survivors: ‘I think of snow as soft stuff but it’s violent when you get inside and are being smashed into rocks.’
A generous range of photographs, diagrams, a glossary and references complete a useful, readable book that should help save lives.