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After about 90 minutes, we came to the crest of a wide bowl of sparkling powder.

Charlie and I almost bounded right past Sanders and on down the hill. But we remembered that whole avalanche safety thing and refrained, just as Shephard told the group to break out our shovels and dig. An hour later we had two pits, each about seven feet deep and 10 feet wide. The pits revealed distinct layers in the snow pack: a 20-inch-thick top tier of uniform, compact snow atop an inch-thick band of granular, icy gropple, like the crystals that form in your freezer, and many layers below that.

_____Winter Ski Special_____
Backcountry Skiing in Jackson Hole
Stowe, Vt.
Off the Slopes
washingtonpost.com Ski Guide
Interactive Map: Mid-Atlantic Resorts

We cut column lines down the pit walls and Sanders showed us how to test the snow stability. "Put your shovel blade on top of the snow and tap it with an open palm until the block releases. Keep count of how many times you tap." If a block holds through 30 taps, that layer is considered solid.

The first block released on the 10th tap, sliding off of the granular layer as if rolling on ball bearings. It was a meaty chunk of snow and I tried to imagine the force of it -- times 10,000 -- bearing down as I tried to out-ski it.

The weak layer, called surface hoar, had formed during a recent snap of cold, clear nights. "It's like wintertime dew," Sanders said. The cold, coupled with low humidity, caused crystals to grow up and out like feathers. When a new layer of light snow comes down on top of surface hoar, he explained, "it's like balancing a box on top of a bunch of pencils that are stood on end: It won't take much to tip the whole thing over."

I asked Sanders how often he'd dig a pit if he weren't teaching a group of novices. "If I'm paying attention to the weather and reading the avalanche forecasts from the beginning of winter, I won't ever have to dig a pit," he said. "I'll know what's at every layer."

Backcountry weekenders like us could likewise avoid pit digging by reading up on avalanche conditions and, at least until we gain more experience, heading into the backcountry only with knowledgeable guides.

So can one bad snow layer ruin backcountry skiing for a whole season? Typically not, Sanders said, for two reasons: High humidity or a heavy storm could change the characteristics of a bad layer or compress it, giving the next layer up a stronger foundation; and the pressure bulb of a skier or boarder extends only about five feet below the surface, so if the dangerous layer is 10 feet down, it won't respond to the surface activity.

On our last day, Shephard, Charlie, Jason and I hiked out far from the resort before vaulting down through a dusky forest in No Name Canyon. The camp had not transformed me into a backcountry expert, nor had it promised to. Besides, I thought, as I launched off a 15-foot rock between two pines and glided back into the pillowy powder, this is a lifelong pursuit and it's going to take dedication. And for once in my life, safety actually will come first.

As Shephard said, "If there's any doubt about a slope, always remember that tomorrow's turns are more important than today's."

John Briley last wrote for Travel about the hurricane recovery efforts in Southeast Florida.


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