Snow slab avalanches are caused by cracks forming and propagating in a weak snow layer below a cohesive slab. The gradual damage process leading to the formation of the initial failure within the weak layer (WL) is still not entirely understood. To this end, we designed a novel test apparatus that allows performing loading experiments with large snow samples (0.25 m2) including a WL at different loading rates and simultaneously monitoring the acoustic emissions (AE) response. By analyzing the AE generated by micro-cracking, we studied the evolution of the damage process preceding snow failure. At fast loading rates, the exponent of the AE energy distribution (b-value) gradually changed, and both the energy rate and the inverse waiting time increased exponentially with increasing load. These changes in AE signature indicate a transition from small to large events and an acceleration of the damage processes leading to brittle failure. For the experiments at slow loading rate, these changes in the AE signature were not or only partially present, even if the sample failed, indicating a different evolution of the damage process. The observed characteristics in AE response provide new insights on how to model snow failure as a critical phenomenon.