29 May, 2012

The Backcountry Web And Technology Race

Information, technology, and the use of mobile phones are the name of the game out in the backcountry, and will be for the foreseeable future.  Information, both a plentiful and relevant helping of it, is what we base our decisions on.  While ski touring our goal is to gain as much information as possible, but we are limited to our strengths and speed in the mountains, as we are mostly unable to move through vast sums of terrain on our skins unlike a helicopter.  However, technology such as mobile phones like Androids, Iphones, and the like connect us to a global community of ski tourers instantly giving us access to more information all around us.  But it's still not clear exactly.  Mobile technology in the avalanche field is still evolving.  This article may even be outdated the second it's put up on the web, but the fact remains that we need to get with the times and learn how to move through the internet quickly, efficiently, so we can gain more information to reflect on while making decisions.
(Photo Above:  A loose snow avalanche running through the Loop Brook approach, which we had skinned through earlier in the morning when the snowpack was much more stable, I posted this on Twitter and Facebook getting quite a few hits and comments.  Information Shared)
Webpages are the simplest and most basic way to look at the expansion of the digital age and it's relationship to the mountains.  The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) has dialed in a new wave of forecasting diagrams, using a more visual forecasting system, which is specifically designed to give recreational users a simple but informative view on current conditions and avalanche hazard (South-Coast seen here).  Taking a step further, advanced users have a forecast details section to read up on, detailing the avalanche report, all of which have been there for years.  However, with today's blogosphere and social media networking a new Forecaster's Blog has been put in place to further educate anyone who has an extra minute or two, specifically on understanding the current conditions in the field, and gaining even more insight to the world of snow science.  The information based solely off the CAC is gold for anyone looking to head out into the mountains, and avoid avalanche's.  And last but not least it's all been packaged into one easy app to download onto your mobile phone.

However, approximately 40% of avalanche incidents go unreported on websites such as the Canadian and/or American Avalanche Association's Incident Database, but do show up on the likes of webpages and social media sites such as Facebook.  As a matter of fact, more useful information on rescue from these non-reported incidents found on Facebook have even been utilized by National Avalanche Organizations in order to build better teaching tools and techniques.  But for the main point that needs to be made is that these are tools which have not fully reached their potential.  Due to the sharing capability, ease of access, and real-time updates, not to mention field accessible on any mobile phone these days, Facebook and other real-time microblogging web products such as Twitter are new possible ways of passing on information.
(Photo Above:  Avalanche investigation in the Baja area, discovering what lead up to a widespread avalanche cycle, in order to gain a better idea of what''s going on in the snowpack, and how to avoid getting caught for the rest of the week)
The main problem with Facebook and Twitter is the non-sensical jabbering of most people either posting photos of their Friday night or last hut trip which takes up 40% of most posts.  However, by using "Pages" for Facebook and "Lists" for Twitter many people can subscribe to the web services without the annoying outside banter focusing on the issues at hand.  The final crux being a filter of what gets put on the pages or lists when issued to the subscribers.  Both social media sites have mobile apps, with Twitter being a potential for better utilization of quick information by focusing on Lists of selected users who provide relevant information.  Sadly, not enough info goes out on Twitter, so Facebook has become the better choice for snippets of info and observations.

But what's Facebook and Twitter without something to look at, other than posted photos of avalanche observations which may be relevant?  Snow profiles can very easily be shared with Avalanche Lab.  Avalanche Lab is an app built for the Iphone, that allows users to record all your observations, record your snow profile and then email it in either jpg or pdf to anyone of your choice, even post it on Social Media sites.
(Photo Above:  A quick snow profile a friend and I dug using the Avalanche Lab App, which has since seen even more updates with the new snow symbols and much more.)
Basic good old fashioned webpages or blogs may be the solution to this filter that Social Media websites lack when it comes to purely avalanche information.  Blogs and Webpages require a writer/blogger/technician/user (call it what you will) to go through each piece of information to decide whether it's worthy or not to be put up for people to read.  Another crux is the fact that the person putting it up, needs to really understand what is relevant and what isn't, otherwise it's easy for people to be mislead.  A perfect example of this is www.wayneflannavalancheblog.com, a website for the Sea To Sky Corridor and all it's avalanche and weather observations, as well as relevant tidbits of educational info, all updated every day with constant revisions and additions.  The blog is run by Wayne Flann a previous avalanche forecaster, and long time Ski Patrol and SAR member, who has the ability and commitment to share as much info as possible.

Web forums have definitely had a heavy presence in today's ski scene, to note two of the largest is TetonGravityResearch.com and Biglines.com.  Both hold ski and snowboard reports, avalanche info posts, and more, all with potentially viable useful information that can be scanned on a smartphone and during the downtime in the coffee shop heading to the mountains in the morning.  They do lack a "professional filter" but have useful information when users properly note occurrences.
(Photo Above:  Size 2 avalanche with a 90cm crown at the deepest (right) which is also only a 25 degree slope, the culprit was most likely spotty patches of well preserved Surface Hoar along with Decomposing Facets overloaded with new snow load from a recent storm.)
However, there is a catch.  With all this great information sharing technology and websites out there, especially on the recreational level, how do we know the information has been properly recorded by a trained professional or recreational skier who has followed the industry standard observation protocols.  Trained avalanche technicians, guides, forecasters, will but what about recreational skiers.  This is a vital crux that remains an issue on the public portion of these observations.  Someone who doesn't understand the difference between a Sudden Collapse and a Progressive Compression, or even Non-Planar Break could be giving the wrong information to those who are actually basing their decisions on these findings.  And although we should always only use other observations to get a better picture of the entire area, rather than base our decisions on one single snow profile, the importance of the accuracy of information is still a large component of that.  The only way to combat this is to post credentials with each observation, for others to gauge the accuracy of an individuals observations, and to help that person make a decision on how much weight can be allotted on such a snow profile.
(Photo Above:  The Bridger-Teton Avalanche mapping system, a notable event with info and photos)

The Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center has combined a few of these things together along with some other very useful info.  Along with collecting field observations from trained backcountry skiers and posting them on their up to date observations section, they have also incorporated everything into a Google Maps event map (seen above).  The map displays all notable avalanche events, snow profiles (with graph), and all weather plots for a very easy visual idea of what's going on in the field.  Users are even able to change the date ranges in order to bring up past information, and get a strong handle on the history of the snowpack and area, before heading out in the field.  They even have links to maps which are downloadable for field reference on your Smartphone in PDF format that have avalanche hazard area marked on well used trails (seen here).

Canada is also on top of this Google Maps technology, many guiding and heli-ski operations are utilizing Google Maps for run mapping.  But one interesting useful mapping technology is the ArFi mapping software currently in development and research (so take note, errors may exist).  The system takes info from every weather product available, snow pillow, webcam, etc, in order to help Forecasters get a better idea of what meteorological effects throughout the day will effect the snowpack and where along with the use of GEM maps (Geographic Earth Mapping).  Not so much a public tool, but very useful in the trip planning portion of the day, and for deciding where the best snow quality will be found. 
(Photo Above:  Using the ArFi mapping program looking at precipitation moving into the Sea To Sky Corridor.  The Green being 0-10mm of precip, Yellow being 10-20mm, and Orange 20-40mm)

And if that amount of snow science products wasn't enough, there's even more, including an Excel spreadsheet called SWarm.  SWarm is spreadsheet designed to help calculate and estimate the affect that solar radiation will have on the snowpack on any given day, in relationship to location in the world, cloud cover, elevation, slope angle, and days since the last snowfall. Download it here.

There is far more to the mountains other than snow science and weather.  Iphone technology is even beautiful rigged for backcountry skiers to purchase a $7.99 app which gives them complete access to maps of any area, and allows them to plot reference points, in order to navigate through any kind of terrain.  A GPS at any gear supplier will cost $80 and up, and usually require you to purchase most of your maps for use on the GPS.  The only argument that I've heard is on multi-day trips most people can't recharge an Iphone, that is if they don't have a Goal Zero or any other solar charger.  However, it should be used in addition to maps and compass as you can never beat the old schools methods for reliability in storms and for if you run out of juice and need to navigate immediately.

Iphones, Androids, compatible with In-Reach (with review and info) and Spot Connect devices are the ultimate to have along with their snow science apps.  GPS and map information is readily available for those who want it, and allow you to find your way home while of course recording your ascent and descent for your Facebook profile update at the end of the day.  This alone, if many people who became lost in areas had had this technology, may not have spent uncomfortable nights cold in the mountains.  Even if they had, they would have been able to Google or text someone to find out how to dig a snowcave, and been far more comfortable while waiting for Search And Rescue.

There has even been the question of the possibility of putting beacon technology to use finding cell phones, which is a long ways a way.  But the idea has sparked research on Search And Rescue Technology using a Geolocation Satellite System called Galileo, to begin working on it in Europe.  The idea is to use a specialized software and cellphone location function, to create an accuracy that Search And Rescue can use when called into a scene.  That being said, the beacon is still here for a long long time, as once analog beacons are finally taken off market, the digital beacon will rise further in their capabilities and range but is still the most important thing for backcountry skiers to carry in the mountains.

The point that gets across is that there is a large potential for information sharing throughout the entire backcountry community.  Mobile technology in the backcountry world needs a push, as the ability to share and communicate is there with technology that exists, it only needs to be better adapted to our needs as backcountry users.  And even if you don't embrace social media, you can at least pull out your cell phone for a whole bunch of other useful pieces of information, or at even the most basic look up a plentiful amount of information on the internet before heading out.


  1. what about making the infoex more accessible (read only) for everyday users?

  2. Here's the info on what's up with the INFOEX.


    I'm not the guy to ask about that though.