Responding to one of the worst avalanche seasons on record, a growing number of backcountry skiers are developing tools to help fellow adventurers move more safely through the snowy mountains.
The innovation feels especially urgent after last season, when 37 skiers, climbers and snowmobilers were killed in avalanches nationwide, including 12 in Colorado. The 2021-22 avalanche season has so far claimed three lives in Colorado, including two snowshoers and their dog on Jan. 8 in Summit County.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
One mountain guide created a fun and informative weekly podcast. Established guidebook authors are writing new books to highlight safer backcountry ski routes. A longtime avalanche educator is developing an app that will help skiers avoid more dangerous avalanche slopes.
Chris Dickson is a mountain guide and avalanche educator based in Telluride. His new podcast, The San Juan Snowcast, discusses recent observations and avalanche forecasts for one of the country’s most avalanche-prone zones. Like many in the industry, the 2020-21 ski season motivated him to try something new.
“The anomalous avalanche fatality season created a motivating force in a lot of people in the avalanche world,” Dickson said. “All of us realized the message we were sending wasn’t being heard, or we were not sending it the right way.”
Dickson has always loved podcasts, and he’s always wanted to start one. In addition to providing “bonus content” from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s daily forecasts, his goal is to facilitate more communication and community between the secluded ski towns in Colorado’s southwest mountain region.
The podcast relays community events and offers brief educational nuggets for listeners of all experience levels. From preparing for a backcountry tour, first aid kit and repair kit checklists, discussions on technology, debriefs of accidents and what has become his signature “funk break” (where Dickson plays funk music to add a fun and light energy to the show).
Dickson said everything he creates on the show comes back to one question: “Is the information I’m putting out there going to help someone make a better decision or help them be safer out there?”
One of Dickson’s recent guests, Hannah Trim, is the owner of Sew Alpine. The episode explored emergency preparedness, and the two discussed Trim’s backcountry rescue sleds.
“Backcountry skiing is one of those sports that we do that can go from really fun to really dangerous pretty quickly,” said Trim, a former outdoor educator and guide. “It’s a dynamic environment, and on top of that, it’s a winter environment.”
Trim started Sew Alpine in January 2021. She quickly realized rescue sleds were tough to find. She worked closely with San Juan Expeditions, a guide operation based in Silverton, to design a durable rescue sled for mountain guides and avalanche instructors that packs easily into a backpack.
The sleds, which run around $300, are multi-use, allowing backcountry skiers to prepare for a variety of unexpected incidents. Each sled is capable of hauling an injured skier out of the field, they roll up as an emergency bivy sack, and have extra tabs to create an A-frame shelter when used with ski poles.
Trim produced a handful of sleds for San Juan Expeditions, and soon after, friends reached out and asked her to make more. She adapted the guide sled to create a lightweight version for recreational users to keep in their packs for emergencies.
Now she sells two made-to-order sleds, The O.G. Rescue Tarp (for professional and heavy-duty use) and the Lightweight Rescue Tarp (for recreational use). The sleds are in high demand. She’s currently backed up with 40 new orders, and she’s estimating a 10-to-12 week lead time.
Terrain choices can help backcountry skiers stay safer
“I do think there are a lot of accidents we could point to where people get into terrain they probably didn’t want to be in the first place,” said Andy Sovick, whose Gunnison-based Beacon Guidebooks just published a second edition of a guide by backcountry skiing pioneer Lou Dawson. “Light Tours of Colorado” details more than 60 mellow backcountry routes for travelers who want to minimize avalanche exposure. “Had they understood it better, they would have made a better decision.”
Beacon Guidebooks publishes maps and guidebooks of backcountry ski areas in Colorado and Washington. Sovick stumbled into the publishing business in 2013 after compiling his own photos and information to create the Crested Butte Ski Atlas. As a self-described map geek, Sovick spent years taking photos and studying maps and terrain in the mountains where he lived.
Each guidebook is written by a local expert and they use “ground truthing” to document ski routes. Sovick, for example, has skied 90% of the lines in the Crested Butte Ski Atlas, taking time to measure slope angles and explore complex terrain.
They also use ATES (Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale), a tool created by Grant Statham and Parks Canada 25 years ago. ATES is a method that determines the avalanche risk of each slope or ski area. Beacon Guidebooks applies an ATES rating to help skiers understand the terrain in a more comprehensive way.
Sovic said one of the most common questions he gets is “Do you have any recommendations for a mellow ski tour that I could do that stays out of avalanche terrain?”
So in 2015, Sovick reached out to Lou Dawson. Sovick and Dawson discussed the value in creating a guidebook with simple backcountry ski tours. Dawson is a Colorado ski mountaineering legend and the founder of Wild Snow, the first blog dedicated to backcountry skiing.
Dawson has spent over half a century in mountain environments in Colorado and around the world. He was the first person to ski all of Colorado’s 14ers. After witnessing countless avalanches and losing friends to backcountry accidents, the downside of the sport started to bother him. He sees the guidebook as a service to the community and he hopes it will save some lives.
“If you are careful and you pick the right runs on the right days, you can eliminate danger,” Dawson said. “The objective of the book came out of that idea.”
Dawson also hopes the guidebook legitimizes the pursuit of safe skiing. “I know a lot of skiers, who care less about how steep they ski, they just want to stay alive.”
Despite the goal of keeping backcountry skiers safer, Sovick knows the guidebooks he publishes aren’t always well received. After he published the first edition of the “Crested Butte Ski Atlas,” some skiers in the community said, “There goes the town, there goes backcountry skiing.”
But his goal isn’t to guard secret powder stashes, it’s to provide information to the community.
“One of the things that keeps me going is the motivation to help people learn more about their terrain, because that’s a big piece of the puzzle,” said Sovick.
He knows sharing information is also a great responsibility.
A December avalanche fatality on Crystal Mountain Ski Area in Washington occurred on a route that is documented in Beacon Guidebook’s “Crystal Mountain” guidebook.
“With this product and with our system and method, comes great responsibility and I take that really seriously,” Sovick said.
Beacon Guidebooks will release up to 20 new backcountry travel maps in 2022, four of which will focus on light tours around the country.
Technological disruption of avalanche education
Jeff Banks is an international mountain guide and avalanche educator based in Crested Butte. He equates the safety of backcountry skiing with winning a hand at poker in a Las Vegas casino: The house always wins and the odds are not in your favor.
“If we look at the numbers, they don’t support the fact that the avalanche community is a low-risk community,” Banks said. “I’ve lost over a dozen friends and colleagues to avalanches. If backcountry riders were governed by the FAA, they would have shut us down a long time ago.”
In January 2020, Banks met JB Leach, a software designer from Golden, while teaching an avalanche course.
Banks communicated his frustrations with the uncertainty many backcountry users experience as they try to make safe decisions. For him, the short two-day course created a nearly impossible scenario in which to provide students with enough tools to stay safe in the backcountry.
Leach, who had taken an avalanche course 25 years prior, felt overloaded with information, and told Banks he often felt unprepared to make decisions when backcountry skiing.
Banks’ frustrations coupled with Leach’s feedback inspired him to shake things up. Banks decided to introduce concepts he learned while working in Canada and Europe to supplement the course curriculum.
The concepts were based on a detailed set of avalanche statistics and algorithms from studies out of Switzerland. Banks used the statistics, from past accidents, to help students determine the probability of triggering avalanches in the future.
A study published in 2018, that used findings from Austria and Switzerland, found that 95% of avalanche accidents occured in terrain that local avalanche bulletins noted as dangerous. Using this and other data, Banks taught his students to stack the cards in their favor by using aspects and slope angle as their tool, rather than complicated snow science.
“JB latched onto that really quickly, and then we had a bunch of really good skin track conversations,” said Banks. “Then I was like, I can’t believe we don’t have an app that runs seamlessly and intuitively in the background, that crunches the huge amount of data that we need to make decisions with.”
Leach said it was entirely possible, and two years later, the duo is designing an app called Aspect Avy.
The app will measure a user’s risk, provide safer terrain recommendations based on the problems in the avalanche bulletin, nudge users to stay on task during the tour and provide a debrief at the end of the day giving feedback on the user’s decisions and risk taking.
“So they get coached throughout the process,” Banks said. “It’s like having a certified guide on your shoulder.”
Leach has worked as a programmer for eight years. His work explores how computer algorithms can sometimes pick up on things that humans miss. We trust machines in so many areas of our lives, so why not use technology to help us in the backcountry, he asks.
Each year, more and more backcountry users are turning to their phones to help make decisions, navigate terrain and stay informed. Dozens of apps like Gaia, OnX backcountry, Theodolite and Open Snow have become essential for backcountry tours, with tools that track weather patterns, measure slope angles and deliver precise maps of slopes that could slide. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center this month unveiled its new online avalanche explorer tool, which allows users to filter recent avalanche activity based on zones, dates, elevations, aspects, size and triggers.
Aspect Avy goes hand in glove with the new avalanche curriculum Banks created and teaches through the North American Alpine Skills Training Institute. Banks started the institute this year to teach people how to do dangerous things in the mountains. The course is front loaded with podcasts focused on neuroscience and psychology, and it provides a framework of how to use the app while learning how humans make decisions in risky environments.
Banks is committed to using statistics to make decisions, because most of the time, backcountry users get lucky.
“It’s an unforgiving place to learn. You can make a lot of mistakes and nothing happens. And then you make a mistake and something really bad happens. There is no middle ground,” Banks said. “Those kinds of things happen because people aren’t getting feedback through their lifetime of traveling in the backcountry.