Backcountry apps offer adventurers tools for sharing avalanche info

An Avalanche Canada app makes it easier for backcountry users to stay up-to-date on the latest snow conditions and avalanche activity.

Avalanche Canada app lets backcountry users share info on snow conditions, avalanche activity

David Morissette skis often in the White Pass area south of Whitehorse. (Submitted by David Morissette)

Many backcountry skiers and snowmobilers like to share pictures of themselves making fresh turns on a steep alpine slope on Facebook. Social media is also becoming an increasingly useful tool for sharing information about avalanche safety. 

Avalanche Canada's Mountain Information Network allows backcountry skiers, boarders and snowmobilers to upload observations and photos using their smart phones. (Avalanche Canada)

An app from Avalanche Canada called the Mountain Information Network, launched last January, allows people to upload information about riding conditions and avalanche activity, as well as photos, from their smart phones. 

"I think everybody in the industry recognizes that [social media is] something we need to harness, to get better observations and get them shared to everybody," says Mike Smith, president of the Yukon Avalanche Association (YAA).

He says crowdsourced information and social media are particularly important for areas like Yukon, where avalanche forecasts aren't always available. 

Avalanche Canada issues daily avalanche forecasts for many mountainous regions in western Canada. Forecasts for White Pass, two hours south of Whitehorse, are subject to YAA funding. This winter, they're scheduled to begin in March.

The blue markers indicate observations uploaded by backcountry users. White Pass is a backcountry ski area bordering Yukon and Alaska. (Avalanche Canada)

Until then, avid backcountry skiers like David Morissette from Whitehorse will have to make due with information from other skiers. He regularly checks trip reports on the Avalanche Canada website before he heads out for the day to get a better idea of what's out there.

"Generally it's very helpful," he says. "Most of the observations are pretty straightforward, easy to read. Even beginners will be able to make sense of what is said." 

Morissette has also shared his own observations to the site and encourages more people to do the same.  

"It takes only about five minutes."

Making smart decisions

A researcher in Montana is hoping Yukoners download his app onto their phones this winter. 

Jordy Hendrikx, director of the Snow and Avalanche Lab at Montana State University, is using an app called Ski Tracks to gather information about how different groups of backcountry users make decisions in avalanche terrain.

He's soliciting information from as many regions as possible and hopes some Yukoners will participate.

'What we're trying to do is understand how different groups of people behave in backcountry terrain under different conditions, in different groups with different motivations,' says Jordy Hendrikx, director of the Snow and Avalanche Lab at Montana State University.

The app tracks the GPS route of the skier, boarder or snowmobiler and sends them a post-trip survey at the end of their day. 

Hendrikx says the decisions people make in the backcountry are the same regardless of whether you live in Montana or Yukon — with one common variation. 

"What we're seeing already in our data is that when people are faced with the same unstable snow but they're in a very remote region, versus a very populated region, their decision-making might be overly optimistic when they're in a more populated region." 

For Hendrikx's app to work, users have to leave their phone on so their route can be tracked by GPS. 

While there is some concern in the industry about cellphones interfering with the functioning of avalanche transceivers, Hendrikx says as long as the phone is 20 centimetres away from the transceiver, it shouldn't interfere with the functions. 

He says data from this project may help to inform future avalanche training courses. 

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