Avalanche safety equipment has certainly come a long way since the days of skiing down the slope with a balloon or cord trailing behind you. Having a colourful marker leashed to you as you skied down the slope was the concept that eventually evolved into the first avalanche airbag in 1985. Since then we’ve seen multiple-antennae transceivers, under-snow breathing apparatus and airbags that claim to save your life 97 per cent of the time you’re in an avalanche.
But these tools, as effective as they are, are all reactive. They idly sit in your pack (or in the case of your transceiver, on your person) and only come out when the avalanche occurs, at which point you’ve already messed up. Part of the reason why those avalanches happen is because people don’t read or understand the snowpack as well as they should.
Enter the Avatech SP1. A proactive tool with no gimmickry or claims of inexpensive avalanche wizardry (like we saw with those smartphone avalanche apps last year). The SP1 is basically a half-length probe with a pressure sensor in the tip mounted to a hand-held electronic unit with a display. By plunging the probe into the snow you get an instant graph of the forces needed to penetrate the various layers in the snowpack The traditional guide’s method of measuring a snow profile is to dig a snowpit and measure hardness of each visible layer with a fist, four fingers, one finger a knife etc. A full snow profile and stability test can take as long as 20-30 minutes and only gives you a snowpack reading of that aspect on that slope at that time. With the SP1, the profile process takes seconds, allowing avalanche professionals take dozens of readings throughout the day.
The unit weighs around one pound, stows small in your pack and will run for weeks on a single set of AA batteries. But the best thing that the team at Avatech have done is doing more than just measuring snowpack profiles; every time you take a reading it geotags the data, connects via bluetooth to your smartphone then uploads the reading to the online AvaNet platform. Get enough of these units in the field and you’ve got the strongest snowpack database the snow industry has ever seen, all crowd sourced and shared on the same platform.
Now before you drop everything and go by yourself an SP1 ($2,249, shipping end of December, 2014), remember that this is a tool for professionals only. There’s no voodoo magic that tells you whether the slope is good to go or not, all it does is give an accurate snow profile reading. You need the skills and experience to effectively analyze that data, which is why the SP1 will only be shipping to guides, patrollers, forecasters and other industry professionals. The good news is that Avatech are paving the way for faster, more collaborative methods of forecasting which will hopefully help all the recreationists down the line make more informed decisions in the backcountry. It will likely take a few years before we start seeing the effect of AvaNet on the greater snow community, but it’s an encouraging step with pro-active technology for greater safety.
This opinion piece first appeared in my Outsider column in the Whistler Question on September 22, 2014.