There's not much new about backcountry skiers sharing information with each other about where they skied, how deep and light the powder was, how stiff the wind slab, or how cold the valley bottom was before they climbed up into the sun for some fresh turns.
But what is new is the method by which recreationalists can now share information about the conditions they encounter on backcountry slopes.
The Mountain Information Network (MIN), first launched a year ago by Avalanche Canada, is kicking off 2016 with an updated and more sophisticated version of the online information sharing program.
Through its users — anyone riding snow on backcountry slopes on skis, snowboards or by snowmobile — can share information within minutes of making their turns simply by typing into a smartphone, tablet or home computer.
The original Quick Report app, which some savvy backcountry riders have been using since last season, prompts contributors with basic questions such as date, time and location skied, snow conditions (i.e. crusty, deep powder, wet and heavy, or wind affected), weather (sunny, windy, foggy, cloudy), slopes skied (mellow, steep, convex, cut blocks, open trees), and which slopes were avoided. Comments about general observations or specifics concerning avalanche activity, temperatures, snowpack depth, ski penetration, or incidents involving people and avalanches are welcome.
All this information is then available to the public simply by visiting the Avalanche Canada web page where blue icons appear in the corresponding GPS locations on an interactive topographical map. A click on the icon opens a box containing all the information, including links to photos submitted by the contributor. While the map opens to a close-up of Western Canada, it can be zoomed out so information can be recorded and accessed anywhere in the world with Wi-Fi.
For those riding in Rogers Pass in B.C.'s Glacier National Park, where Wi-Fi is accessible, connecting can be instant.
"The information is submitted in real time, it appears on the page for everyone to access the minute you click submit," explained Karl Klassen, Avalanche Canada's public avalanche warning service manager. "It has enough simple stuff that almost anyone can use it. You can submit a fairly complete report in 10 minutes. But then, people like to talk about how their day went. Some people write four or five paragraphs."
And while all this info is highly useful to recreationalists making decisions about where to ride the next day or in the near future, the system is also beneficial to professional mountain guides and avalanche forecasters, including those working from Avalanche Canada's headquarters in the big snow country of Revelstoke, B.C., in preparing public avalanche bulletins.
"We have a big-picture plan where we want to go with this," Klassen said. Encouraging recreational skiers to share information about their experiences in the backcountry is a critical part of a bigger collaborative effort to provide enhanced avalanche condition information across Canada, particularly in sparsely populated regions such as Northern B.C. where not enough professionals are working in the field to submit to the industry-generated and accessed sharing program, Info-Ex, but where a significant number of recreationalists are out enjoying winter in backcountry areas. The user-generated data is much appreciated and augments the professionally-submitted data.
The new, updated Mountain Information Network being rolled out over the new few weeks is designed to encourage increased use from professionals and the public. With the most recent upgrades the Quick Report box will display additional tabs dedicated to more in-depth and technical information. Each category — avalanche observation, snowpack, weather and incidents — will be identified by its own colour-coded icon. When zoomed out, the icon will appear grey, then when zoomed in clusters of multi-coloured icons will indicate to the viewer what type of detailed information has been submitted.
The more in-depth information might include: observations of previous avalanches; snowpack crystal type; presence of whoomphing, drum-like sounds or shooting cracks; details about start or runout zone elevations; avalanche triggers (skier, sledder or natural); number of people buried and how deep; or events such as rapid rise in temperatures, which would have a considerable effect on snow quality and stability.
The new upgrades will also permit users to filter data with a specific date range, or isolate reports such as only those including avalanche incidents.
"It's much more modern and user-friendly," Klassen said. "Users can get at and view data more quickly and more effectively. I think the new updates will increase attractiveness to a broader user group. It might even become attractive to professionals who want to share data with the public."
Due to the cost involved, however, the new phase II upgrades will only be available to those using home computers or tablets; those submitting and accessing info on their smart phones will be limited to the Quick Report.
Avalanche Canada began working to create the MIN app three years ago, launching the Quick Report in fall 2014. Knowing there would be some bugs to work out, the launch was not widely publicised, Klassen said, but thanks in part to those patient early users who shared feedback, with the start of 2016 confidence in the new upgraded MIN is high enough for a more public campaign.
Overall, the program represents a large collaborative effort, involving input from Avalanche Canada staff and professionals, local consultants, GIS mapping specialists and companies contracted for specific services — all accomplished on Avalanche Canada's not-for-profit budget.
"We want to produce the best possible forecast for the public that we can, and to do that forecasters require data," Klassen said.
One look at the map peppered with blue icons, he added, validates the effort.
"It's all good," he said. "We're interested in building a community that helps each other, and there's a significant amount of data coming in. I call that a success."