One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.
Avoiding avalanches in the backcountry involves arming yourself with right equipment, knowledge and a fair bit of common sense. Newcomer AvaTech wants to add more science and engineering to the equation.
AvaTech is psyched on its new technology (we’ll get to that in a minute), but the company’s brand president, Thomas Laakso, wants to make one thing very clear: The company’s new product, called the SP1, does not, prevent or predict avalanches.
“It’s not a Super Man cape … It doesn’t look at the strength of the layers [of snow]. You have to have an understanding of what’s happening around you,” said Laakso, formerly the head of Black Diamond’s ski category. “It doesn’t find water; it doesn’t predict avalanches. It’s an additional part of your information-gathering system.”
Now that that’s cleared up, let’s talk about what the SP1 can do. And it’s a lot, especially for the first product from a new company.
AvaTech’s story begins in Switzerland with a near-death avalanche experience. The victim, Brint Markle, AvaTech co-founder and CEO, came away from the trial convinced that something had to be done to better understand the snow beneath the surface. His goal: Better equip people to avoid avalanches, not just survive them.
“There’ve been a lot of huge advancements in snow safety today, but a lot of that is snow triage; it’s after something goes wrong, after mistakes have been made: How do you stay on top? How do you breathe below?” Laakso said. Add to that the “visual clues and environmental indicators; calling the forecast center and being in tune to all these inputs, but you never have a picture of what’s below that beautiful white blanket.”
After years of research, a Master’s degree and a little — okay, a lot — of help from fellow MIT advanced degree alums Sam Whittemore and Jim Christian, Markle created the SP1, a snow profiler (hence SP) that resembles a probe with a brain. Push the probe into the snowpack and this force penetrometer measures the force required to do so, basically capturing the hardness of the snow.
“On a very, very fine level it’s documenting the force and the distance of different hardnesses and variations in layers as it goes through the snowpack,” Laakso said. “It’s not measuring the bonding strength of different layers, not measuring the propensity for a slope to slide. It’s looking for problematic layers.”
From there, he explained, the user needs to understand the science behind the different layers of snow, recognizing that if a particular layer rests on top of another specific type of layer, the snow isn’t safe to shred.
As a result, the SP1 in its current rendition (MSRP $2,249) is a product for the snow pros — folks like ski patrollers, guides and forecasters — who develop risk management plans. A Level 2 avalanche certification is likely the basis for understanding the 4,000 data points instantly collected with each probe strike.
And unlike so much data today, which only serves to boost your Strava ranking, this information is valuable for the masses. Because the SP1 is also GPS- and Bluetooth-enabled, it syncs all of the snow profile data collected, as well as the geographical location where it’s gathered, and sends it to the user’s smartphone and AvaTech’s cloud platform, AvaNet. Those profiles, along with manual observations, can then be shared with colleagues and the greater snow community. It’s basically crowdsourcing to save lives.
So while the layman shouldn’t use the SP1, he’s directly benefiting from it.
“Pros that have been doing the forecasting … are going to be able to dramatically improve their ability to gather data. It’s going to help you as a backcountry skier because more information is fed to the pros giving you advice,” Laakso said.
And having earned the coveted respect of AAIRE, the American Avalanche Institute for Research and Education, the SP1 will also be used in avalanche education classes. Students will be able to compare what they see on the tool’s read-out to what they see in the snow. Ski resorts will also use it, and not just to gauge the safety of back bowls. The SP1 comes in handy in checking the hardness of a racecourse and determining how much snow is necessary to create a halfpipe that will survive through to spring.
AvaTech plans to eventually bring a product to market for the non-professional, but it’s not in any hurry to do so. The first priority: working further with the avalanche education community to make sure version 2.0 will be a “meaningful backcountry tool,” one that people understand doesn’t give them license to take bigger risks.
“When we launch this [product for the general public,] we want to make sure that people understand this is not a magic wand that’s going to prevent avalanches,” Laakso said.
— Courtney Holden
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