Park City-based AvaTech works to make the slopes safer
January 9, 2015
Thomas Laasko and his colleagues at the Park City-based company AvaTech have a simple idea about avalanche safety that they’re trying to make more practical: It’s safer to avoid being caught in an avalanche than it is to try to survive one.
In pursuit of that idea, AvaTech has developed technology that allows ski areas and avalanche forecasters to more easily gather information on an area’s snowpack to identify the avalanche danger and to instantly share those findings.
Developed by the company’s three founders at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, AvaTech’s SP1 digital device allows users to analyze the snowpack by simply sticking it into the snow. Traditionally, one would need to dig a pit to examine snow structure and understand its stabilities and weaknesses.
"Snow changes over time and space, and you can’t dig a pit every single place you’re interested in hiking or skiing," said Laasko, AvaTech’s brand president. "So being able to address spacial variability and seeing if the snowpack is what you’d expect is important. People who are in charge of other people’s safety are needing a more refined and repeatable process."
Supplementing the SP1 is AvaNet, a cloud database that allows users to upload snowpack results in real-time as they are gathering information. Bluetooth capability lets users send the information from the SP1 to their smartphones, which can then instantly upload to AvaNet, where colleagues and others on the system can access it.
One of AvaNet’s largest benefits is that it allows individual ski areas to be better-informed. With the SP1 and AvaNet, a ski area’s patrollers can probe the snow in problematic zones and provide the head of snow safety with live results, which can be compared to previous information. Laasko said that allows ski areas to determine whether specific terrain can be open, as well as more efficiently plan avalanche control efforts.
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It’s also valuable for the entire community using AvaNet to be able to view snowpack information from various locations.
"The crowdsourcing of data will help people understand slopes with much more confidence than before," Laasko said. "It does not replace common sense and your brain, but it’s another piece in the toolbox that helps in understanding this beautiful blanket of snow that we love to play on."
Several organizations in Utah — including Alta Ski Area, Snowbird Ski Resort and the Utah Avalanche Center — are among professionals around the world already on board with the technology. Laasko said the company’s three founders — Brint Markle, Sam Whittemore and Jim Christian — engaged the professional community throughout the development process, a consideration that is paying dividends.
"The response is a result of how we’ve involved professionals from the get-go," Laasko said. "This was developed in MIT labs but not in a vacuum. We worked with the top professionals in their field, making sure we’re solving real-world problems."
This spring, after developing the product, AvaTech moved its headquarters to Park City to take advantage of the opportunity for hands-on testing.
"There aren’t as many avalanches in Cambridge, (Mass.) as there are in the Wasatch Mountains," Laasko said. "There’s no better place to start a company like this. Our philosophy is to help mountain communities. Park City is our No. 1 we want to be a part of. We’re excited to be here and call this town our global headquarters."
AvaTech hopes its technology ends up saving lives. Though Laasko acknowledges the company can do little to alter skiers’ and snowboarders’ personal risk tolerance, the combination of providing safer ski areas and starting a conversation about avalanche danger will make a difference.
"We as skiers have too many phone numbers in our phonebook that people aren’t answering anymore," Laasko said. "We’ve lost friends and that strikes home. Being able to make an impact in the ski community is very empowering."