BOULDER — Douglas Scott, like all backcountry sports enthusiasts, knows both the delights and dangers of ungroomed, off-the-beaten track slopes. A lifelong skier (and former commercial fisherman, carpenter as well as member of the Crested Butte, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin ski patrols) Scott went back to school at age 40 to learn an-all weather trade — computers.
At the time, geographic information system (GIS) technology was fresh on the landscape. Scott began to research whether GIS had ever been put to use by the ski industry or department of transportation to track avalanche history. "I’d been in the ski industry since ’83," he says, even doing in-the-trenches snow pit studies and avalanche prevention work on the mountain.
As for utilizing GIS for assessing avalanche risk, he says, "No one in the U.S. was doing it," though people were in other countries — Switzerland, Italy and Canada.
In 2001 his company — Avalanche Mapping — was born. His goal was to put all existent information — and amass more — into a database which could be used for a number of purposes. One, to create maps of backcountry areas so winter trekkers could be well-informed about high-risks areas, and also to provide the data to whoever might need it for better avalanche preparedness and remediation.
The preliminary work was to track down information that had already been recorded and enter it into a database. "It’s in books, stacked in somebody’s office at the DOT, avalanche observers across the state, ski areas, Outward Bound, helicopter ski companies. It was a lot of work to find out who had the information and to get them to share it. Some people were reluctant," Scott says.
His first project was mapping A Basin ski area. The task is easier these days with global positioning system (GPS) that uses satellite imaging to map areas on the globe, specifically to longitude and latitude. But then it was hands-on labor. For this, Scott bought an aerial map from the federal government, and then met with ski patrol members to label known avalanche paths. "It was really difficult. I spent two days in the lab inputting GIS information, and plotting longitude and latitude coordinates."
By combining work with recreation, Scott built his collection of data. After graduating, Scott’s career took him to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where he used GIS data to create a routing plan for buses. While there he discovered avalanche data for Little Cottonwood Canyon, an "area where historically many avalanches occur."
His work expanded by contacts from his years in the industry, and increasingly by reputation. For Berthoud Pass he met with former employees who, when it was a ski resort, had worked on its mandatory avalanche contingency plan.
More resources were handed over. "A former Outward Bound guy saw my first three maps on my Web site and gave me data he had on Independence Pass, Loveland Basin and Red Mountain Pass. He was sought out by Mark Baumgartner, owner of Sun Valley Heli-Ski, for help migrating all the information he had on his lease area into a modern format.
At first it was more passion-fueled mission than business. Scott created maps, provided them for download on his Web site, but didn’t think about reproducing them for sales. One of his early benefactors was Backcountry Access, a Boulder company that makes avalanche safety equipment. It offered grants for avalanche-related studies, and Scott was given $300. "I bought my first GPS system with that."
Bruce Edgerly, co-founder and vice president of sales/marketing of Backcountry Access, asked for a map of Little Cottonwood Canyon to display. "He said to me, ‘You know you could sell these,’" Scotts remembers, and "I started cranking them out" showing them to retailers out of the back of his car.
Of the maps, Edgerly says, "He came in and showed me one, and I said I’d put it up in my living room. People like to put them up on the wall as a trophy, identifying backcountry stashes they’ve skied. Consumers love them." Gary Neptune founder of Neptune Mountaineering was another early fan. "He told me, ‘if you make them, I will sell them." The maps are also available at Neptune’s store, as well as Boulder Map Gallery.
Scott’s revenues are not yet sufficient to quit his day job, he says, though last year he sold 400 maps throughout the season; this year 300 already. His company is funded by sponsors whose logos adorn the maps and appear on the Web site, among them Backcountry Access and ERSI, a mapping software company. Three years he won an award from ERSI for his work; his prize, the software.
Now in his fifth season (correlating to ski seasons), Scott’s inventory includes maps for A Basin, Berthoud, Loveland, Independence, Wolf Creek; two of Utah (Little and Big Cottonwood); two of Alaska (Turnagain Pass and Hatcher Pass); and one of Teton Pass, Wyoming soon to be released. The 11 inch by 17 inch maps on water resistant paper sell for $12; 24 inch by 36 inch, suitable for framing, $34.95.
Among the hard core, avalanche lore is common knowledge. "People who ski backcountry know this stuff, and guides tell people they are leading out there," Scott says. But with increasing numbers lured by the backcountry — the draw, says Scott, "serene terrain, free skiing, fresh ungroomed snow, no lift lines — there’s always the possibility of neophytes meandering into high-risk terrain. "Backcountry skiers need to know if an area has a history of avalanches, so they can say, ‘hey, we better be careful."
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, on average 200 people are caught each year in avalanches; 89 percent of victims are men, most between 20 and 29, and three-quarters of victims are experienced backcountry recreation-seekers. Colorado leads the U.S. in avalanche fatalities.
Avalanches can be a hazard to drivers as well, witness the Jan. 6 avalanche on Highway 40. Another potential user of his data is the DOT, so it can better "gauge the frequency of avalanches, track damage and better determine their budget for prevention."
The demand for GIS/GPS avalanche data is growing. According to Scott, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education is using digital data to set standards for avalanche preparedness classes. And the Forest Service is requesting that digital data be collected on its leased land. "It’s a huge boon for my work," Scott says.
And for his play. He works all week, backcountry skis each weekend day, collecting data, he says, but mostly just enjoying the powder.
For more information, the company Web site is www.avalanchemapping.org