Crested Butte guide and avalanche survivor ready to launch game-changing backcountry app
Jeff Banks' AspectAvy, set to launch Nov. 24, uses an innovative proprietary algorithm and laser-precision mapping to provide real-time avalanche risk in a user-friendly format
On the final day of a spring tour in Italy’s Ortler Range, Jeff Banks was leading skiers across a slope that had been traversed by about 40 guides and their clients for days.
“The plan was to make one final run to the bottom and have a few celebratory beers,” the certified mountain guide said. Suddenly, the snow fractured beneath his feet.
“I thought ‘this is it,'” Banks recalled. “We’re dead.”
The group was swept over three cliff bands on a harrowing 1,800-vertical foot slide. At the bottom, they miraculously brushed the snow off their coats, unharmed. Beer never tasted so good. An epiphany was never clearer.
“It caused me to reflect — ‘what went wrong here?'” Banks said. “I’ve been privileged to have the best avalanche training our country could provide — and mentorship and experience — and it wasn’t good enough for me or the other guides that got it wrong. What chance does a normal person have?”
Banks pored over 200 hours of accident reports, seeking answers.
“I was like, ‘there’s got to be a better way,'” he said.
Thirteen years later, Banks has successfully “pulled the data through the noise” to create AspectAvy. The preventive avalanche safety app, currently available for pre-order in the Apple app store, “takes an evidence-based approach to avalanche risk management.”
“We do it completely differently,” Banks said in contrasting his product over and against ‘reactive avalanche gear,’ only employed when disaster strikes.
“We look at data that no one’s ever looked at before, we analyze it differently, and we come up with drastically different advice for you on how to manage your avalanche risk.”
AspectAvy employs a unique proprietary algorithm to synthesize user location, past avalanche accident data and daily avalanche forecasts, which it overlays onto a shaded high-definition LiDAR map. Red on the map is high risk — “like BASE jumping,” Banks explained — while clear equals a low risk, similar to driving a car.
“It makes avalanche safety simple,” said Banks who has 20 years of experience teaching avalanche courses all over Europe and the U.S. and is also a veteran American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) trainer and examiner.
The app costs $49.99 annually and goes live on Nov. 24. As of this writing, over $160,000 has been invested on the app’s WeFunder.com page.
“There’s clearly a lot of excitement in the backcountry community; people want to be part of this mission and join the team,” Banks said. “They want to keep their friends and family safe in the backcountry.”
A broken system
After graduating from Middlebury College with a degree in Arctic and Alpine geography, Banks followed his brother to Gunnison County. He fell in love with the region’s rich backcountry offerings and threw himself into avalanche training and guide courses. Eventually, he relocated to Chamonix, a notorious hotbed for backcountry daredevils.
“If you ski in the backcountry long enough, you’re going to know someone who has died in an avalanche,” he commented. Banks, who moved back to Crested Butte a few years ago, learned European methods of avalanche prevention and safety from his colleagues, but his own near-death experience left him convinced there was still work to be done.
“We’ve inherited an avalanche system with flawed architecture,” Banks stated. “It requires that the avalanche forecaster and guide be right 100% of the time. I don’t know anyone who is perfect every day at work.”
Out of the approximately 5 million backcountry riders in the U.S., only about 20,000 are educated every year, Banks said.
“In about 350 years, we could get everyone educated,” he stated before bemoaning the reality that even then, imperfect humans and unpredictable snow will perpetually present the possibility of disaster.
“We need to innovate faster because people are still dying. This is having a big impact on our communities and we have to make it simpler for people to stay alive, because we’re not meeting the user where they’re at.”
Throughout three years of product design and testing, Banks and his co-founder J.B. Leach conducted over 200 interviews to quantify users’ needs and experiences.
“Backcountry riders told us the old avalanche system leaves them feeling confused, overwhelmed and scared,” Banks said. “And we listened.”
How AspectAvy works
Banks’ propriety algorithm considers danger rating, avalanche problems, slope angle and time. AspectAvy automatically loads the day’s avalanche forecast and user location through the algorithm and overlays the information onto LiDAR maps.
Because of the statistical relationship between snowpack stability and slope angle, the capacity for slope-angle shading to 3-meter detail (even in airplane mode) offers a critical distinction from other backcountry apps like Gaia GPS onX Backcountry, FATMAP and CalTopo, which often mix hand-drawn and LiDAR data, without user notification, Banks said.
“Some of the data that people are going off of when they’re risking their lives (is) a cartographer making hand-drawn maps while looking through basically 3D glasses,” Banks, who studied cartography in college, said, adding that such mapping apps often show the same slope angle shading whether it’s June or January.
Banks said certain areas of the U.S. have yet to be fully laser-mapped, but they should be by the end of the year. In non-mapped regions, AspectAvy notifies users with a ‘no laser-mapping available’ message.
“We’ve taken a hard line on how we’re going to put this product out into the world,” Banks said, adding that he is not only the founder of the company, but a user of the product. “It has to work for us, it has to be as accurate as possible, and that means it has to be laser-mapping. We created the product that we needed to come home safely to our families at the end of the day.”
In the field, users are prompted to enter observations such as visible avalanche activity, shooting cracks or ‘whumpfs,’ which the app then uses to update new red, ‘high-risk’ areas in real-time — even in airplane mode. Safety checklists, classic touring routes and training videos are downloaded.
Synthesizing complex forecast data and terrain considerations into a user-friendly, one-page avalanche-risk synopsis provides the risk-lowering tool Banks believes is needed in the backcountry space. It also opens the door for would-be-backcountry skiers whom Banks said report feeling overwhelmed and confused by complex avalanche reports.
“It’s frustrating, in 20 years of teaching avalanche courses I’ve never been able to deliver on the student’s simple motivation for taking the class — ‘where can I play in the snow and come home alive?'” Banks stated.
“Telling a student ‘Well, it depends, use your judgment,’ isn’t helpful for a novice doing the riskiest activity in their life. We have got to innovate and deliver a simple method to stay alive in avalanche terrain.”
At every junction in the flow chart of the algorithm, the app opts for the “more conservative side,” Banks said.
AspectAvy endorsers include Angela Hawse, AMGA president, the U.S. Special Forces Mountain guide team, and Joel Gratz, founder of OpenSnow.com.
“For backcountry riders, the consequences of a single decision can mean that they do not return home alive,” Gratz stated. “I am thrilled to work with AspectAvy and to incorporate their data, their checklists and their well-timed reminders to ensure that I am making a no-regrets decision.”
Banks isn’t claiming 100% prevention.
“That doesn’t exist unless you stay home under the covers,” he stated. “Other apps can get you out into the backcountry; AspectAvy is the one that brings you home.”
This story is from Vail Daily.
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