David Mintzer, a Denver-based physician, was an unlikely candidate to create an app, since he had no formal training in that field. But with ten years of backcountry skiing experience, he'd become acutely aware of the need for more access to information to help people navigate this dangerous terrain. The result? Backcountry Beta, a smartphone application that provides users with data on snow conditions across North America.
“The inspiration was to meet a need for backcountry skiers,” Mintzer explains. “Most of the apps for skiing are really directed at resort skiing. ... I saw a hole that needed to be filled, and taught myself to develop this app.”
The information on the app consolidates everything a backcountry skier needs to consider when planning a day in the mountains, including avalanche forecasts, a standardized grade of 1 to 5 broken down by region; weather point forecasts that predict conditions in remote locations; snowtell, a report on snowfall and temperatures from the last 24 hours and an indication of current conditions; and slope maps, which use a colored gradient overlaid on the topographic map to indicate the steepness of specific slopes.
A free version of Backcountry Beta includes the avalanche forecasts, but those who want all of the information will have to purchase a pro subscription for $2.99/year.
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“The more data we have at our hands, the better, safer, smarter decisions we can make in the backcountry,” he says.
Collecting that data was the most difficult part of creating the app, though. The ease of accessing information on weather and conditions varies from state to state, with plenty of details coming from some locations and almost no data from others. Because the Avalanche Forecast Ratings are standardized and produced for the entire country, that's one of the app's strengths. Gathering relevant intel on weather, snowtell and slope is more difficult, Mintzer says. In fact, Colorado is one of the only places where consistent, quality data is available, because the Colorado Avalanche Information Center publishes this information.
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Since it's unlikely that the organizations that provide weather information will become open-source any time soon, the real potential of Backcountry Beta could lie in creating a community of skiers who crowdsource, sharing condition reports with each other. The app averages 1,500 users a month (more when there is a lot of snow), and these people can submit reports detailing their experiences. Mintzer sees growth in user information as a space with endless potential.
Through the creation of Backcountry Beta, Mintzer is trying to provide backcountry skiers with a way to monitor conditions in real time as they prepare to pick their line from the top of a backcountry bowl or couloir. “I’m hoping this can help people make decisions,” he says.
“It’s not a replacement for taking an avalanche course or carrying the proper equipment, [including] having a paper map, because if your phone dies, you’ll be out of luck using just an app," he adds. "This is another tool that you can use, but it shouldn’t replace traditional training, safety and equipment.”