Jeff Banks knows his snow.
He’s skied all his life and is pretty damn good at it. He won a junior national championship in nordic racing, competed in college and then went on to become a national champion in ski mountaineering racing.
Today, the IFMGA-certified mountain guide based in Crested Butte trains the best of the best, including the U.S. Special Forces Mountain Unit, Olympic athletes and other mountain guides around the world.
But one day, he got it wrong.
Around 12 years ago, Banks was leading a group of clients up the last slope of the day on a week-long ski tour. The zone they were crossing had been traversed all week by other groups, including one just a few minutes ahead. Then he saw what any backcountry traveler fears.
“The avalanche cracked right at my feet, and I knew we were dead,” he says. “We went over 1,500 vertical feet and over three cliff bands.”
But once the snow stopped, he and his group just brushed the snow off their jackets — with a stroke of “dumb luck,” they were alive.
Banks calls that the beginning of his “second shot.”
“I’ve been privileged to have the best training, mentorship and exams that anyone can have in our country, and it’s not good enough. The current system just isn’t cutting it,” he says. “All the other guides made the same call, and they all got it wrong, too. So that sent me on a mission to save lives from avalanches.”
As snow continues to fall on Colorado’s alpine, and with ski season right around the corner, Banks released AspectAvy — an app built to simplify decision-making in the backcountry — on Nov. 23 to keep guides and enthusiasts alike coming home.
“We don’t want to lose any more friends,” he says. “I’ve lost 12 friends and colleagues to avalanches alone. That is an absurdly high number.”
A slippery slope
Avalanches are notoriously dangerous and unpredictable for people traveling in the high country. According to Statista, an average of 24 people have died in avalanches every year in the U.S. over the last 10 winters.
Almost a third of those people are typically killed in Colorado, with an average of seven deaths per year since the 2009-10 season. Eleven people died in avalanches in the Centennial State last year out of nearly 6,000 reported slides.
Colorado’s snowpack is especially hazardous and tricky because of weak layers of snow, called persistent slabs, beneath the top of the snowpack that linger throughout most of the season and are hard to detect. That’s just one of a handful of “avalanche problems” that can cause snow to slide.
Research suggests that avalanche forecasting, like those done at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, are accurate about 80% of the time. Banks says that’s “a really sobering fact” when people are navigating potentially fatal terrain.
People can also make decisions that put themselves in high-risk situations. In fact, most avalanches are triggered by humans.
“When we go ski touring or snowmobiling, snowboarding or snowshoeing, it’s a deeply emotional experience, and we kind of lose our minds,” says Banks. “In nine out of 10 of those accidents, we knew it was dangerous, and we somehow rationalized our way into being like, ‘It’ll be fine. It’ll be great. I feel good about this.’”
AspectAvy aims to both increase avalanche forecasting accuracy and remove that human error. The app uses an algorithm that incorporates factors like the day’s avalanche forecast from CAIC, the state’s new high-resolution LiDAR ground elevation data, slope angle data and avalanche problem type to paint an interactive map with red no-go zones. Users can also verify and update the forecast in real time with avalanche-prone conditions they might see on the terrain, like wind slabs, “whoopfs” (the sound of a weak layer collapsing, which indicates an unstable snowpack) or rapid warming.
If the red zones aren’t enough to deter riders from uncertain terrain, the app also displays notifications like: “THE AVALANCHE FORECAST AND YOUR MAP HAS BEEN UPDATED TO CONSIDERABLE” or “WARNING! Unpredictable snowpack. Remote triggering from flat runout zones is likely!”
Will Frischkorn, longtime owner of now-closed Cure on east Pearl Street, has been skiing in the backcountry for 15 years. Even with the proper education, he says “there’s a huge element of subjective choice” when making decisions in the backcountry.
“I’ve been lucky that the choices I’ve made have worked out, whether by making a decision or just getting lucky,” he says. “And I think that’s what most of us do. There’s a huge element of luck that, you know, ‘It’s so far, so good.’ But only one time where ‘so far is not so good’ can become pretty life changing.”
Other backcountry apps often focus on terrain mapping, which can be helpful to make informed decisions, but Frischkorn says AspectAvy’s focus on avalanche danger and simplified decision-making makes it unique. When he tried out AspectAvy, he said the yes/no display helps weed out subjective factors like group dynamics, stoke or “powder fever.”
The app doesn’t replace proper backcountry education; it’s designed to work in tandem with skills and knowledge gained from courses like those at the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).
Banks is convinced making safe and high-risk zones crystal clear for riders like Frischkorn will remove the temptation to push the safety limits. He believes every avalanche death last year in Colorado would have been prevented if they used AspectAvy, because all of the riders were in red terrain.
“This is preventive avalanche safety gear,” Banks says. “It’s a totally new category that’s never existed before.”
The app also works in airplane mode and has features like trailhead checks and “critical skill videos” that walk users through beacon checks, what should go in your pack, how to manage risk on the uphill and more.
But just because a skier doesn’t get caught in an avalanche doesn’t mean they did it right. At the end of a tour, the app gives users feedback on their decision-making through a debriefing that shows if you tracked into the red.
After his own close call and losing so many people in avalanches, Banks is ready for a change.
“This is a very personal problem we’re trying to solve.”
AspectAvy is available to preorder through the Apple App Store and will cost $49.99 for an annual subscription.