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What Now: iSkier

What Now: iSkier

The small screen is revolutionizing the way skiers chase snow, ride lifts and even share their adventures. But is this something to tweet about?
By Paul Tolme
posted: 09/16/2009

Smartphones are becoming as critical a component of a ski day as snow. Resorts are responding, working to stay continually connected to customers on the hill—and at home.

Standing on a high peak in the Wasatch Range, Thomas Cooke wondered if the snow conditions had changed since he embarked on a daylong backcountry ski tour. Obtaining this information, miles from civilization, would have been difficult—if not impossible—just a few years ago. No longer.

Cooke pulled out his iPhone, went online and checked the latest advisory from the Utah Avalanche Center. “It’s nice to get snow safety updates and check the weather forecast without sitting at your computer,” says the Salt Lake City, Utah, digital development executive.

Call Cooke an iSkier—a new generation of snowsports enthusiasts who never hit the slopes without their iPhones, BlackBerries or one of the many other similar options. These devices continue to revolutionize how people live their daily lives—and now, not surprisingly, how people play in the mountains.

Take the snow report. In the old days, skiers woke early, opened the curtains and looked out the window. The next generation dialed a snow phone, which later morphed into going online to check snowfall figures. Now, Nathan Rafferty begins his day by grabbing his smartphone, which doubles as his alarm clock, and reads the snow report while still in bed. “I know what the snow totals are before my feet hit the floor,” says the president of Ski Utah, an industry marketing organization. “Time is of the essence on a powder day.” 

Still looking at paper trail maps? How 1990s. Smartphone users download and study digital maps—no folding required. This may sound trivial, but not to San Diego sales executive Gary Cihak, who had become lost in the vast sidecountry of Utah’s Powder Mountain. No worries. He opened iTrailmap, a smartphone application, and quickly figured out how to get back to the lifts.

Apple’s online store offers more than 60 skier-related apps, and the iPhone currently dominates the high-country app-o-sphere, though a growing number of similar applications are being created for BlackBerry and other models. While some are free, such as those created by trade group Ski Utah and retailer The North Face, premium apps typically cost just a few dollars and offer a remarkable array of information and services. 

Snocator (snocator.com), for instance, uses the global-positioning technology embedded in smartphones to locate your position on a digital map. Portland, Ore., executive recruiter Josiah Whitman used its “you are here” function to navigate Mt. Bachelor when he was skiing the Oregon resort for the first time. “It eliminates the fear of getting lost, especially when you’re in the trees.” Other apps are just for kicks. HangTimer (hangtimer.com) measures how long a skier remains airborne.

Smartphones have even changed how skiers brag. During his Utah backcountry trip, Cooke sent Twitter messages to friends about his exploits. He also took photos with his phone, uploading them to his Facebook page. “You can share your adventures in real time,” he marvels.

Resorts are responding to this small-screen revolution by improving often spotty wireless coverage at their mountains. They’re also creating mobile websites with trail maps, weather and grooming reports, lift-ticket and lodging deals—and just about anything else that makes a ski trip easier or more enjoyable. 

“Customers’ expectations have fundamentally changed,” says Andy Wirth, senior vice president for Intrawest, which operates a number of resorts, including Whistler, B.C., and Steamboat, Colo. “They want information on the fly, up to the minute and on site. It’s our job to provide it.” 

Steamboat, for instance, sends text alerts about lift openings and closings. Hungry? Resorts are experimenting with e-coupons for their restaurants. Checkout clerks scan the coupon’s bar code on your phone’s screen. “This is how people live their lives today,” Wirth says. “It should be seamless when they come to the mountains.”

Many resorts have developed passionate followings on social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. “It’s about taking the mountain experience and pushing it out,” says Derek Koenig, chief marketing officer for Vail Resorts. “The guy from Chicago might ski here for seven days a season. We want to talk to him the other 358 days.”

While a loud seatmate chatting on a cell phone can be annoying during a gondola ride, the omnipresent device has become an invaluable emergency link. Two skiers who ducked out of bounds at Steamboat in January were found after one telephoned for help. Witnesses riding a chairlift at Brighton, Utah, immediately called for assistance last season after seeing a skier swept away by an avalanche. That skier survived, though the British man who sent a text message to his mother after getting lost off-piste in Italy might wish he had not: The tabloid press ribbed him mercilessly for asking his mum to call rescuers.

Smartphones are just the start. In the past, lost or injured backcountry skiers relied on their wits and experience to get out of trouble. Now handheld GPS devices are as much standard expedition equipment as skis and poles.  Skiers in a pinch can now press a 911 button on their Spot handheld locator (findmespot.com), sending out a digital “runner” with their GPS coordinates to authorities.

Professional photographer Dirk Ruge used Spot to get out of trouble while backcountry skiing in Colorado last winter. “I ended up on a road a long way from where I wanted to be.” So he sent a help message to a friend, who pulled up Ruge’s GPS coordinates on a smartphone, ascertained his position and drove to get him. Inbounds safety is also being addressed. Steamboat and Copper Mountain, Colo., put a GPS device on each ski school child. If a student strays from the group, the device sends a wireless alert to instructors.

Technology is also being used as much for reassurance as rescue. Jim Conway, lead guide for Teton Gravity Research, periodically pushes the OK button on his Spot to send a prewritten message to his wife and colleagues while working in the remote backcountry. “I can get on with my job knowing that everyone knows I’m alright.”

Love or loathe the incessant digital lifestyle, it’s here to stay on the slopes. And that creates new dilemmas as well as delights. Tim White, executive director of the National Ski Patrol, shudders when he sees skiers and boarders fixated on little screens instead of where they are going. “It’s like driving: Pull over,” exhorts White.

Park City resident Cooke has a different solution. “I was complaining to a colleague about my iPhone ringing constantly. He said, ‘Dude, there’s a little button on the side. You push it and it turns your phone off.’”

Welcome to techreation

There’s a digital application for just about every whim on the hill. Here’s a start.

1> Accuweather, for the iPhone, provides hourly weather updates, and radar maps and satellite images for every ZIP code in the country; http://www.accuweather.com/iphone.

2> SkiTrak, for Garmin and Magellan devices, calculates speed, distance, number of runs and time spent skiing vs. riding lifts, then uploads the info to your computer; http://www.skitrak.com.

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