An increase in avalanche deaths has paralleled the rise in recreational backcountry activities in recent decades. Although avalanches can happen unexpectedly, many of the warning signs can be detected. Key risk factors include recent rain or snowfall, visible cracking and sounds of shifting terrain, extreme temperature changes, and weak layers of snow in the snowpack. These weak layers can often cause an avalanche when no other signs are present and they are the most difficult to detect with basic manual tests, such as digging snow pits and feeling layers, which offer only subjective insight.
After Brint Markle MBA ’14 had a close call in 2010 while skiing with friends in Switzerland, he wanted to know much more than the surface characteristics of snow. With this goal in mind, he enrolled in the Sloan School of Management.
While at MIT, Markle teamed up with Jim Christian SM ’14 and Sam Whittemore ’14 to form AvaTech, a company focused on proactive avalanche safety that starts with a better understanding of snow. Their first product is the SP1 probe, which was launched in September and was recognized as a National Geographic Gear of the Year for 2014 and one of the Top 100 Innovations of the Year by Popular Science. The probe is inserted into snowpack and reads the characteristics of the layers through numerous sensors—determining hardness, resistance, slope angle, aspect, GPS orientation, and ultimately detecting weak layers that could cause slides. Along with the SP1 probe, they also launched AvaNet, a cloud platform that helps backcountry travelers share critical snowpack and avalanche safety data all across the world.
The product is being marketed to professionals and forecasters, helping to make their evaluations of snow safety more informed. “The snowpack is really complex,” says Whittemore, “and we want the SP1 to make it much easier for the people out there in the backcountry to assess how the snow changes in space and time.”
Today Markle, who is AvaTech’s CEO, Christian, the lead product designer, and Whittemore, the lead engineer, are based in Park City, Utah, the most popular backcountry locale in the US. From there, they travel around the world demonstrating their product. For much of February, Markle has been working with the SP1 and AvaNet in the Alps and the Himalayas. “We’ve spent the last two years validating our technology with leading industry professionals,” says Markle. “Today, we have more than 400 organizations from 35 countries sharing data on the platform, spanning ski patrol, guiding companies, forecast centers, departments of transportation, snow scientists, and other snow professionals.”
Up to this point, most research and development in the avalanche field has been focused on equipment and devices to save individuals already caught in an avalanche, but a more technical understanding of avalanche prevention could truly revolutionize the industry.
Originally, the vision of the company was focused on developing the first proactive avalanche safety technology in the world, says Markle. But they have come to realize that the SP1 is the cornerstone of a much broader information sharing platform. “We talk about building a global mountain community that can share information in real time to benefit the safety of all mountain travelers. That to us, is extremely powerful.”