It was the last day of a tour in Italy’s Ortler Alps, and Jeff Banks was guiding his clients up a steep slope with crampons on their boots and skis on their backs. Once they reached the top, they’d click into their bindings and enjoy deep powder on the way down to well-earned beers and warm strudel. Another group, led by Banks’ mentor, was about five minutes ahead of them, and around 40 other guides and their wards had hiked the same slope in the preceding days. So when an avalanche broke right at his feet, Banks only had a second to be surprised. Then he thought, This is how we die.

Banks wasn’t just worried that his group might be buried alive; the slide was sure to drag him and his guests over a set of cliffs. Banks instinctively jumped uphill onto the still stable snow above the break, and for a moment, he thought he was safe. Then, just as he remembered he was roped to his clients below him, they pulled him away. “It was like going down a Class V rapid in the Grand Canyon,” Banks says. “We were incredibly lucky, because we went over all three cliff bands and we came to a stop at the bottom and were fine.”

The moment irrevocably changed Banks’ understanding of avalanche safety. “I made the wrong decision, my mentor above me made the wrong decision, and all the other guides who crossed that slope for days made the wrong decision,” he says. And if a guide such as him, privileged to have had the best training in the world and certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, could make such a potentially deadly mistake, it was clear to him that how the industry had long approached avalanche safety and education was broken. It’d be more than a decade before he and his business partner, JB Leach, would try to fix it.

Banks met Leach in 2020 during a level-one recreational avalanche safety class he was teaching a few miles outside of his hometown of Crested Butte. The snowpack was difficult to assess. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), the Colorado Department of Natural Resources program responsible for forecasting avalanche conditions across the state, had set the day’s danger rating at moderate, the second-lowest grade on the five-level avalanche danger scale.

A moderate designation means that, while natural avalanches are unlikely, human-triggered ones are possible on certain terrain features, such as wind-loaded slopes where snow piles up on the downwind side of mountain ridges.

Complicating the forecast, however, was a widespread layer of weak snow buried in the snowpack that would be hard, but not impossible, to trigger. Banks compares it to a minefield. Dozens of people could pass through unharmed, but an unlucky skier could set off a deadly slide.

It’s a situation that can frighten even experienced backcountry skiers and boarders, so Banks deviated from the standard curriculum and introduced his students to a tool he’d picked up while guiding in Europe: a color-coded graph where the x-axis is the danger level and the y-axis is what slope angles should be safe to ski. Leach, a user-experience designer in the tech industry, approached Banks about the graph while the class was in the field. “He was like, ‘This is what I do. I distill really complex problems into simple solutions,’” Banks says. The two men decided they wanted to bring a similar tool to the United States, but this time it’d be an app.

After three years of development, AspectAvy went live in November. The app, which costs $50 per year and covers at least seven Western states (with plans to expand into Europe and Canada) has a slew of features—including safety checklists, how-to videos for common but easily forgotten backcountry skills, and a route tracker—but its key attribute is its high-definition terrain map. Instead of plotting which slope angles should be safe on a graph, AspectAvy plots them directly onto the elevation map. For an extra layer of safety, it includes a third variable in addition to slope angle and danger rating: the types of avalanche hazards local forecasters believe to be present in the snowpack.

Unlike other GPS applications, which usually include a static overlay that highlights all slopes between 30 and 45 degrees, the range at which the vast majority of avalanches occur, AspectAvy shades the slopes it thinks are dangerous that particular day. If the day’s danger rating is moderate, for example, the map highlights all slopes steeper than 34 degrees. Stay out of the colored portion of the map and, Banks says, skiers should avoid the vast majority of avalanche accidents. (At one point, AspectAvy’s website claimed it would screen out 90 percent of avalanche accidents. That figure has since been removed from the site.) “We’re not going to tell you where it is low risk,” Banks says. “We are going to f***ing show you.”

There might be a few problems with that plan, says CAIC director Ethan Greene. The first issue is the data—or more accurately, the lack of data. Avalanche science is a relatively new discipline, and researchers still aren’t sure how best to measure certain things such as slope angle, Greene says. And although there is evidence that different avalanche types are more likely to occur at certain slope angles, there is no consensus yet among researchers. Silverton Avalanche School executive director Michael Ackerman puts it more bluntly. “With a data set of 100 years,” he says, “it only takes one 300-year avalanche cycle to rewrite everything you think you know.”

More important, the recreational forecasts from avalanche centers such as CAIC that AspectAvy relies on are given for huge swaths of terrain, not for individual peaks, much less specific backcountry ski runs. So while CAIC may say to expect stable snow and low danger, that prediction might cover 1,000 square miles. Because every mountain and every slope has its own microclimate, there’s the potential for skiers to run into pockets of unstable, avalanche-prone snow that weren’t spotted by forecasters.

Level-one avalanche safety courses are designed to help skiers navigate these situations. The danger, Greene says, is if skiers use the app to shortcut the decision-making process those classes teach, or worse, use it as a substitute for avalanche education.

AspectAvy tells skiers to stay off slopes steep enough to slide when CAIC’s danger rating is “considerable,” but it won’t highlight the avalanche run-out zones below those dangerous slopes. So skiers who aren’t familiar with avalanche safety—or simply have a laissez-faire attitude toward it—could find themselves caught in an avalanche even if they’re traveling through terrain AspectAvy’s map hasn’t denoted as dangerous. (The app does warn users that triggering avalanches remotely from flat areas is possible and provides a separate tool to help users calculate how far a potential slide could run, but it’s up to them to measure every slope they traverse on or under.)

“I think of that scene in The Office where Michael and Dwight are in the car using GPS,” Ackerman says. In the episode, Steve Carell’s Michael drives into a lake after blindly listening to the GPS’ directions.

Banks makes it clear that AspectAvy isn’t a replacement for formal training, and when users first open the app, they’re greeted with a disclaimer that says as much. But Banks agrees with his critics that his product is a shortcut—and that should be a positive, he says. “[The industry] expects skiers to…read the avalanche bulletin every day for the whole winter and spend an hour doing their tour plan. And I am like, I don’t have time for that. I don’t know how normal people with kids and lives and responsibilities have time for that,” he says, explaining that the app is like having an expert looking over your shoulder.

That could be a good thing. Instead of leaving their level-one avalanche safety course feeling empowered to navigate the backcountry, skiers and boarders often feel lost. “It’s kinda like a college graduate being told they need to have experience in order to get a job, but they can’t get a job until they have experience,” says Andy Sovik, founder and CEO of Gunnison’s Beacon Guidebooks, which publishes compendiums of backcountry routes. AspectAvy could be another tool to help keep skiers safe as they gain that experience.

Avalanche forecasters and educators are more concerned about users who aren’t that discerning. Banks attributes the pushback to an industry that’s afraid of change—and scared of being responsible for making a bad call that leads to an injury or death. “That’s where we are different,” he says, referring to AspectAvy’s willingness to give skiers go/no-go calls by telling users that if they stay off the slopes it has marked as dangerous, they should be safe. That’s something North American avalanche forecasters have never done, and if a user is injured or killed using the app, Banks is confident his team has done its due diligence. “We are clearly a disruption, and this field needs to be disrupted,” he says. “We have a system that originated when we had rotary phones. Now we live in a time where you have all the world’s knowledge on your phone. So it would be silly not to use that.”

Although Greene has concerns about the app, he doesn’t dismiss it. In fact, he says the more information skiers have, the better—as long as they make sure they know how each tool works so they can use it appropriately. “There’s a lot of devil in the details, and in general, anytime somebody offers to cure your incurable illness, you should be careful about what you’re getting,” he says.

Testing the app to understand how it works is something Greene says he hasn’t had a chance to do yet. At press time, AspectAvy hadn’t been released publicly, and Greene says CAIC hasn’t been asked to formally provide feedback on the app. Greene says a couple of CAIC employees had informal discussions with AspectAvy last year, but they involved viewing the company’s marketing materials and taking a quick look at a beta version of the app that was too brief to form any educated opinions about the product. (Banks says a CAIC forecaster he reached out to canceled multiple meetings where they’d planned to run through the application.)

Beacon Guidebooks’ Sovik, an avid backcountry skier himself, sees both sides of the argument. Despite giving AspectAvy an endorsement that’s featured on the app’s website, Sovik acknowledges that there are still a lot of questions about the app that need to be answered—primarily about how skiers will actually use it in the field. But Sovik also believes resisting the kind of technological evolution AspectAvy represents is futile because it’s coming whether the backcountry industry wants it or not. “I think it has a lot of potential, and the goal is genuine,” he says. “I’m excited somebody’s trying to do it.”

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This article was originally published in 5280 January 2024.
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas writes and edits the Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections of 5280 and writes for