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Does This Smart Probe Mean You’ll Never Have To Dig A Snow Pit Again?

First off: the answer is no. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based AvaTech's new SP1 smart probe, which purports to take 5,000 measurements of snowpack structure, slope angle, and slope aspect per second as the user inserts the 150-cm probe into the snow, will give avalanche professionals a detailed profile of the local snowpack (by measuring snow hardness as the probe descends) in seconds–a process that, manually, might take 15-20 minutes–and geotag it instantly. Users can then later enter that data manually or upload it to their smartphone or Avetech's cloud observation platform, AvaNet, which will allow Big Data to (finally?) impact the amount of information that professionals from ski patrollers to avalanche forecasters can use to make their assessments of the local snowpack. 

But as it is now, that same crowd should NOT be expecting to rock this product into the backwoods to replace the various tests they should practicing, avalanche forecasts they should be reading, and brain they should be using. AvaTech's initial smart probe product is geared entirely towards professionals–avalanche forecasters, ski patrollers and guides, and the like. And with a retail price of $2249, and a subscription to AveNet's cloud platform costing another $495 per year, the SP1 is way out of reach of most amateurs. With that in mind, and AvaTech's partnership with educators like the AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) and AAI (American Avalanche Institute) organizations, AveTech's initial product offerings are aimed exclusively at the professional market–you won't be seeing your skin track partners whipping this out come December.

While manual snowpack profiles depend on slightly subjective tactile measurements–ferreting out snow that resists fists, fingers, pencils, etc.–the SP1 provides the same profile using more objective measurements of pressure as the probe is drilled into the snow, and in a far faster timeframe. Can you spot the weak layer?

However, the probe–designed by some of the country's top nerds over at MIT, one of whom nearly lost a friend to an avalanche in Switzerland–has the potential to give professionals way more information to work with to make their assessments. "I can't dig 20 snowpits in a day," says the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's Brian Lazar in the above video, "But I can do 20 probe tests in a day." The SP1 seems especially tailored towards one of those little bastards of the snowpack, spacial variability, and will allow pros to track a weak layer much more closely as it changes depth and severity across a single slope, for example. It also is one of the more serious interventions of data-driven tools into the snowpack testing world, which has remained remarkably manual well into the 21st century.

A sample of snowpack profiles taken in Utah's Wasatch mountains using the SP1 probe,displayed in the subscription-based AvaNet cloud platform. 

What do our forum members think? Per usual, the conversation going on in the Slide Zone forum about the new probe reflects a healthy amount of skepticism about any techy product in its first year on the market, but the maggots also seem to think it'll be good to have the pros work out any kinks before this becomes an effective tool for amateur backcountry riders. As Shredgnar says: "There's gotta be some margin of user error that goes into these and I'm sure that offering it to avy pros only will help ensure reliable data for the first few years until they can make a dumbass-proof version for the rest of us to use." 

The one-pound collapsible AvaTech SP1 probe will be formally launched at the International Snow Science Workshop starting in Banff, Canada, on the 28th, but will be offering a reduced pre-order discount price of $1,499 from now until October 6th. Programs for cash-strapped educators and forecast centers can hit up contact@avatech.com for a special program tailored at making the program more affordable.

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About The Author

stash member Ryan Dunfee

Former Managing Editor at Teton Gravity Research, current Senior Contributor, current professional hippy at the Sierra Club, and avid weekend recreationalist.

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