The Digital Mountain

On Brian Brill's computer screen is a realistic rendering of a mountaintop yurt. As if in a sophisticated computer game, we enter through the yurt's door and pass a reception desk, complete with a smiling and waving receptionist. We continue through the yurt's back door and gaze upon the top of Keystone's tubing hill, with half a dozen tubes resting on the snow ready for launch. The terrain on the screen is a perfectly proportioned reproduction of the actual hill, properly contoured for a day with a 32-inch snow base. The big sign summarizing the liability release is clearly legible-we have to move past it to get to the tubes.

And then we slide down the hill, bouncing over the jumps, and glide to a stop. All that's missing is a sound track.

Through digital mapping, Keystone planned out its tubing hill from the point of the view of the guest. The software allows the user to walk through the yurt, see the signs and take a run. The end result? Tweaking was alot easier on-screen than on-hill.

We're doing all this on a standard widescreen HP laptop, running a mapping package from ESRI, one of the leading makers of GIS software (the acronym stands for geographic information system). The computer's hard drive stores a very accurate map of Keystone and the surrounding terrain, and Brill has added a number of custom routines that let him navigate at will around that virtual world.

This computerized Keystone didn't come to life overnight. Brill has been gathering GPS data on Keystone's trails for three winters, skiing and snowmobiling the terrain with a Trimble handheld GPS computer, connected to what looks like a miniature AWACS antenna on a stalk above his head. He currently has about 5,400 datapoints entered into his computer, defining trail boundaries, snowmaking fixtures, patrol phones, electrical junctions, utility lines, signs and even, occasionally, race-course gates. Each point maps onto a set of high-resolution satellite photos with a precision of about 40cm (16 inches) horizontally and 120cm (48 inches) vertically. As a result, Brill has a very detailed 3-D map of the area at his fingertips.

And so does just about every other employee who might have need for it. The whole database is accessible to any networked computer at the ski area. The electricians, for instance, can instantly pull up a map showing exactly where a buried line passes under a specific work road. The data can also be used to quickly homologate a race course, and to print out an accurate map, for use by guests.

The potential for time saving is vast in any department with responsibility for infrastructure or event planning. Among Brill's current projects are mapping the route for a four-mile water pipe that will improve both snowmaking efficiency and river water quality, and calculating the snow volume in the superpipe to measure its snowmaking cost.

The animation features-the ability to fly around the mountain and ski the trails-make marketing geniuses sit up and take notice. It is possible to turn a properly-mapped mountain into a computer game on a CD-ROM. The marketing department could ship a disk that would give folks at home a taste of what it's like to ski the mountain-as an introduction for never-evers, say, or to encourage kids in college dorms to race each other on a virtual downhill course. Internally, this capability allows trail designers to ski new trails or play with new terrain park features before building them in real life.

Vision of the Future
Mountain manager Chuck Tolton inaugurated the project four years ago, when he was the risk management officer for Vail Resorts. "We needed a more precise way to capture conditions around an incident," he says. He wanted accurate site reconstructions based on GPS data.

According to Keystone's legal counsel, Peter Rietz, GIS mapping has already been used effectively to back up expert witness testimony in dozens of courtrooms across the country in both ski and non-ski related cases. A typical use is to reconstruct the accident scene from the viewpoint of the injured party. Rietz expects that GIS mapping will be admitted soon in a snowsport case. "It's as accurate as the traditional surveys we've always relied on," he says. "It's a lot better than the blow-ups of still photos everyone historically uses in court, and a lot more economical." Keystone's original equipment-the handheld computer and backpack receiver-cost about $8,000 in 2002, but might run less than half that today.

Once the gear was in place, other uses quickly became apparent. "When we remapped the area more accurately, we found we had 145 acres more than we had always counted on. We were able to calculate terrain park pitches, figure snowmaking volumes, get more efficient use of parking lots. The GIS now plays a role in everything we do," Brill says. One recent example: The newly revised Colorado Skier Safety Act requires that skiable terrain over 50 degrees in pitch for 100 feet, or with 20-foot cliffs, be marked with E-X signage. With a few keystrokes Brill was able to generate a color-coded map showing that Keystone has no such terrain in its current trail system. Another example: Tolton received a request from the U.S. Ski Team to consider bringing early-season World Cup events to Keystone; with the GIS, Brill can create homologation maps in minutes.

How it Works
The GPS data feeds into the GIS. Brill, a 14-year ski patrol veteran with a degree in computer science from the State University of New York at Oneonta, has integrated an off-the-shelf GIS software package with his own custom programming (for instance, he created the yurts, the routines that control snowpack depth and some of the code that allows him to "ski" the trails). "All the hard work is done," he says. "It would now be very simple to replicate this system at the other Vail Resorts properties." Or at any other ski resort, for that matter.

If 5,400 data points sounds insufficient to create an entire lifelike ski area in a computer, you are correct. Brill's data is an overlay on an "orthophoto"-a sophisticated blending of satellite photography (it shows every shack and tree) and satellite-generated terrain contour data (a digital elevation map, or DEM). A computer correlates these databases and corrects for parallax so that the resulting map joins accurately with the USGS and NOAA surveyed latitude-longitude grids. "Everyone is now doing GIS mapping," Brill notes. "We can easily exchange data with the Forest Service and other agencies." This means that planning maps can be transmitted via e-mail, marked up at either end and returned. Requests for information can be filled instantly, with a few keystrokes.

The technology is available to allow almost any resort to create a similar system. Some of these mapping data are available for free from the government, and in fact are accessible via websites. Specifically, gov/viewer.htm is a compilation of most USGS data, with satellite photos. Use it to navigate to clear aerial photos of your resort or home neighborhood, to a scale of about one mile across your computer screen; this tool allows you to pull up overlays for contour lines, place names, roads and streams, and to measure distances between points you designate.
Commercial firms like MapMart ( provide maps and imagery at much finer scales. Software to integrate it all is available from firms like Caliper, DeLorme, ESRI, Global Mapper, LizardTech and MapInfo. There's also a lot of freeware and shareware available from academic sources-a Google search on "GIS mapping freeware" produces 43,000 hits. Any competent IT employee could install and operate a GIS system, but it certainly helps if the operator can ski the terrain to be mapped, wearing the GPS antenna. Keystone's solution-putting a computer-savvy ski patroller in charge-seems ideal.

The idea of a digitally-mapped resort may sound futuristic, but it is practical right now. It requires minimal investment, and the potential time- and cost-saving uses can pay for themselves quickly. If you don't at least investigate the possibilities now-well, to paraphrase Warren Miller, you'll just be that much older when you do.
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