Thanks to Cripple Creek Backcountry for sponsoring this post, our local outfit offering knowledge and gear to keep you safe in the backcountry.
A Q&A with Andy Sovick, Beacon Guidebook’s accidental publisher
Andy Sovick didn’t set out to be a book publisher. He really just wanted to compile photographs of favorite and potential ski touring routes in and around his home zone of Crested Butte. He was pretty content swinging a hammer and going skiing. But his ideas had ambitions of their own.
“I started dreaming of making a proper atlas for just my area for myself and my friends. Then it occurred to me that it would make more sense to make 1000 instead of just 10 because of cost. Then that expanded into making a proper ski atlas for Crested Butte.” He drew inspiration from Brady Johnston in Driggs who had created something similar in the Tetons. After the first book, he thought, well that was fun, and put it aside. A year later he got the itch again. With the help of Silverton guide and local Josh Kling, they made another book for Silverton and Durango.
“Then I got a call from a mountain guide in Seattle name Matt Schonwald. He said ‘I want to make an atlas just like yours. Would you be my publisher?” And I said, ‘I’m not a publisher, I’m a carpenter.’ He said, ‘no no, you’re a publisher, do you want to do it or not?’
Seven years later, it’s a proper publishing company named Beacon Guidebooks. What started as a shoebox of photos in Andy’s closet has evolved into eight Off-Piste Ski Atlas guides for areas in Colorado and Washington including Loveland Pass, Mount Baker, Snoqualmie Pass, Lou’s Uphill and Light Ski Tours of Colorado and more. The company is also about roll out a series of topographic maps for specific zones that mirror information included in the atlases.
I called up Andy to chat about the guidebook creation process, what he hopes users will get from the books, and the age old question…but what about the locals’ secret stashes?
M: First, I want to jump into design of the Off-Piste Atlas books. They’re different than guidebooks in the traditional sense: 5X7 inches and spiral bound with full color images and text on heavy weight paper. Why did you opt for this format specifically?
A: The goal was to make a basic ski atlas. I had taken inspiration from the well-known Teton Atlas, a large calendar-sized book with black and white photos of the Tetons. I used it a lot when I ski bummed up there, it was just always with us and always on the coffee table. It didn’t haven any guidance or descriptions of the runs, just photos of the area and you had to figure out the rest. I thought, what a brilliant compromise between sharing a secret and keeping the newbies out of the terrain, something all guidebook authors struggle with. The one problem with that atlas though is that it was too big to carry with us. It’s a really important thing to be able to look at your run as you’re going up or your on the mountain somewhere in the trees or in a gully and you’re trying to find out where you are so that you can figure out what’s below you and you can make a safe plan. It would be nice to have this in hand.
That’s how I came up with the format. We wanted to make it spiral bound so you can flip to the zone of the day. If you flip to the zone of the day, on one side is your aerial photo of the zone and on the other side is the route information and avalanche info. We started doing it on waterproof, tearproof paper but even those got pretty haggard, so we transitioned back to typical high quality color paper and sell waterproof cases to go along with them.
M: You’re about to unveil a series of new maps. What’s the primary goal of these maps?
A: The goal is to make an even more affordable product that is meant to show people where the routes are, provide safety info, and provide the really important map aspect of the book. One thing that’s always nagged me about the books is that on each introductory page are disclaimers that say don’t carry this book as your only resource, carry it with a topo map, which of course most people don’t.
The idea is to combine everything in the book along with topographic map. I do always carry topo maps with me and I love them. I put them on my wall, coffee table, anything I can get my hands on. So it’s been a dream of mine that part of what we do is make high quality topo maps.
M: Give me a rundown of the featured information that you’re including in the maps.
A: We’ve got-up routes and down-routes, most importantly. We’ve got a run list with names and max slope angles. Slope-angle shading on maps is nice but I think it’s a bit ugly and can be really misleading. Max slope angle is what we’re most interested in for a particular run.
We also try to emphasize our use of the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES), developed by Parks Canada. The idea is to classify any given terrain as it relates to the consequence of an avalanche. When I started learning about it I thought it was one of the best tools I’ve ever used. I really wanted to incorporate it into our atlases because it’s essentially what the atlas already does: it gives one an idea of not only ‘will I ski this slope’ and ‘how will I go about getting from top to bottom,’ but ‘how would an avalanche behave on this slope?’. You can’t always tell that from the top of the slope or the bottom of it while you’re skinning it. It’s really nice to have details. And a map, of course.
On our maps, we provide the North American danger scale. Then you look at the ATES rating of the terrain that you’re considering going in. You take those two pieces of info and plug them into the Avalanche evaluator, ‘Avalauator’, and try to get an idea of the consequences of your tour. At the least, the avaluator helps your mind practice evaluating the risk you are willing to take on that particular day. Sometimes you think you’re going to a simple run and you realize while traveling en route to that simple run, that you’re passing beneath multiple avalanche paths. Vice versa you might discover that when you want to go to the most challenging route that your friends go to, and then you see in your terrain that there’s a nice simple path through that terrain. So in case you get the willies or your snowpack assessment comes out different than you anticipated, you can take that Plan B route. That’s the whole idea of studying your terrain, so you can really understand it and be able to adapt to changing conditions, opinions, group dynamics.
M: Who is the ideal audience for the maps?
A: The ideal audience is really all backcountry skiers. Experts can take important things from these maps. Of course just to have a topo map of the backcountry ski region of their particular area is really nice. You don’t have to tape together multiple quads or use a mountain bike trail map. But the idea was to get the locals, and whoever is going to that particular spot, a map that covers the backcountry skiing area.
It’s a great place for beginners to start as well. One of the main missions and goals of Beacon Guidebooks is to provide both information of where the best skiing is and also communicate all the things that ought to be communicated to people going into the backcountry, including: parking, snowmobile info, where the typical skin track is, ATES, avaluator, where the local avi center is, how to call SAR, and things like that.
Also useful is the power of maps, which help people see their skiing in a context that they otherwise may not really see it. To understand that your descent is on top of the Slate River, and that there’s a commonly snowshoed route below you, it might help you remember that you’re skiing above snow shoe-ers. There’s a lot of info to be communicated that our industry is still having a hard time figuring out how to communicate. Our Loveland Pass map for instance has really important info from the CAIC and from CDOT on blasting, closed boundaries outside of Loveland Ski Area.
M: Beacon Guidebooks is also partnered up with the app Rakkup. How do the two work together?
A: I’ve never been super interested in apps but of course knew that a lot of other people are. When I saw the Rakkup app for climbing, I saw a really excellent solution to trying to figure out how to get backcountry ski guidebooks into app form. It’s different from your typical crowd-sourced app in that all the information in the Rakkup app is written by professionals and guides who are really well trained and audited authors.
It also has downloadable offline navigation. It’s digital, so, unlike my book, you can put as many photos as you want for each zone and really describe the terrain. You can zoom in on photos. My favorite feature is filtering, where you can filter out the most hazardous types of terrain you want to avoid depending on your forecast for the day. Let’s say the forecast is moderate everywhere, except it’s considerable above treeline on northeast facing aspects. Those of us who are trained in trying to make a good tour plan immediately think of all the northeast facing terrain above treeline and filter that out in our own minds. But a lot of people either a. aren’t as good at that, b. use confirmation bias and think that they can skirt around that logic, or c. they haven’t learned how to do that filtering yet. So the app is a really nice tool to get those runs off of your list and see what your options are.
Unlike the crowd-sourced products out there it does cost money — you can download the app free and then purchase from bookshelves. But, like the guidebook, it’s not some guys at the bar talking about a ski run, it’s professional author giving you really important information and guiding you. I think it’s extremely important that if we’re going to give information, we do it right and responsibly.
M: Any comments on the claim that guidebooks and maps give away the local secrets?
A: I would love to take a time machine and go back to when there were no guidebooks. Then all of us in the ski community could get together and have the conversation: Should there be, or should there not be guidebooks for backcountry skiing? Today in 2019, to me, this is a hypothetical and unproductive conversation.
Using secrecy as a policy for backcountry skiing is like using abstinence as a policy for teenagers. They are going to figure it out with or without you, and in the meantime you’ve lost a great opportunity to teach responsibility, safety, ethics and etiquette. There are people dying in the backcountry, including our friends and family. To me, this is not just a problem. It is an emergency. So, instead of asking “should there be a guidebook?” We should be asking “what is the best way to guide people safely through the backcountry? What is the best guidebook? And what can we do to prevent avalanche deaths for those who will be traveling in the backcountry this year?”
Beacon Guidebook’s Off-Piste Atlas Series books are available in brick and mortar ski shops throughout Colorado and Washington, and online. The Backcountry Ski Map Series are available for pre-order on Beacon Guidebook’s website, and will be on shelves December 15.