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From GoPros to avalanche sensors: the high-tech tools of winter sports

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Top Shelf: this isn't your grandfather's ski suit

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If any pro knows the power of DIY videos, it’s Tom Wallisch. Before he was a professional skier with gold medals in the X-Games and the Winter Dew Tour, he was discovered thanks to a home-video competition called the Superunknown. He filmed that with a Sony VX2100 — a big, expensive camera that used Digital Video tapes and required at least another person to film with.

Now, Wallisch's daily routine includes only the GoPro Hero 4 Black Edition. On a typical run he has two of the cameras with him — one on a selfie stick in his pocket and one stuck to his helmet — and he doesn’t let it get much more complicated than that.

What I found out at Wallisch's home mountain in Park City, Utah is that his incredible videos don't involve doing anything differently from what you or I would do with a GoPro. He has settings he likes (1080p, not 4K, 60 frames per second or higher so he can slow down the footage), and a few tips he's picked up (run a lighter over the stick pad on the camera mount to help it stay on your helmet), and that's about it.

It's really more about the accessibility and ease of use than anything, he says. "I'm not worried about trying my hardest trick with the camera on my head. Back in the day with the first helmet cams you were skiing lopsided."

"with the first helmet cams you were skiing lopsided"

That’s a big deal, because mounting a GoPro on his helmet serves two purposes, and they’re both equally important to what makes Wallisch successful. First and foremost, it gives him the ability to review his tricks instantly on his phone. He can take the time on the chairlift ride back up the mountain to see why he landed or why he slammed — a process that would’ve taken hours or days in the past. "It helps you progress. It really helps push your skiing and helps you improve by just seeing what you're doing every run," he says.

"You see kids just progressing so fast, every day I come out and see younger and younger kids learning new stuff, doing tricks I learned when i was like 20 years old. It's all thanks to, I think, that pressure and being able to have that camera ready to go."

The cameras also let him stay connected with his fans and the skiing community. Their omnipresence means he always has a photo or video to share, and someone to share it with. If he loves a trick he just landed, he can post that video right to Instagram, or sometimes he’ll put the full run up on his Facebook page. Wallisch said he especially likes interacting with his fans on Facebook, where conversations sprout on each video he posts about everything from which tricks he’s pulling to what gear he’s using.

Tom Wallisch

I haven’t snowboarded regularly since high school, and back then the only technology I had with me was a 3rd-generation iPod. But a lot has changed since then — skiers and snowboarders alike take each run with smartphones tucked in their pockets and high-tech gear everywhere else. In the decade that I’ve been away from the sport, the mountain has become a connected social experience.

basically everyone on the slopes has a Gopro

Action cameras are the most noticeable example of that — basically everyone on the slopes has one. But there's a lot of other really cool winter tech available these days. A lot of it is meant to keep you connected with your phone without risking dropping it in the snow. There are Bluetooth gloves that let you answer calls or control music playback and volume, smart goggles with a heads-up display that shows you telemetry and lets you see your notifications, and apps that can map your runs and quantify your whole day.

If you're venturing off the slopes and into the backcountry, a company called AvaTech has created a probe called the SP1 which not only measures snow stability but connects you to a social network of other skiers doing the same. It's the first time that data like this has been networked on this kind of scale, and it's the kind of tech that can save lives.

Still, it's the action cameras that are revolutionizing the mountain experience the most. GoPro and its competitors made it possible to capture every move, every run, and easily show it all to the world in high-definition glory — and they’ve made it cheap enough that the adoption rate is through the roof. It didn’t matter if people were stumbling down the bunny hill or taking off over 30-foot jumps, everyone in Park City seemed to be documenting their day with an action camera.

These cameras are also changing the mechanics of the community behind these winter sports. Riders who may never have been lucky enough to be discovered or sign a sponsorship deal can use them and let their performance speak for itself. That’s great for the sport, but it adds a lot of pressure to the mix.

"it doesn't matter if you ever won the X-Games"

"You can make a name for yourself with one video. I like it, it puts a lot more on the person to work for it than just getting lucky and getting invited to an event," Wallisch told me. "It's amplified everybody's portfolio — what you do is based so much on those social media accounts now, you know, it doesn't matter if you ever won the X-Games."

This all means Wallisch always has to be ready to go. "It's to the point where if I'm taking a day off, and my legs are sore, you see [someone else's videos] while you're on the couch and you're like, 'Screw this day off!' You get this horrible fear of missing out."