The Outsider: ULLR Maps: your new on-mountain best friend

If your first time skiing Whistler Blackcomb (WB) was anything like mine, you got completely lost.

I checked into staff housing a few days earlier, knew absolutely no one in town and as a result, decided to head into the foggy, icy maelstrom on Blackcomb on my own. The trail map that should have been in my pocket was no use anyway as I couldn’t pinpoint my position with the non-existent visibility. So I just skied until I somehow ended up back at staff housing. This was all before the navigational luxury of smartphones.

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A few weeks later a friend showed me Finestone and Hodder’s Advanced Guide to Whistler Blackcomb, a comprehensive guidebook with aerial photography and descriptions of all the cool runs that didn’t exist on the old classic James Niehues-painted trail map. I still occasionally reach for that guide on my bookshelf when describing a particular part of the mountain to someone.

There have been a few technological developments since then. The WB Live app (may it rest in peace) was a useful tool for checking weather, grooming reports, lift status and even backcountry avalanche reports. The embedded WB+ feature (may it also rest in peace) was great at tracking mileage and vertical and through a Strava-like community platform, gamified the on-mountain experience. The locals loved it, but WB Live was tragically shelved in favour of Vail Resorts’ Epic Mix app, which despite my tech savviness, I still can’t seem to change the settings to metric units.

But there’s a new app on the block. ULLR Maps is the next phase of Whistler Mountain Mapping Initiative, a project undertaken by local ski patroller and cartographer Alex Hordal. This isn’t another vertical, speed and ego tracking app, but the most detailed digital topographic map ever made of WB terrain.

Hordal did his homework by superimposing several exiting maps (including those used by ski patrol) and enlisting the consultation of dozens of mountain veterans and ski patrollers to verify run names and zone designations. Ever heard of Daytona Bowl or LouAnne’s Leap? Me neither. But now you can reference your exact location (while standing on it) and choose the right run instead of getting yourself cliffed out on a hunch after reassuring your friends with “I think this way goes.”

But the kicker with ULLR Maps is the safety aspect. Having real-time location on a detailed topographic map doesn’t just help with safe navigation; if your friends make the investment too you can track each other’s real time position. It’s not the first app to do this, but with a detailed topo view I’d argue it’s the most accurate.

I decided to give it a test with my friends last week by playing a game of hide-and-go-seek in a steep and heavily treed area on Whistler Mountain. Two of us had the ULLR Maps active on our phones and I was able to traverse the contours and pinpoint the other phone to a two to three metre accuracy. The map clearly showed that I was getting close to impassable terrain so I could adjust my route.

This “find your friends” feature alone could help prevent tree well deaths. If you come out of the trees and your friend isn’t with you promptly, you can check if they are still moving or if you need to hike back up to their position. On a lighter note, it can also help with text message game of chase when trying to meet up with friends on the hill.

At $14.99 CAD, this is probably the most expensive app you’ll ever buy. But remember it wasn’t long ago that the only option was to purchase a $26 guidebook (which is still nice to have as a collectible in my opinion).

You might think you know the mountains already, but even the ski bum lifers come across (or are shown) new powder hideaways every year, the author included. For advanced and expert skiing visitors to Whistler, ULLR Maps is a no-brainer and a worthwhile investment if even for the length of a ski vacation. If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas stocking stuffer, consider giving the gift of mountain knowledge and safety. And yes, this counts as shopping local.

Vince Shuley likes to know where he’s been, and where he’s going. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email or Twitter @vinceshuley.

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