By Dan Rabin
Dan Rabin is a Boulder-based freelance writer and author of the upcoming guidebook, Colorado Breweries, scheduled for release in May 2014.
For those of us who cut our first turns donned in lace-up ski boots and wooden skis with cable bindings, the age of smartphones sometimes feels like living in a science fiction movie. Mostly, this is a good thing. Like many, my smartphone is increasingly populated with apps ranging from fun to practical to futuristic. A welcome new addition to my app collection is called Sherpa, and it possesses all of these qualities.
Sherpa was introduced by Copper Mountain Resort for the 2013-14 ski season and is described as a “virtual mountain guide.” According to promotional material, “When you get near something worth knowing about, Sherpa will chime and tell you.” Intrigued by the concept, I made a visit to the Summit County resort and took Sherpa out for a test spin.
I arrived at the resort on a pristine bluebird day. With only a cursory knowledge of what the app was about, I decided to postpone exploring the various menu and setup options until I’d put Sherpa through its paces for a few hours.
After picking up my lift ticket, I activated the app. Sherpa is a hands-free app that communicates by voice through headphones attached to a smartphone. After a few seconds of gathering data, a computer-style female voice came on with a brief snow report, weather report and a short list of runs that were temporarily closed due to competitions currently being staged on them. While still in the vicinity of the ticket area, I received a message informing me that, in the future, I could save money by purchasing tickets online at the resort website, CopperColorado.com. Good to know.
As I rode up the American Eagle lift for my first run of the day, I received a series of messages spaced a few minutes apart. A few provided information about the lift, and improvements that had been implemented since it first went into operation (“It was cold. And it was slow.”). About halfway through the ride, a message prompted me to look to my right where I could view three great blue runs; Bittersweet, Fair Play and Foul Play.
Taking Sherpa’s advice, I warmed up my legs with a cruise down Bittersweet. Approaching a trail intersection partway down the run, Sherpa let me know that if I stayed left, I could access the American Flyer lift. I did.
Throughout the morning, messages arrived every few minutes. All were related to my location. Some messages contained practical information regarding navigation around the mountain, nearby services, and the type of terrain to expect on a nearby trail. Others were just for fun including historical information and various bits of trivia. As I approached the T Rex Grill by the Timberline Express lift, I learned that the structure was originally a Burger King. While riding the Blackjack lift in Copper Bowl, I got a brief explanation of the blackjack card game. I was pleased to discover that messages didn’t repeat themselves. When I passed by a specific location multiple times, I received a different message each time.
The general tone of the messages was conversational. Many were seasoned with a liberal dash of humor. Each message was preceded by a short attention-grabbing chime. I soon noticed that different chimes were used for different types of messages. For example, the chime preceding a message about a dining spot in my vicinity was different than the chime preceding a message alerting me to a nearby photo opp. Due to Sherpa’s location-tracking technology, I encountered an occasional oddity. One time, as I skied past the top of a lift during a long descent, Sherpa told me to prepare to unload.
After a few hours of getting a feel for Sherpa, I was ready to dig deeper. I spent a leisurely lunch break exploring the app’s functionality in more detail. The app, I learned, operates by tracking your location in relation to markers. Markers are locations around the mountain that trigger messages as you pass through them.
There are seven different types of markers. They include Life, Orientation, Photo Opp, Scenic, Hub, Awesome and Event. A feature I found particularly welcome was the ability to configure Sherpa to play only the types of messages you’re interested in hearing. By disabling messages from some types of markers, you receive fewer messages and conserve your smartphone’s battery life.
I also discovered that not all messages are marker-dependent. Throughout the day, you might receive random alert messages informing you of recent trail openings or traffic delays on the Interstate. There are six types of alerts including Ski Patrol, Traffic, Deals, Weather, Special Events and Battery Life Warnings. Like the markers, you can disable any of the various types of alert messages that aren’t of interest to you.
Although Sherpa’s messaging function is the heart of the app, a look at the menu revealed a useful set of non-verbal capabilities. There are options to view snow and weather reports, trail maps, videos and upcoming events. You can also book vacations and buy lift tickets from the app. There’s a ski patrol function that places a call to the ski patrol with a single button press should you encounter trouble on the mountain. The screen displays your latitude and longitude which you can relay to be quickly located.
Yet another menu option shows a log of your Sherpa activity. You can view all the markers you’ve encountered, read or replay the messages you’ve received, and with one touch, share your markers on Facebook. A planned feature for future Sherpa updates is the ability to create your own markers and share them with your friends.
I spent the afternoon much like the morning, traveling randomly around the mountain just to see what information my virtual guide would present me with. Overall, I found Sherpa to be a unique, entertaining and sometimes helpful accompaniment to my ski day. As someone who began skiing long before the age of smartphones, I found the whole concept of the app to be a bit mind-boggling. With Sherpa, Copper Mountain has taken a big step into the future of snow sports.
After approximately four hours on the slopes, I had received 72 messages or about one every three minutes. Since I was skiing alone, I didn’t find this excessive. If I was skiing with a companion, I’d probably disable the lift markers so I could carry on a conversation on a lift uninterrupted.
At day’s end, as I walked past the Copper Red Hots restaurant on my way to the parking lot shuttle, Sherpa communicated one final piece of sage advice. “Have you had the nachos? Seriously try the nachos. The plate is as big as your head.”
Sherpa is a free download and is available for both iPhones and Androids. It’s recommended that you use a single earbud while the app is active, so you can hear what’s going on around you.