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March 10, 2018

Climb-On Maps changes the climbing game by getting you there faster and safer

by John_A

Finding climbing routes can be a frustrating process for even the most seasoned of climbers — be it dealing with dangerous walk-offs or fumbling with large guidebooks. After years of not only experiencing this but also hearing from their peers, married couple and avid climbers Rick Momsen and Stefani Dawn decided to create Climb-On Maps.

Their idea was to have it pick up where guidebooks and sites like Mountain Project leave off, offering users clear route types, grades, and count per crag. In its physical iteration, it also provides water- and tear-proof, highly detailed maps of approaches and (non-rappel) walk-offs for some of the United States’ most popular climbing areas.

Of course, there are other climbing apps like SloperClimbing, Rakkup, and ClimbingWeather built to assist climbers with weather conditions, planning routes, and even GPS navigation. But what about what satellite images can’t see and differing GPS systems? These issues limit climbing apps and could spell the difference between life and death.

Boots-on-the-ground map work by professionals like Momsen and Dawn is so important

This is why boots-on-the-ground map work by professionals like Momsen and Dawn is so important. The couple took their passion for rock climbing — and Momsen’s 20 years of GIS (Geographic Information System) experience — and compiled it with route data from Mountain Project and published guidebooks for an area to assemble comprehensive at-a-glance charts. With Red Rock Canyon and Smith Rock State Park already available, the duo decided to launch a map of Joshua Tree National Park on Kickstarter. They hit their campaign goal in just 36 hours.

Demonstrating complete dedication to the climbing community, climbing safety, and to the protection of the environment, the team personally walked thousands of miles, took thousands of photos, wrote copious field notes, and GPS-tracked every trail to create each map. Digital Trends spoke with Stefani Dawn to find out more about the intense preparation and financial resources that went into creating these navigational maps, as well as the lessons learned using Kickstarter to raise money and why all GPS systems and technology are not created equal.

Digital Trends:  Why did Rick and you create Climb-On Maps?

Stefani Dawn: When we were working full-time in other jobs, climbing trips happened on weekends and over limited vacation time. We would go to big areas, like Red Rock Canyon, Nevada and Joshua Tree, California and we’d usually encounter two things: Busy walls in easy-to-access areas or we’d get lost trying to find a climb. Both circumstances took away from our goal of the trip. It was incredibly frustrating. With our love of climbing and experience navigating and mapping the outdoors, we decided to start Climb-On Maps. There are two main challenges with large, complex rock climbing areas that we felt could be addressed with very detailed, climbing-specific maps.

First, there are navigation challenges. Rock climbing guidebooks are primarily designed to focus on information about individual routes. Our maps pick up where guidebooks leave off, providing detailed directions for how to get to a climb. People can also visit less frequented climbing areas, so they don’t have to wait in line.

Next are planning challenges. Climb On provide color-coded, at-a-glance crag summaries that show important information about each wall in an area like the number of climbs, distribution of grades, and specific climbs. This allows climbers to quickly scan the map, see if a wall meets their needs, how difficult it is to get there, and where walls are relative to each other.

Why did you use Kickstarter to fund your latest map and what were the benefits and challenges of turning to crowdfunding?

Until this point, we primarily used our life’s savings or borrowed money to fund the business. We purchased professional GPS units, software licenses, a vehicle to live out, a large-scale plotter, and also had to pay for traveling and living expenses for about a year and a half. It took us almost two years, full-time, to collect data for our first four maps — and that was a period of no income. We turned to Kickstarter because, as a new business, we needed the exposure and a financial boost to print the Joshua Tree map. Our stretch goals help off-set printing for the fourth map, City of Rocks, Idaho.

This current Kickstarter campaign has been a great success and, now that we have products released and people are using them, we’re starting to get great reviews and coverage. It took a lot of work to get here, however, and that’s where the challenge conversation comes in. This is actually our second Kickstarter. Our first attempt we canceled because it was clear it wasn’t going to fund. The reality was if nobody knows about you, Kickstarter is not going to work.

Anyone with business savvy would say, “Well, of course. People need to know about you, why they need your product, and you have to prove yourself first.” But, many new business owners, including us, don’t know exactly what it takes to reach that point.  The learning curve for social media, advertising, promotion, branding, retail, wholesale, and even basic business practices, is significant. Then, as we have learned, Kickstarter has its own unique learning curve. We even hired a company to help educate us on a few things.

How are Climb-On Maps a better product, or more comprehensive, than other phone maps and GPS units? 

The maps for phone apps and GPS units are created with publicly available data, mainly because it’s time-consuming and labor intensive to collect data at a very fine scale. The scale most commonly used in other professional maps is 1:24,000 (i.e., 1 inch = 24,000 inches/.4 miles) because that’s the scale the U.S. Geologic Survey typically uses and the USGS data is the historical source for much of the publicly available data. Depending on the map area, our maps go down to a scale of around 1:1200. That’s 20 times more detailed than other maps.

When we zoom down to the level of our maps, which are in natural areas where publicly available data all but disappears, the only solution is to create our own data at a scale that’s useful. We collect data by using high quality, professional GPS units and walk every inch of the trails we map. We take detailed notes, collect trail attribute data, and take thousands of photos.

The reason we need to go down to such a fine scale is due to the complexity of the terrain. For our map to be useful in the conditions climbers face, we need to be able to inform the climber of the exact way to go under a big boulder, or crawl up a chimney and walk along a ledge. To be meaningful and useful, this all needs to be conveyed topographically, symbolically, and via photos on the map.

Lady Lockoff

What GPS technology does Rick use in gathering information for the maps? How does this tech add to the accuracy of Climb-On Maps? 

The GPS units used by Climb-on Maps are the Trimble T1 GNSS units and we utilize the SBAS differential correction, which corrects signal anomalies. The acronym GPS refers only to the United States’ constellation of positioning satellites, while GNSS refers to all global navigation satellites managed by other countries (Russia, Europe, and China). Being able to access positions from all GNSS constellations — a total of 91 satellites — allows reliable and continuous positioning even while deep in tall canyons or right up against climbing walls.

You don’t use satellite imagery as the background for the maps, but use it in processing the maps — why? How do you define the boundary of a climbing wall?

We avoid satellite imagery because the quality is inconsistent. Problems with satellite imagery include dark shadows, poor resolution, confusing angles, and sometimes unusable distortion — especially with tall cliffs. Rick uses four different satellite imagery sources, aerial photos, and infrared or elevation to digitize and edit background data. When there’s an error, he switches to a different source for a separate perspective. This allows us to be accurate at the scales we’re working with. A printed map is not able to switch imagery sources and we believe that publishing any one source could be dangerous in the problematic areas.

To define the boundary of a climbing wall, we use our GPS points. While out collecting trail and wall data, we make sure to collect bounding routes of the wall (i.e. the first and last climbs on the wall) and then connect the points along the rock formation to show the span of walls that contain the climbs. Since our GPS data is accurate, it’s used as a reference for everything else. We can make detailed navigation notations when building the map because we’ve been there.

Lady Lockoff

What are your thoughts on climbing apps?

Most climbing apps are digital versions of hardcopy guidebooks. Because they’re essentially digital guidebooks, the maps and directions portion of apps are similar to what you would find in these regular books.

Providing GPS coordinates are helpful to let you know if you’re at the right location but they don’t tell you how to get there. This results in the climber making a straight line towards the coordinate — very likely a bushwhack, which is more difficult and far more environmentally destructive than providing a fine-scale map. In large, complex areas, like Joshua Tree or Red Rock Canyon, climbers are often met with the same problem of being confused and wandering lost.

We love digital technology but sometimes the analog product is the way to go

We’ve seen attempts at trying to use GPS guided maps in some of the climbing apps but there are plenty of limitations — the scale of available data, satellite background imagery, quality of GPS units used, and even the GPS units in cell phones. It’s a difficult combination of factors to make right in certain terrain. Let’s say the underlying data is accurate, the quality of a smartphone GPS unit is still a major limitation, especially in dangerous areas. Even with accurate data, a user’s cell phone could be over 100 feet off obstructions.

With a paper map, users are forced to find their location using visual cues and surrounding terrain features. A map can also help you rapidly triangulate your position. That’s very difficult to do with a smartphone — you have to expand and contract the screen over and over again. We love digital technology and rely on it heavily to make maps but sometimes the old school, analog product is the way to go.

Have Rick or you ever had a close-call while researching a location?

Considering the number of miles we’ve covered (over 1,800 miles and counting), we’ve been lucky to come out unharmed. But, we have had several close calls. If you look at any one of our maps, you’ll see a lot of red triangles. Those indicate exposure. We also have an icon in the triangles telling you the level of danger with that exposure should you fall — bone breaking, major damage, or rest in peace. We know the exposure level because we were there, so we’re constantly facing that risk.

There’s one time I would categorize as terrifying. It occurred while I was mapping alone in Joshua Tree and was very isolated. I came across a dangerous boulder field with crumbling rock and 20- to 40-foot pits between boulders. A fall would result in injury and becoming trapped beneath the boulders — there would be no way to be found.

What’s in the pipeline for Climb-On Maps?

Our most immediate plans are to publish the climber’s maps for Joshua Tree and City of Rocks and to promote them. While on the road, there are other climbing areas we plan to explore to see if they’d be a good fit.

We’re also looking to expand into a unique hiking map product, called Choose Your Adventure which is hand-selected, off-the-beaten-path hikes in spectacular areas. The hikes vary for certain adventure styles, from hard-core adventure to a child-friendly map. Each map is based on detailed trail data, so they’ll be accurate and quite different from standard hiking maps.

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