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Software Is Eating the World—Mountains Included

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Spring is in the air, pollen and all. That means the end of ski season is near—perfect timing for a little reflection on how technology has become front-and-center in the skiing experience.

It’s been a spectacular winter for Lake Tahoe. After several years of drought, El Nino blessed California with the most snow it has had since 2012. But pristine powder isn’t the only new thing on the slopes this year. Increasingly, mobile apps and social features are table stakes for Tahoe resorts, letting skiers track their vertical feet and purchase those annoying photos someone’s always taking of you at the top of the mountain. As I discovered on a recent reporting expedition to Lake Tahoe (I swear, it was for work), even the way the mountains are groomed and artificial snow is made has changed. Just as you would expect, much of the process is now automated, controlled remotely by—you guessed it—mobile devices.

A lot of the noticeable innovations on the slopes are about consumer-facing mobile features (and, of course, drones—more on that in a bit). Vail Resorts, which owns the likes of Tahoe’s Northstar and Heavenly, has had a chief information officer for years. It now employs a growing team of mobile apps developers. The company launched its EpicMix ski app about six years ago, but added features like social sharing in recent years. (One new addition that has yet to make it to Tahoe: a tool that shows wait times at different lifts.)

Back when I first learned to ski, a frighteningly long time ago, the coolest “tech” on the mountain was the gondola. But it wasn’t all that frighteningly long ago that cell phone reception was still spotty at the top of the mountain. Now, places like Vail-owned resorts are giving skiers more reasons to pull out their phones on the slopes—not just to take selfies. The company says EpicMix now has about 700,000 users.

Then there is the small matter of drones. At nearby Squaw Valley (not owned by Vail), skiers can pay $99 to have a drone film them making their way down the mountain. In order to make this dream-you-didn’t-know-you-had come true, the resort partnered with a company called Cape Productions. “We are competing with lots of other opportunities for how people spend money on their leisure time,” says Louis Gresham, one of the skiers-turned-techies who started Cape.

At this point, drones are a tiny business for ski resorts (Gresham says that in addition to sharing revenue with the resorts, Cape gives them access to the footage they shoot). But I’m willing to bet that, like it or not, they will have a growing presence on the slopes. That is, of course, if the damn weather doesn’t get in the way.

One drawback to all those winter storms we’ve been getting here in the California mountains: High winds and heavy precipitation make it very hard for drones to fly. Even in the age of software, Mother Nature still rules.