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Finding the route is sometimes half the battle. That fact was reinforced for Dustin Tong during a journey to climb Outer Space, a six-pitch 5.9 in the Central Cascades of Washington. The Seattleite bought a guidebook, picked his buddy up at the airport, and they set out on a sunny day in May 2018. But by relying on the book’s single paragraph about the climb, they didn’t know how long the approach would take, that a 70-meter rope was a must, and that they’d need to build their own anchors at the second pitch. It’s a common scenario for climbers: guidebooks often offer limited information and crowdsourced online info can likewise be incomplete, or at worst, inaccurate.
Now, Tong and four teammates with 27 collective years of climbing experience—Brian Uyeno, Jimmy Uvodich, Andrew Sussman, and Kyle Cooley—are using photogrammetry, the process of obtaining data from photographs, to create three-dimensional models of popular climbing areas on a new platform called Climb Assist.
“I wouldn’t say that was the moment I started doing this,” Tong says about bailing on Outer Space, “but it’s something I look back on. I wish I had something better. The times you get lost are sometimes the best times, but it’s silly that something better isn’t available yet, and I was hoping to make something better happen.”
Climb Assist recently launched in beta form. So far, the team has mapped routes in Bishop, California; Boulder Canyon, Colorado; Moab, Utah; Lander, Wyoming; and Vantage, Washington. Users can view the topographic location of crags in the “map” view, zoom in on routes in the “model” view, and take note of what protection to bring in the “info” view.
Right now, Tong says, they’re collecting user feedback to improve the website and develop a mobile app that they hope to release this fall. The 3D models are only one piece of the technology. “We want to be the Wikipedia of climbing,” Tong says. Other features include the ability to add and share progress on certain climbs, measure the distance and angle between holds, and download maps offline.
Since Tong’s team relies on drones for accurate images, their biggest barrier to building the experience is mapping areas within regulation. Drones aren’t allowed in all state and national parks. Where they can’t use drones, they attach a camera to a stick. But Tong says they’re working with some agencies to gain access to fly, and hope to map more destinations.
As a newer climber, Tong wants to make the sport less overwhelming and more accessible with these comprehensive maps. “I’ve been climbing for about four years now,” he says. “I remember pretty clearly how intimidating it was not knowing anybody climbing outside.” He hopes Climb Assist can give all climbers the complete set of information needed to attain their projects.
For now, the team will offer the service for free, with advertisers and sponsorships funding the project, but they plan to offer a subscription model for those who want an ad-free experience or who want to download maps offline.