Modern Topo Tech: Using Smartphones to Build Better Climbing Resources

After a couple months of slumming it with a clamshell prepaid phone, I got tired of playing the waiting game and picked up a new smartphone. I ended up with a meaty Samsung Galaxy SII LTE HD, one of the biggest and fastest phones available. So far, the phone has performed admirably in every way except for its disappointing battery life, which is quickly sucked down by its massive 4.65″ screen and 1.5Ghz dual core processor. To think, my first computer was a 286; my dive watch now has more processing power than that.

It’s really amazing how far handheld technology has progressed in recent years, in particular the advent of phones with wayfinding capabilities. Smartphones have all but replaced dedicated GPS units, and their versatility as mini-computers has led to a number of useful applications that can enrich our experience of activities of all kinds. One activity I enjoy on a regular basis is outdoor rock climbing, and an important part of climbing is actually finding the rocks in new or developed areas.

Traditionally, this information would be recorded in an area’s “Topo,” a topographic map that marks the location of established climbs, including images of the rock with routes/problems drawn in, marked with ratings, descriptions and comments. Topos can range from word of mouth and hand-drawn maps to polished, published books (, and most recently, websites that let users record climbing info and/or keep track of what they’ve climbed (such as and I would like to expand this sort of capability by incorporating the latest and greatest in handheld technology, namely, the new standard GPS features on smartphones.

There’s already a large set of tools at our disposal, but so far the best one I’ve seen is an Android App called My Tracks, which lets you record your movement with all sorts of extra statistics, place markers, and upload to your Google maps account. Even better, it’s free and open source! I tried it out last  weekend and was impressed by its ease of use and accuracy. It doesn’t quite have all the features I would like to include, but it’s a great start to include accurate area maps, approach details and live updates to digital topos.

View Bulamsa 2011-11-05 13:52 in a larger map

I recorded the day of climbing in two parts, which I then merged in google maps. When I arrived at each boulder I set a marker then turned off the GPS to save battery life (leaving the program running so it wouldn’t be creating a new map for each walk between boulders). This sent the recorded trail off a bit, but for each approach the trail is remarkably accurate. The ability to set markers, label them, assign them a type and description is a major plus, and is what gave me the idea to further develop this capability. I wish I was also able to attach photos and video to the markers, which is a necessity in creating area topos, but I don’t think this would be difficult to include. The great thing about this is how easily the data exports to google maps, which is a great, open platform. Google also lets you attach images and other data to markers, so that feature wouldn’t be too hard to implement.

Their satellite images of Korea aren’t the best available, so I found a site that accepted Google’s KML (Keyhole Markup Language) and plugged it into Daum Maps (a Korean Google competitor with far superior images and street views, including the ability to look at older images). The 2009 satellite images of Bulamsan were taken in winter, which reveals a lot more of the boulders under the trees. With the addition of photos and video I took myself and can later tag on the Google map, this makes for a pretty accurate topo of the area. The data import wasn’t perfect; I lost a few markers, and the interface is kind of limited, but it’s just a proof of concept.

I am wondering why there hasn’t yet been an effort to crowdsource the production of digital topos using the GPS features of smartphones. There’s a great worldwide community of climbers; if we provide them with the right tools, we could be sitting on a goldmine of information. We could not only provide climbers with detailed live information about the crags, but also help them find the easiest and safest approaches. Also, in the same vein as Climbfind, provide a social media aspect that lets users hook up with potential climbing partners, organize trips, etc via pre-existing networks like Twitter and Facebook. I think Climbfind’s attempt to do it all themselves is hindering their progress; if you want people to use your service, you should be integrating it into the services they already use on a daily basis. Even more exciting (as if it’s possible) is that this kind of app model could be adapted for just about any location-sensitive activity.

So what am I proposing? I’d like to explore the idea of compiling a more complete digital topo using growing technology trends, giving end-users the ability to supply detailed information without needeing a high level of sophistication. Essentially, smart phone apps that integrate with an online database. A great application can do all the heavy lifting, leaving users to just plug in the names and grades, and maybe a sentence or two of description. I love what sites like are trying to do: give users the opportunity to share, edit and comment on gyms and crags, but their platform is limited and outdated. Traditional publishers try to gather all the information themselves, which is slow, clunky and expensive. I’m not saying that traditional guides aren’t valuable; I love my guidebooks, but I think that modern tech is giving us a chance to take stewardship of climbing topos, and give more power to the individuals out there. Korea is as good a place to start as any.

Your thoughts?

Sorry this is a bit out of chronological order, but I’m so far behind in my travel stories that I’m going to have to start posting more current events and fill in the blanks later. A lot has happened this year, so there’s still much to say. Stay tuned!