Clever and industrious individual skiers have been creating interactive trail maps (e.g., using Google Earth) that can be downloaded to a smart phone and thus carried with you while skiing. Here are two particularly nice examples:
Nevertheless, resorts continue to issue paper trail maps, and for good reason. Typically, the principal design consideration for such maps is to present the entire area in a way that makes the map as clear and readable as possible. Unfortunately (at least to my mind), in so doing the graphic artists typically significantly distort the position of lifts and trails, making it difficult to translate between what's on the map and the actual terrain. I don't know about others, but I've never liked this trade-off -- I'd prefer a map where the principal design consideration is fidelity to terrain (as can be seen, for instance, in the contour maps that hikers use).
I'd say conventional trail maps have two classes of distortions: local and global. The local distortions make navigation more difficult -- i.e., figuring out from the map where trail A is relative to trail B.
The global distortions, by contrast, are big-picture distortions that make it hard for a skier to assess the relative locations and directions of the faces. As a consequence, after depending on a conventional trail map to find my way around, I'm always left a bit confused about where different faces of the mountain are relative to each other. This is not surprising, since where they're put on the map doesn't correspond to where they are in actuality. I think I, and most skiers, would end up having a much better mental picture of the mountain as a whole if we instead used terrain-faithful maps. So one could say there's also an educational benefit to a terrain-faithful map: it makes for a better-informed skier. For instance, with a proper mental picture of the mountain, you can more readily gauge which faces are more likely to get late-day sun. Relatedly, backsides are either shown in a highly-distorted fashion (if included on the main map), or presented in an inset that can, in some cases, make it difficult to assess their geographic location relative to the main resort.
As an example, consider Mammoth's current trail map (shown in the second picture, below) -- note that it distorts the relative compass directions of the various faces, making them look closer to facing in the same direction than they actually area. For instance:
1) Distortion in relative orientation of frontside lifts: In actuality, chairs 12 and 25 have a relative orientation of ~90 degrees (they're approximately perpendicular). On Mammoth's map, this angle is reduced to ~50 degrees.
2) Distortion in relative orientation of frontside vs. backside lifts -- this is even higher: In actuality, chairs 12 and 13 have a relative angle of ~150 degrees (they're not far off from facing in opposite directions). On Mammoth's main map, this angle is reduced to make them look perpendicular (90 degrees). The inset on Mammoth's map that shows the backside does correct this distortion but, again, it's nicer to avoid insets entirely and have just a single integrated map.
I think ski resorts continue to issue conventional maps simply because that's the way it's always been done. But wouldn't it be better if they instead (or at least, in addition), issued terrain-faithful trail maps? I've attached a screen shot (first picture, below) approximating what a crop of one might look like, taken from the Google Maps satellite+labels picture of Mammoth Mountain. Note that this is not something from a private account, but rather Google's own official representation. I've inverted it to give it a more familiar perspective to Mammoth skiers. While screenshot limitations precluded me from capturing the entire area, note that it easily includes the resort's backside in a non-distorted fashion.
Of course, this presentation is just offered as a starting point -- the resolution is low, the angle could be better, and it should be taken in full winter so that the trails can be more clearly identified by snow coverage. Plus the lifts need to be marked more clearly. And of course a 3D perspective could be added to help skiers judge relative elevation, needed to assess whether a lift ride is required to get from point A to point B. Nevertheless, a resort that has Mammoth's resources could certainly commission a high-altitude photograph and then have a skilled graphic artist overlay the trails and lifts on the best picture.
Note also that the typical paper trail map is much larger, and of much higher resolution, than the picture I've attached (Mammoth's frontside map takes up 12" x 21" on a sheet of paper that is 15" x 25"), so the trail markings, and the map as a whole, would be far sharper and more readable than what you see here (plus you'd be able to see the entire area).
So what's your view? How many of you would prefer (or not) to use the kind of trail map I describe? And any idea why the major resorts haven't tried this (other than inertia)?
Edited by chemist - 4/27/13 at 4:24pm