An Update from the Avalanche Center
This is the first update for the 2004-05 season from the Avalanche Center, http://www.avalanche-center.org/
This is later than usual for a first update of the season, but a lot of work has been underway since as far back as mid-summer. In addition to announcing the work completed and underway we also have some good news and some bad news from over the past four or five months. The unexpected challenges in recent months, particularly one of them, has been costly in term of time and delayed some things, including this first update. So there are additional items which we will leave for the next update, which should come out fairly soon. We are also trying to keep information on issues which are larger and/or ongoing posted and up to date in our News section (http://www.avalanche-center.org/News/)
Some Good News
We received some unexpected support from a few sources since last spring.
At the end of last season we announced that we had a generous matching donor, and that challenge was completely met. Many sincere thanks to our generous matching donor and also to all of those who rose to the challenge by contributing whatever they could to be matched.
Last season we announced that we are now able to accept donations of automobiles and other property. (See http://www.avalanche-center.org/Organization/contribute/autos.php) The donation center which supports this has sent us information at times on the status of some bills in Washington which may make this program more difficult in the future. In August we received a priority envelope and assumed it was more such political information, but found instead that it was our first check for the proceeds from two donated automobiles. One generated an amount that was especially significant by our standards, the other generated somewhere around $40 after being auctioned off. But no matter what the final amount, this generates funding for us and allows the vehicle owner to get rid of almost anything at no cost to themselves and with a tax deduction. We've received one more such check. We're glad to see this program being used a bit. The group that recommended it to us had made thousands of dollars from this arrangement in a local fundraising drive. We have never made any assumptions on its potential, but these property donations can be accepted anywhere in the US and we hope people will keep it in mind.
More recently we received a couple generous contributions. One is an annual donation from the Seattle Foundation, which is actually from an individual whose family uses that foundation to manage their philanthropic contributions.The other was a wire transfer from the Netherlands and is the first contribution of its size received from Europe. We have received a few smaller ones, but not very many. In the near future we expect to be able to accept bank transfers within the EU for those that prefer not to use credit cards.
Bad News and Challenges
In the past two months we've also faced some challenges. One in particular resulted in a lot of work, a significant loss to the credit card banking system, and ultimately a move to using PayPal for secure transactions. We had to abandon iTransact (http://www.itransact.com/)and iPayment (http://www.ipaymentinc.com/) which were responsible for this problem and the resulting losses. This has been a very significant issue and we hope you will take a minute to read about. Anyone taking credit cards online or planning to should definitely read this. There is also more information in our News section (http://www.avalanche-center.org/News/)
Ever since we began accepting credit cards online we have used iTransact as a gateway. Until the past two months we were vary happy with the service. It eliminated the need for us to have a secure server or to handle any sensitive information at all. iTransact passed the completed transactions on to iPayment, and they deposited the funds (minus numerous fees) into our bank account.
In recent months we noticed large numbers ofcredit card transaction attempts which were being declined when we checked the online report. It was annoying but wasn't generating any significant cost. In early September we received a phone message from iPayment saying our merchant account had been shut off due to too many of these automated attempts. iTransact was immediately contacted but could not offer any solution. We verified that all possible options relevant to this were turned on, and called iPayment to let them know we had spoken to iTransact and done everything we could. (iTransact had referred us to iPayment as a bank which worked well with them!)
Later we had a few inquiries about our credit card systems not working. When we had time to look into it we discovered that our merchant account had either remained closed or been shut off again, with no notice at all this time. iPayment was downright rude about it and iTransact could still offer no solution. So it looked like we were faced with an entire change of merchant account and gateway, and an inability to do anything financial online for weeks. While we found a reasonable and quick alternative the really bad news came when we got our merchant account statement from iPayment. They had taken charges of about $1500 from us! At 35 cents per attempted transaction this means there were 4-5000 attempts, which were almost certainly automated. This was neither detected nor blocked by iTransact. We have been promised a refund of about $600 from iPayment but at this time it has not been deposited (weeks after the promise). So at the moment it looks like we have been relieved of somewhere between $1000 and $1600 by the banking system, with absolutely nothing provided in return. Given the size of our budget and the amount of fundraising effort it takes, and the fact that we appreciate that contributions allow us to provide a public service, it is infuriating that a bank would walk off with this amount. The issue is still being pursued, but it appears at this time that there may be little we can do. Visa suffers no loss, and in fact profits from the fees. This is why credit card fraud in general is rarely pursued very vigorously. We will file complaints with the appropriate attorney generals and the better business bureau but this seems unlikely to accomplish much either.
Our solution has been to change over to PayPal for credit card processing. Our customers do not need an account with them, it works like any online credit card payment system. While they take a somewhat higher percentage per transaction there are no setup fees, no monthly minimums, and most importantly no charges for failed transactions. If they were to have the same problem iTransact did it would be their responsibility and we would not be paying for it. Which raises the question of where the money iPayment took went and what it was for.
So now all online payments go through PayPal. This required almost no change to our shopping cart or contribution page and no new merchant account. It's hard to be harshly critical of iTransact after we found them so helpful for so long, but after losing so much money we absolutely have to recommend that they be avoided at this point. Anyone accepting online payments should be sure they are not being charged for unsuccessful transactions since this is becoming a growing problem. Unfortunately Visa/MC and their affiliated merchant account banks like iPayment don't pursue this since they profit from it and can pass on the costs to cardholders and merchants.
During the time of the above problems we also had our Sony VAIO laptop die beyond repair. The only support from Sony was three phone transfers ending up with an agent in India who wanted $20 to talk to us. And the main board is shot so he would just have told us to ship it in for a $700 repair. This computer was slated to be replaced this fall anyway, but it had to be done earlier and more quickly than anticipated. While Sony was of no help whatsoever there were two businesses in Jackson, Wyoming which deserve some honorable mention for their help during the ISSW conference there. The Hard Drive Cafe had a great plan for unlimited monthly access at a low cost and the repair shop across the plaza did some testing and determined the hard disk was not our problem, which they charged nothing for despite being very busy. If you're ever in Jackson and need access or computer work you can trust both of these places.
The final incident is only worth brief mention at this time and is also posted in the News section, but it demonstrates the kind of thing we have had to put up with for most of the past ten years. In February we received an online check written online through iTransact which was harassing and clearly fraudulent. Because of the IP location we had this investigated and it was traced to a person (Mr Glen Kessler) currently employed by the Park Service and formerly with the Forest Service. (If you've been on our updates list for a while this may be starting to sound familiar!) This was a criminal act and we are waiting to see if anyone will take responsibility for it before we pursue any action. Currently the line of accountability ends with the computer owner (Mr David Waag), who was hosting the suspect in his home while he was away.
While the last incident is almost just "noise" which we have become accustomed to the other problems demonstrate some of the things which we have to deal with in order to keep this service running.
Annual Fundraising Auction
Our first item came in immediately from Crazy Creek, which has been an auction supporter for all of the previous 6 events. Many thanks for this loyal support! The auction just wouldn't seem right anymore without a Crazy Creek chair.
In order to continue to offer public services into the future we are going to need more support from individuals and industry. The auction used to generate about $3000 but dropped off the past two years because the amount of time available to put into it was lower. If anyone is interested in assisting with the search for auction items or with promotion please contact us. And while we have focused on the outdoor industry we would also like to see contributions from retailers and individuals. (And we can auction used items that are donated as well as new items). Consider discussing this with your local retailers, and donating any items you may have yourself.
Website updates and maintenance
Things are now starting to happen for winter and we are handling current information already. Prior to this we did some programming to improve the Contributor Resources section significantly, and also to improve the shopping cart when we moved to PayPal. (Functionally the move required very little, but in the course of things we decided to do some cart improvement, with a bit more still planned.)
Most of the bulletins and advisories we handle have come out at least once already, and some more often than that. The Swiss bulletins have been going out irregularly but fairly frequently for a while, Utah is close to daily, and Colorado is now daily. This has required verifying all of our formatting and e-mail lists earlier than usual. So far we have just been working on the formatting, which changes each year with no notice or assistance from the issuing centers. We have also added a [CSAC] subject line tag to all list mail originating from us. This is to aid in recognizing the e-mailed advisories which contributors can receive and in filtering mail. Linkscan has been run on the entire web section and all links which had changed have been updated except for a few which we need to inquire about due to uncommon languages.
In the late summer we added a few incident reports from New Zealand and added some information to one from Slovenia last winter. We also reviewed all incidents for the past two seasons to verify that the searchable database is correct and complete. Only a few errors were found and they were corrected. We've also checked all links in the Incident reports for the past three seasons. Some updates and changes are much easier to locate or follow if you are a contributor, although so far we have kept all actual reports archived open to everyone.
This seasons incidents list is off to an early start. We recently learned of a climbing fatality in France in September (technically last season), a double climbing fatality on Annapurna, close calls or injuries in Colorado and Alaska, and a double fatality in Montana (ice climbing). Contributors who subscribe to the incident updates email list were notified of these new listings. There have been numerous other human triggered incidents as well which we lack the details to post. Be aware that winter is here early this season in many areas!
Finally, there are a couple incidents which are not posted due to uncertainty. A climber on Mt Rainier died when he was buried inside a crevasse but it isn't clear whether this is a snowbridge collapse or a true avalanche (if you care to make a distinction). And there were reports a day or two ago of a missing person in Switzerland speculated to have died in an avalanche but we haven't followed up to look for any confirmation of that.
The store is up to date with all discontinued products removed and all price changes put into effect. There are a couple new products we need to add yet, or update due to significant changes. As mentioned above we have moved all online credit card transactions to PayPal, and any feedback on that is appreciated. Let us know if your shopping check-out or your contribution process is anything less than smooth. In the course of updating the shopping cart we also fixed a few bugs that explain why we had empty carts submitted once in a while. This was sporadic and hard to duplicate reliably and therefore attributed to poor instructions or "flow" but it turns out there was a subtle programming problem in the cart code.
Another benefit contributors get is discounts in the store. The cart now informs you if you are logged in and tells you what the current discount is, which will be varied from time to time. Recently it was 30% in order to encourage use and testing of the shopping cart and check out changes. Our minimum contribution for such extra services is $25 and one or two orders can save you that much. Or if you are not a contributor and make any purchase where the total check-out amount is over $100 it will be considered a contribution for purposes of receiving such extra benefits.
We have done a good bit of upgrading on this section. This is an area of the website which anyone who contributes a minimum of $25 (or makes some other non-monetary contribution) can access. Anywhere there is a keylock icon you can get to this section by clicking on it. With the new PayPal merchant account contribution and store checkout you should be able to set up an account for yourself right away if you are sure to return to our site at the end of the transaction. The "Thank You" page should invite you to sign up if you either had a contribution of over $25 (including one in a shopping cart) or if you had a total cart check-out value of over $100.
The primary services so far have been access to our e-mail list system to receive advisories automatically, and much better search capabilities in the incidents section. These features remain the same, including the ability to self-subscribe to e-mail lists for free to try them out for a while even if you are not a contributor. Within the contributor services section there is a more convenient interface to add and remove your subscriptions simultaneously with no confirmation e-mail required. (Under "Edit Your Profile".)
New features in this area include an entirely new login welcome page which will display the time and date of your last visit, offer you a link to a "whats changed" list of files modified since that last login date, give you a link to your shopping cart right there, and show the date you signed up for your contributor services account. (This still goes by season, restarting on October 1 for everyone. But as we continue working on these database features it may change in the future to go by sign-up date and last a year from then. This is a longer term idea right now.)
The last change may still have a few bugs, but the login to the contributor services section is now integrated in part with the login to the phpBB forums. If you register for the forums with the same username and password as you use in the contributor section then logging in as a contributor will automatically log you in for the forums. At the moment we don't know what happens if both registrations exist but don't match, if you have no forums account it does ignore this feature. Over time we hope to be able to integrate the registration process as well, and in the future add integrated registration and logins with a quiz/test program once we have time to choose one and implement it.
There are additional things we could report which will be left for the next update. Some things which are noteworthy enough or ongoing will be kept updated in the News section, and one thing we are looking at implementing is some new web technology which will make it easier to stay informed of progress on a more constant basis with that information coming to you rather than having to remember to check the site News area.
Over the past couple seasons we have implemented and expanded our special additional services for contributors. The vast majority of our support comes from individuals who contribute and/or use the store and we need to provide an incentive for this. We receive no grant or foundation money. We receive no government funding and probably never will. And industry support is very limited. So we rely on your support, and hope we can offer a bit of an incentive. But we have also kept all of the information on the site available to everyone so far. Non-contributors can access bulletins and advisories via the web site, in html with key terms glossed, for free. They can also access all archived incident reports, but may have a harder time locating specific information in the rather large collection. And of course everyone can use the store, contributors just get a discount.
Going ahead into the future we hope to maintain this open availability and access for everyone. But to do so we will need more involvement by more people and broader support from industry. We will be asking for more help and involvement in specific ways as this season progresses. Consider helping out, after ten years it has reached a point where our current resources are either holding steady (financially) or diminishing (available time and energy).
One simple thing we ask every season is for people to take some paper bookmarks to their local shops, clubs, huts, or other outlets to help promote the project. If you can help with that send us an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) with a mailing address and number of outlets you can reach. There are also many local and regional ski shows, ski swaps, and other events where we would like to have bookmarks out.
Well, welcome to the new season. We hope you enjoy the new features and the continued availability of timely information. Another update will probably not be too far behind, and there shouldn't be a summers worth of good and bad news to go through anymore. Other than a brief update or two, hopefully including the recovery of some of what we lost on iTransact/iPayment. In the meantime enjoy the early winter which has arrived in many areas and remember that avalanche season is underway.