In some areas, a big part of the game is skiing out of bounds. Heli, backcountry and cross-country skiing all occur outside of a ski area. Millions of skier days each year are logged outside ski areas, but the relationship between ski resorts and the ski terrain outside the resorts varies dramatically. To get a perspective on how different ski cultures and resorts around the world view skiing out-of-bounds, I asked Joe Vallone, a mountain guide with experience in the US and Europe, and Jorg Wilz, a CMH Revelstoke guide with experience in Canada and Europe. Here are their surprising responses:
JW: The terrain/options are vast in Europe whereas in North America it's a lot more limited with the treelines going up to 10,000 feet and the natural forest being close to unskiable. Consequently, the out-of-bounds skier numbers in Europe are huge - it's tough to find untracked terrain that is easy to reach in many places just hours after the lift opens. The popularity/easy access lures EVERYONE with the consequences often dire.
- Europeans have little tolerance for getting locked out of public lands.
- Permanent closures are rare and "backcountry gates" virtually unknown.
- Area boundaries are there to indicate the controlled area but for most part everyone is free to venture into the uncontrolled.
In short, like in so many ways, it's Europe that has become the land of the free.
Jackson Hole, Mt. Baker, Whistler and Blackcomb, and some other areas have a very liberal open boundary policy. It is amazing to see what goes on there. I guess what I am most impressed with in these areas is the ski patrol knows folks are gonna go out-of-bounds and ski, so they tend to educate rather than try to keep people within the fence.
In areas where ski areas allow out-of-bounds skiing, the community is embracing the culture of the mountain and its dangers. But at the same time the community is very proactive at educating, so the people tend to recognize the risks and respect the terrain more than in areas where out-of-bounds skiing is not allowed.
TD: How much do you use ski resorts while skiing out-of-bounds in Europe?
JV: Almost every day. The trams in Europe are amazing. You can rise 2500 meters in a single lift and be instantly time warped into a glaciated canvas of complexities and difficult route finding. I use lifts all over Europe to gain access to endless landscapes of untracked goods. It is possible to ski huge runs with no marked runs, no trail maps, no ski patrol, no avalanche control and navigate glaciers with giant seracs, crevasses, couloirs and cliffs with an average pitch of 40 degrees.
TD: As a ski guide, are ski areas in the States part of your profession or are you pretty much required to avoid ski areas because of their out of bounds policies?
JV: It is so difficult to make an honest living as a ski guide in the States. I have tried so many ways and so many times to work with resorts locally. No one is interested, I put a bunch of time into launching a guide service out of a Colorado ski area, and I did huge presentations working with the head of patrol and the head ski instructor to get a program started. In the end it was so much energy and so much red tape. I gave up.
Do you feel backcountry access is a valuable element for ski areas to offer?
Out-of-bounds North American style: CMH Bobbie Burns photo by Topher Donahue.
The most unusual thing about heli-skiing with CMH might not be the skiing. Sure, CMH is essentially the biggest ski area in the world, positioned in some of the snowiest mountains with idyllic ski terrain stretching every direction for as far as the eye can see. But there is a lot of other good skiing outside of CMH. The most unusual thing might be the mountain hospitality that greets everyone who has joined CMH for a mountain adventure during the last 45 years.
Skiers travel from all over the world to arrive at an intimate lodge in a remote mountain valley choked with snow-cloaked forest and no other sign of human habitation for many kilometers. It is a world for moose, caribou, rabbits and goats; yet minutes after arriving you are greeted by a smiling, fellow snow rider who shows you the way to your room and the spa. For as long as you stay, the juxtaposition of feeling as comfortable as you ever have while surrounded by the harsh environment of snow and mountains gives you the sense that you are extremely fortunate. To get an idea how CMH manages to deliver such hospitality in these outrageous locations, I tracked down Danny Stoffel a guide and manager from CMH Valemount.
TD: How does mountain hospitality differ from, say, 4-star hotel hospitality?
DS: Mountain hospitality faces additional challenges that are not encountered by 4-star hotel operations. It is a significant challenge to provide top-rate customer service from a remote location; however it is also this challenge that makes the job interesting. We try to pamper our guests to the same standards as would be seen from an urban location, this means anticipating guest demands before they are even made, as we do not have the access to satisfy every request on demand. Our main goal at CMH is to offer refined service in a family atmosphere. The personal touch is everything. It is by doing this that we hope our guests will feel as though they are coming to a home away from home year after year. Ultimately, we want our guests to feel as though they have traveled from one home to another; however the home we provide comes with a great mountain atmosphere and unsurpassed service - plus the ultimate snowboarding and skiing.
TD: Do you continue hospitality while out skiing in the wilderness? How?
DS: Absolutely! Our guests are here to ride and they spend the majority of each day outside, therefore we make every effort to make this part of their trip very special. We ensure that all aspects of our field operations are at their best. Everything from the safety and snow conditions, to the outstanding food and the passionate staff, has an element of sincere hospitality with it. We strive to offer our guests memorable and unique experiences. This means making every effort to find the best snow and the most suitable terrain for the skiing ability of both first timers and veterans. Finally, the safety of our guests is always a priority; therefore we also utilize the best avalanche transceivers and safety equipment on the market.
TD: How do you train staff to give the unique friendly flavor of CMH hospitality?
DS: It all starts with selecting the right talent. I look for bright individuals who share a passion for skiing and the mountains. I then try to pass on the philosophy, spirit and passion of our founding father, Hans Gmoser. I train my staff to be professional, but I also encourage them to connect with our guests on a personal level. I hope that by doing this the staff will be able to anticipate guest requests before they are even made.
TD: If you have advice learned in the mountains that you could share with the hospitality industry, what would it be?
DS: Passionate staff is the foundation to a successful business. Ultimately, it is CMH’s staff that has created the unique atmosphere the company is famous for. Employees are able to fulfill their individual aspirations to connect with the backcountry by working for CMH. Passion for the industry is the foundation of a great staff member, but training the staff and empowering them to conduct their jobs is arguably just as important. I place great emphasis on training my staff, knowing that it will translate into superior guest service. Most importantly, the staff shares the passion for the mountains and therefore they bring an electric energy to the lodge that you don't find in even a five-star hotel.
As the area manager of CMH Valemount, Danny Stoffel practices mountain hospitality all winter long while hosting 10 skiers and riders for intimate, private, week-long helicopter snowboarding and skiing adventures in the Columbia Mountains.
Sometimes we are out playing in the snow with ski guides, and they seem to be having at least as much fun as the rest of the skiers. Other times, it seems like they are about as stressed out as long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs.
I thought it would help if we skiers knew better the things we do that make guides nervous, so I caught up with Gery Unterasinger, Assistant Area Manager of CMH Bobbie Burns, (and a gifted athlete on all things rocky, snowy and icy) to find out the kind of things we do that make him nervous, and how we could make heli-skiing more fun for the guides as well as for us skiers.
TD: What do we do near the helicopter that makes you nervous?
- Heli Huddle: Go down on one knee or at least bend over – I have a hard time understanding why this simple safety measure is so hard to achieve for active people who can heli-ski hard all day.
- Pick up: Always watch the helicopter as it is coming in to land for the pick up – this one is not hard to achieve either, and you get a free face shot as a bonus.
- Seat belts: From the front seat we can hear the “clicking” noise of seatbelts unbuckling just before the helicopter lands. This is totally unnecessary, and dangerous for you and the rest of the passengers, since this is probably the time with the most risk involved during flight operation. Wait until the door opens. Nobody has ever skied an extra turn because they took off their seatbelt quickly.
TD: What do we do in the alpine terrain that makes you nervous?
- Passing guests from behind at high speed: With all the space we have available in the alpine areas of our heli-skiing tenures, there is no reason to have collisions between two skiers.
- Taking shortcuts: There is usually a reason why a guide tells you to follow his traverse. There can be plenty of hidden hazards like avalanches, crevasses, glide cracks, creek beds with open water, cliffs or wind scoops - to name a few.
- Stopping too close, and out of control, above the guide or group: Numerous times I have witnessed skiers crashing into the waiting group or guide. Please slow down with your last few turns - your legs are tired and don’t always perform at their best anymore.
- Stopping below the guide: In open terrain where you can see the guide from miles away, this should be a no brainer. Your guide stopped for a reason. (See also hidden hazards above)
TD: What do we do in the tress that make you nervous?
GU: Since I can't see through the trees, I can only judge from my experiences at a regroup spot, which offers a limited view. My number one complaint is probably that too often skiers show up without their partner, which makes me, and everyone else in the group, quite nervous. Please make an effort to stay within visual or shouting distance of your partner. The second skier is the safety monitor - he or she keeps an eye on the first skier and hoots or yodels frequently so the first skier knows you are there. This method has already proven to be a life saver in many tree well incidents. With an attentive partner, these stories end with a good laugh over beers at the lodge instead of with a serious accident. As a bonus you get to share your great turns with a like-minded powder friend.
TD: Anything else?
GU: I would like to add that most of our heli-skiing guests ski very responsibly and are a great pleasure to guide, and a great pleasure for first-timers to ski with in any terrain. With my points above I am just trying to reinforce a few simple rules which most of you follow really well, but which consistently get violated by a few skiers for no apparent reason.
It’s snowing right now here in the Columbias. Fluffy powder unpatiently awaiting fresh tracks. So let’s get out, have fun and play as a team together. I'm soooo psyched!
Heli-skiing is not the only place where Gery's suggestions and critique are valid. Check out this website, Tree Well and Deep Snow Safety, that reveals some shocking facts about these hazards. (For example, in one test using volunteers placed in tree wells, under careful supervision, 90% could not extricate themselves without help!)
1983. Scot Schmidt launched off the Palisades at Squaw in Warren Miller's Ski Time. It changed how I thought about skiing forever. I remember sitting in the audience in Billings, Montana with my jaw on the floor as Scot skied the line with an ease I could not have imagined until then.
Fast forward to today. Friday the crew and equipment begins to arrive in Calgary as CMH and Warren Miller Entertainment (WME) prepare to spent a week filming based out the Gothics. I am excited. Are you going to see something as new as Scot Schmidt skiing the Palisades in 1983? Don't know. I do know you will see some incredible skiing and some of the most spectacular terrain on captured on film. We have two cameraman shooting on the ground and from the air, we have a still photographer capturing the action, we have a cineflex mounted to a 407 and one of the best ariel camera operators at the controls.
Olympian Jonny Moseley, K2 Factory Team member Andy Mahre and CMH Guides Lindsay Anderson and Craig McGee will be doing the skiing in front of the camera. We have some of the best helicopter pilots in the world from Alpine Helicopters. Claude and Geoff will be handling guiding and snow safety for the shoot.
We will be posting behind-the-scenes updates during the week we are filming. Come back to the CMH blog and check out photos, videos and other assorted items from the film shoot. Got questions for any of the film crew, athletes, guides or pilots about making ski movies? Post them here and I will get you answers.
"On the surface it looks like the most fun job in the world - and it is - first tracks in the most beautiful ski mountains anywhere with a team of passionate powder skiers on your tail."
-Rob Rohn, CMH Director of Mountain Operations
To get the lowdown on how mountain guiding compares to other jobs, I talked to Rob Rohn, veteran guide, climber, and the Director of Mountain Operations for CMH. There are few people in the world with as wide of a scope of understanding of the guiding profession as Rob. He oversees:
• A hundred mountain guides.
• Eleven heli-ski areas.
• Technical climbing on the big spires of the Bugaboos.
• Via Ferrate in the Bobbie Burns and Bugaboos.
• Heli-assisted ski touring programs in the Monashees. Adamants, and Bugaboos.
• Hiking adventures in the Bugaboos and Bobbie Burns.
Here’s what Rob had to say about guiding relative to other careers:
TD: Compared to other jobs, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the challenge of ski guiding? Why?
RR: Ten-minus. As with all challenging jobs, when it's going well it appears to be effortless. On the surface it looks like the most fun job in the world - and it is - first tracks in the most beautiful ski mountains anywhere with a team of passionate powder skiers on your tail; evenings spent reliving the day's adventures over a fine meal and enjoying the unique camaraderie that you'll only find at a CMH lodge; next day do it all over again.
But behind the scenes it's serious business. The potential pitfalls are ever-present. The only reason we can operate as safely as we do is that CMH has the most highly skilled and experienced team of guides anywhere. Guides are able to lead the program and our guests safely through the maze we encounter in the mountains, and make it a fun-filled, exhilarating experience. A guide can only achieve this by remaining perpetually vigilant and situationally aware every moment of the day. When the conditions are really tricky we all get grey hairs and are consumed with the task at hand - ensuring everyone remains safe, and has an amazing experience at the same time.
TD: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the rewards (not specifically financial) of ski guiding? Why?
RR: Ten-plus. We all got into this game because it's our passion - passion for the mountains, passion for the skiing, passion for the lifestyle, passion for the people. We get to live the dream. After 25 years I still find myself awestruck that we get to do the things we do, and go where we go.
TD: For someone who has not yet begun guide training, but wants to get into the system, what advice would you give them?
RR: Don't under estimate the hard work and commitment involved. If you're just in it for the first tracks and the glamour - forget it! There aren't any short cuts to getting the experience you'll need to become a successful mountain guide, and to gain the wisdom that only comes after many, many miles in the mountains and a healthy dose of misadventure and misery that forms the foundation for good judgment. Be humble - the minute you think you've got this game figured out, you tend to get slapped and put in your place. If the little voice in your head says you shouldn't go there, don't. And never consider pursuing guiding unless you love people. The true and lasting reward of guiding is in creating and sharing life-altering experiences that people can't get anywhere else. That's what it's all about.
Getting the basic mountain guide certification requires a similar level of time, money and commitment as a college education. If you're interested in guiding, there are training programs in Canada, the USA, and in several European countries.
By Marc Piche
One of the most valuable aspects of our annual winter guides training is the review of incidents that occurred in the field the previous year. Most of these case studies are avalanche-related and are presented by one of the guides from the area involved. The goal is to offer an opportunity to all CMH guides to learn from the experience of those who were there, and also to determine if any operational changes need to be made to either prevent or reduce the chance of a similar occurrence in the future.
In the fall of 2008 during guides training, we reviewed an incident where a guest was caught in a very small avalanche but buried very deeply in a wind scoop near a boulder. Although the buried person was successfully dug out without serious injury, both the guides and guests involved in the rescue felt strongly that it would have been beneficial to have more shovels on hand immediately.
It’s not the first time we’ve discussed this at CMH, but this incident prompted our decision to have all guests carry a shovel and probe in a small pack while heli-skiing and heli-boarding starting this coming season.
Last winter we tested several different brands of packs, shovels and probes in an effort to come up with a package that is as low profile, easy-to-use, and lightweight as possible. We worked with Arc’Teryx, who custom-designed our new pack to fit the probe and shovel we chose from Black Diamond. As you can see from the photo above, the sleek design does not impede a skier or riders ability.
We were encouraged by the positive response of all guests who tested the new packs last year. We see this as an important step toward being even better prepared in case of a mishap.
While out skiing, all guests will still be expected to take turns carrying a two-way radio, and to ski at the rear or middle of the group while doing so. As we have stated many times at CMH, overall safety is the responsibility of every skier.
For those skiers and riders who bring your own radios, please contact our Operations Coordinator (email@example.com) if you need information about programming them with the correct frequencies and tones.
Have you booked your 2010 Heli-Ski vacation yet? If you are still sitting on the fence, we encourage you to read this article before you book your Heli-Ski trip in BC.
"FACE SHOTS – How can that not be the first thing on your mind?"
I recently exchanged emails with Lilla Molnar, a mountain guide who splits her time between climbing granite cracks and skiing deep powder, both heli-skiing and backcountry touring. She finished her last email with this line: “We are set up to have an awesome winter – can’t wait to go to work!”
This got me wondering what it is like to be a heli-ski guide going to work during the snowiest early season in 11 years. The helicopter pilots at CMH Galena are already using pickups at the valley bottoms and the snowpack at treeline all across the Columbias could be easily mistaken for mid-season. Every year is different, but this year the difference is the kind that makes skiers - and guides –drool in anticipation. Here’s what Lilla had to say about it:
TD: I’m curious what it feels like to be a ski guide going into a big snow period. When you’re driving the Trans Canada highway with a cup of coffee in your lap on your first commute to the Bugaboos this year, and you know there is this kind of snowpack out there, what kinds of things will you think about in anticipation?
LM: FACE SHOTS – how can that not be the first thing on your mind? A good snowpack and lots of snow leads to great psyche amongst the guiding team, which is then contagious for the rest of the staff. This great morale gets passed along to the guests and as a result you get a lodge full of super amped people who are totally passionate about skiing. It’s very satisfying and motivating to work or play in such a positive environment.
TD: Everyone dreams of skiing the deepest powder, but being in truly bottomless snow is a wild place to spend the day. Do you have any favorite guide advice for not only the skiing, but for simply moving around - like making it to pickups without wallowing - and staying comfortable in the all-day powder bath?
LM: It takes some getting used to, but most people find it a dreamy place to spend the day. Here's some deep powder tips. Unless you make the mistake of breaking trail for the lead guide on the flats, he or she will be the only person wallowing in fresh deep powder to break trail to the pickup. On flat sections, hold up and give the skier ahead of you lots of space. Save yourself the agony of having to walk along the flats by giving them lots of time to get ahead, that way you can just cruise along in their tracks. Keep in mind that as the second person you will be sliding slower than the 11th person in the group. Let the snowboarders go last so they can get across without having to step off their boards.
TD: What about gear for the deep stuff?
LM: Make sure you have the appropriate equipment.
- Low rider pants may look good, on some, but they certainly won’t keep the powder out, bib pants with high waists are the ticket.
- Same goes for gloves which barely cover the wrists. Puffy, warm, gloves or mitts with long powder cuffs are what you want to be wearing.
- A Buff, balaclava, or neck gaitor will also prevent you from freezing your face and choking on the powder.
- Goggles – a very important piece of equipment. Make sure they ventilate well. Keep the foam above the top rim free of snow. In the helicopter, keep your goggles over your eyes, if you put them on your forehead they will fog up.
TD: A month ago I wrote an entry about winter weather preditions, and it's starting to look like the Old Farmer's Almanac might be right with big snow for interior BC. Comparing this year to the average early season in the Columbias, how much more terrain would you guess is going to be skiable by Christmas?
LM: I am sure we are way ahead of average in most areas for this time of year. All I know is that last year we had an awesome Christmas week with a below average snowpack, so this Christmas’ skiing will be unsurpassed!
Join Lilla for Christmas in the Bugaboos and see how much snow Santa brings this year!
by Jorg Wilz, CMH GuideHeli-Assisted Ski Touring
is a dream come true: Combining the snow quality, mobility and luxury that heli-skiing
offers with the beauty and serenity of backcountry ski touring. All in one trip!
At CMH, we are seeing guests sign up for heli-ski touring with two different backgrounds: Long-time heli-skiers who used to ski tour ages ago and decide they want to try it again CMH-style
. Or traditional ski tourers who love the idea of being based at a luxury lodge, being able to sample the optimal terrain on any given day and last, but not least, ski twice to three times as much downhill than ski touring conventionally.
No matter what your background is, here are five things you need to remember!
1) Get fit or drag ass
Showing up without proper conditioning for heli-ski touring is far worse than for heli-skiing. When heli-sking, if the snow is good and if you are an efficient skier with countless years of skiing under your (stretched-out) belts, you might get away with not being fit. Not so when heli-ski touring. You are bound to suffer badly if you need a breather every 5 steps going uphill, not to mention the bar tab that could be coming your way if you end up making everyone wait on those uphill regroups. On the positive side, with two guides for our groups of 10 clients, we are well set up at CMH to address split group issues when ski touring. But it’s not all that much fun if you end up being the only member of the “slow group”.
2) Dress (not smell) like an onion
Again, this is true for heli-skiing but much more so for heli-ski touring. Wear many thinner layers rather than just a few thicker ones. Adjusting layers is key! Strip down to avoid steaming while walking uphill below tree-line and add layers while pulling off the skins from your skis on a mountain top in the cold wind. For staying warm during breaks a light down vest can easily become your favourite piece of clothing!
3) Hydrate! And not on the Rocks
Well – that’s a no-brainer you may think. Crucial for staying hydrated on ski tours is the right temperature of your beverage. On a cold day, if your drink is as cold as the snow you ski, odds are you won’t drink much. The same is true for the contrary – nice to have a cool drink for those warmer days in spring (and remember that adding snow to your warm beverage decreases the concentration of minerals). Bring a thermos (or two) when it’s cold! And don’t hesitate to bring a thermos plus a non-insulated bottle on those “in-between days”.
4) Keep the noise down and the pack light
New to ski tourers are the daily helicopter rides. It’s pretty noisy, especially when huddling in a group underneath the blades during landings and takeoffs. Our “regulars” do what the guides do and wear various forms of ear protection. For Heli-Assisted ski touring, for the sake of keeping your packs light, a set of conventional ear plugs do a pretty good job.
5) Take it for what it is
If you are a heli-ski aficionado and you are drawn to heli-assisted ski touring by the lower price tag, you will quickly find that you only get what you pay for. In other words, if the uphill part of the heli-ski touring (i.e. about 80% of your day!) seems like work, don’t bother switching. But if you enjoy getting sweaty while skinning up in a serene winter-wilderness and the exhilaration of the 1500 to 3500 meters of daily descents, you are bound to have a blast heli-ski touring with CMH!
To join Jorg on a Heli-Assisted Ski Touring trip at CMH Adamants
, e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call one of our Reservations Sales Agents at 1.800.661.0252.
"When I’m with a group that stays together, we move at a faster pace and get to ski more great lines."
Even the most experienced mountaineers can improve and become more efficient by simply changing their attitudes and ideals about the team element of the sport. Heli-skiers are no exception. To learn about the kind of things that heliskiers and riders do that turn around to bite the team in the tail, I asked Steve Chambers, the area manager of CMH Revelstoke to tell it like it is. Here are his top 5:
'Follow the leader' We're a selfish lot - us guides - when it comes to fresh powder and we really, really love what we do. You can bet we’re looking for the BEST possible line. You don't need to wander to find something better. Sticking close to the guide's tracks and avoiding that wandering line keeps things moving along as we stick together as a group and don't end up in search mode for you. When I’m with a group that stays together, we move at a faster pace and get to ski more great lines. I don’t know how many times I’ve stood around with the group waiting for some “expert” to find their way back.
- 'Pushing for more' There has to come a point in the day when it all ends and we're heading back to the lodge after a great day of skiing. Pushing your guide to do one more run sounds like a great idea but you have to remember all of the logistics and safety considerations that are factored into their decisions: How much daylight do we have left? How is the fatigue level with everyone? How much time do we need to move our groups out of the backcountry with enough time on our side in case something goes wrong (lost ski, etc.)? Remember, we'd love to do another run as well!
- 'Love thy Neighbour' - I know, how corny is that... The point I'm trying make here is the interaction you have with other members of your group. Mountain sport is a team sport. Everyone comes from various walks of life, nationalities and experience levels. You're 20th or 30th day of heli-skiing is a lot different experience than your first time. Abilities aside, there is a learning curve for everyone in this realm of skiing. In groups where the veterans support the newcomers, the first-timers learn faster and in the end everyone skis more and has more fun. In groups where the veterans are impatient everyone waits more and skis less.
- 'Follow the Rules of the Road' - After 45 years of doing this, CMH has had some practice in refining the ins & outs of how we move through the terrain we ski. What might not make sense to you initially has a purpose - the buddy system in the trees, skiing one at a time on certain slopes, stopping above the guide and the list goes on. By ignoring the rules or not listening to the guide’s instructions you risk not only your own well-being but that of other group members. They're pretty easy to follow and after a while you get used to them and it becomes second nature. When you break these rules at the wrong time, Mother Nature opens a can of whoop-ass the likes of which you never want to experience…
- 'We can't control Mother Nature' - I know we like to think we have special powers as guides, but this one's out of our control! As good as the snow & skiing can be most days, it's not always perfect. When Mother Nature gives us a poor hand, we do the best we can. No amount of bitching or complaining by any of us is going to make that change. But the slightest positive weather trend can give us those epic powder conditions in short order. Be patient and wait for the signs...
That's it - pretty simple really. Have an open mind, stay positive, follow some basic rules and the bright suit up front and, most of all, have a great time doing it.
We are looking at a stellar start to the winter and the early season conditions are some of the best we've seen in years. Hopefully we'll see you up in our mountains this winter. Play safe and good turns to all.
To the reader: do you have anything to add that you've seen backfire while helicopter snowboarding and skiing?
"Blue-suiters who have 'been there, done that' tend to stand at the edge of the huddle and pay little attention to the helicopter."
We all know it – helicopter ski access is a mind-bending combination of ease and excitement: Powerful machines emerging from billowing snow clouds created by the rotor wash. Goggled and Gore-texed figures chased by their own snow plumes as the helicopter thunders overhead. Following a mountain guide into the best powder stashes in some of the world’s snowiest mountains. It’s so good we sometimes forget that we are part of the system, just as important as the guide or the pilot in keeping everyone safe out there. Sure, our responsibilities as skiers are fewer than those of the guide or pilot, but the result of not taking our few responsibilities seriously can be just as catastrophic. I had a conversation with Alex Holliday, the Safety Manager for Alpine Helicopters, and he clearly sees three big things skiers need to do better when heli-skiing:
Improvement Number One: “Off the top of my head, I’d say the biggest thing is people not paying attention to what's going on with the helicopter. I guess the skiing is just so good that it’s distracting.”
The Solution: Change gears from skiing to transportation when you get anywhere near the helicopter. You don’t run into a moving bus or ski straight into a moving gondola either.
Improvement Number Two: “Definitely the seat belts. The rushed entry and exit from the noisy machine leaves little attention for the seatbelt. Often folks don't take the time to ensure the belt is straight and done-up properly. A poorly installed belt does little good when needed. There was a group of skiers at the Monashees in '97 who can attest to the value of a properly done up belt. The ski-footage penalty of taking one's time during loading and unloading is zero and you risk everything with a poorly worn belt.”
The Solution: Help others fit their seatbelts. With big jackets and gloves it can be hard to see there is half a meter of extra slack in the belt. Help those around you get their belts on right. Helping them could save your life.
Improvement number three: “Probably the huddle. The huddle should be tight and low. Blue-suiters (skiers in their unmistakable million-foot suits) who have 'been there, done that' tend to stand at the edge of the huddle and pay little attention to the helicopter. Perhaps we could admonish them to set a GOOD example for the new folks by being down on one knee and watching the helicopter as it approaches and lands. The door person needs to take the lead in ensuring a good huddle.”
The Solution: Take the helicopter seriously. If you do, everyone will have more fun.
Helicopter pilots and guides take every opportunity to improve, become safer at what they do, and politely help those around them to improve as well. As skiers, we should do the same.