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What can avalanches teach us about ice cream?


In an unusual sharing of technology, a tool used to study of one of nature's more irresistable forces - the avalanche - is helping in the development of one of the more irresistable treats - ice cream.

canadian avalanche

An article was recently published in the journal, Soft Matter, and has the ice cream industry excited by the possibility of making better ice cream.

The key to the research is the x-ray microtomography machine at the Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland. The machine is one of the few in the world that can capture images of microscopic structures at sub-zero temperatures.

By using this x-ray microtomography (also known as CT scanning) which results in a two-dimensional view of a slice of the material, snow scientists are able to observe the deformation of a snow on a microscopic scale.  This deformation eventually leads to large-scale avalanches, and by creating a time lapse of the change, snow scientists can learn more about avalanches and further our understanding of how a snowpack changes over time. Some of these learnings are applicable to making recreation safer, and are integrated into programs like CMH Heli-Skiing’s snow safety program.

ice cream avalanchesThe ice cream study used the same machine to produce time-lapse images of water crystals forming on the ice cream. This change alters the texture and gives ice cream left too long in the freezer that chewy, frosty texture that only vaguely resembles fresh ice cream.

This research has food scientists from companies like Nestle, interviewed here by the BBC, excited about the potential to make a long-lasting ice cream. Reminiscent of Mr. Willy Wonka’s fictitious chocolate factory, where ice cream is made that doesn't even melt on a hot day, the company who invents ice cream that lasts better in the freezer will sell a lot of desserts. 

Avalanche photo by John Mellis, CMH Cariboos, ice cream photo by Topher Donahue.

Helmets and heli-skiing: a guide's perspective


helmets helisking “Probably 75 or 80 percent of our guests are wearing helmets now anyway.” says Todd Guyn, a 17-year veteran heli-ski guide and the Mountain Safety Manager for CMH Heli-Skiing, while explaining the new CMH policy that makes helmets now mandatory for guests attending the two most aggressive Powder University programs: The Steeps, and Steep Shots and Pillow Drops.  

It only makes sense.  Any skier or snowboarder who signs up for these heli-ski programs that, conditions allowing, will take them into challenging alpine couloirs, jumps, and steep trees, is probably hoping to launch their cranium down some of the wildest lines they've ever dropped into.

Todd has some suggestions for helmet fit and design specific to skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry:

The first, and most important thing to consider, is that wearing a helmet can hinder your hearing.  CMH guides have reported several cases of guests not hearing instructions because of their helmets - and listening to your guide’s instructions is far more important for your safety than any helmet or physical safety device. 

To avoid blocking your ears, Todd suggests wearing helmets with earflaps that can be removed - and remove them for heliskiing.  To keep your ears warm, wear a thin balaclava or headband instead of the heavier ear pieces that come with helmets.  This configuration also has the advantage of making it easier to ventilate and cool your head on those warm days and allows for wearing hearing protectors in the helicopter.

Second, if your helmet has a large brim, make sure it is detachable.  In the event of a fall, tree well or avalanche, the brim can pack with snow and catch on things, pulling the chin strap dangerously tight around your neck - not good.  Even better, use a helmet without a brim.

Third, make sure your helmet fits properly.  Take your goggles and the hat or balaclava you will wear riding when you go helmet shopping, so you can be sure to get the right fit for you.

Finally, a surprising warning for all you helmeted hard-cores out there:

Dr. Jasper Shealy, who has been studying skiing and snowboarding injuries for over 30 years, is sited in the Canadian Ski Council’s 2009 report, “Helmets and Ski Safety Facts and Stats".  The article reads, “Although it has been demonstrated that wearing helmets can be effective in reducing the severity of head injuries, Dr. Shealy believes that the increased use of a helmet can alter behavior of the user, leading to increased injuries.”

The report states, in no uncertain terms, that  “Helmeted skiers and boarders tend to ski faster.” and concludes with a word for the wise: “Helmet use is only one part of an overall program of risk reduction, such as skiing and boarding responsibly.”

In our discussion about helmets, Todd made it clear that he feels strongly that the safety benefits of wearing a helmet while helicopter skiing and boarding vastly outweigh the issues, provided the skiers and snowboarders can hear their guide’s instructions and that skiers and snowboarders make decisions with the understanding that no safety device can be expected to replace good judgment when playing in the mountains. 

Pro snowboarder: "The deepest snow I've ever ridden!"


deep powder ski guideI talked to a professional snowboarder last week who said that the conditions in the Columbia Mountains were creating the deepest snow he had ever ridden - then it snowed for the next week straight...

Over the last 2 weeks, the Columbia Mountains’ snow machine has dumped nearly two metres of low-density snow at treeline in the CMH Heli-Skiing tenures. 

Shooting photos in these conditions resulted in some exceptional images of the deep powder heliskiing experience, some of which I shared last week, but some of the best face shot photos have yet to see the light of day.  It seems only fitting that the loyal readers of the Heli-Ski Blog should see them first.

This first shot shows CMH Galena guide Bernie Wiatzka, the ski guide with by far the most experience at the tree skiing paradise of Galena, doing what he does best - disappearing in a cloud of cold, white smoke.  

It snowed between 10cm and 30cm every night, and the CMH Galena Lodge was as fascinating in these conditions as the skiing itself:

ski lodge snowfall

While much of the time, the snow was so deep that it was impossible to tell if the CMH Heli-Skiing guests were on skis or snowboards, occasionally everything would ride to the surface and the deep powder travel tool of choice would be revealed:

heli snowboarding ghost
Conditions were ideal for big air, and the CMH guides were in good form suggesting the best pillow drops, not to mention the mandatory air on some of the runs.  Here, the co-owner of The Source snowboard shop demonstrates one method of choking on a mushroom:

snowboarder face shot
The CMH Ski Guides wear bright orange jackets to make them easier to follow, but in these conditions much of the time they were nearly invisible in a cloud of snow.  Luckily, CMH Ski Guides, one shown here up to his earlobes in low-density powder, are exceptionally good at giving directions and nobody had any issues following them down run after run of the deepest snow imaginable: 

deep powder tree skiing
Even the Bell 212 helicopter, known to be the safest helicopter ever made, seemed to enjoy the mind-blowing storm cycle:

healicopter heavy snow

Yesterday, the CMH Heli-Skiing area's snow reports showed up to half a metre of new snow over the last 24 hours - on top of what you see here.  If you haven't booked a heli-ski trip yet this year, call your boss, your partner, and CMH Reservations at 1 (800) 661-0252.  Not necessarily in that order!

A Heliski Guru's Ultimate Avalanche Education Course


In the beginning of the helicopter skiing revolution it was you, the skiers, who wanted to try using a helicopter to access ski terrain.  CMH listened, and in 1965 heliskiing was born. 

Today, skiers are telling us that they would like to know more about what it takes to ski in the backcountry, make decisions, and manage risk in avalanche terrain.  In the normal heliski program, our guides are always happy to share their thinking on safety, but there is usually little time to share the wisdom and decision making that goes on behind the scenes.

With the explosive popularity of backcountry touring and sidecountry (lift-serviced, gate-accessed out-of-bounds skiing), this line of questioning has a lot of merit.  To answer these questions, the CMH guides have decided to offer a program designed to share some of the deeper understanding experienced mountain guides have developed regarding the intricacies of avalanche avoidance.

Avalanche education terrain

The result is a new avalanche education program that is the first of its kind anywhere in the world.  Rob Whelan, the assistant manager of CMH Kootenay and 15 year veteran of professional-level avalanche course instruction, will be leading the new program.  I caught Rob between guide training and opening CMH Kootenay for the season.  I asked him a few questions about the new avalanche education program:

TD: What is the name of the new CMH avalanche education program?

RW: We are calling it Avi Skills 201 – though the program itself was developed by the CAA (Canadian Avalanche Association) and is called Avalanche Skills Training.  In the CMH version, part of our CMH Powder University education series, we will add helicopter transport to the CAA Avalanche Skills Training curriculum to vastly expand the terrain we are able to train in.

TD: Who is the intended audience for Avi Skils 201?

RW: This is an entry level program for skiers and snowboarders interested in avalanche safety.

TD: I can only image what CMH guides and a Bell 212 helicopter would add to an avalanche skills course.  What is the format of Avi Skills 201?

RW: We will do a couple of short indoor sessions each day, once in the morning and once in the evening, but the majority of the program will occur in the field, integrated into the heli-skiing day.  The program objectives include:

  • Understand the basics of avalanche formation and release.
  • Identify avalanche terrain.
  • Know the steps required to plan and carry out a trip.
  • Use the Avaluator™ as a decision-making tool in areas where trips are rated using the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) and where Avalanche Danger Ratings and Avalanche Bulletins are available.
  • Find resources for obtaining ATES terrain ratings if their trip is not rated.
  • Find resources for obtaining Avalanche Danger Ratings and Avalanche Bulletins if these are not available.
  • Use appropriate travel techniques in avalanche terrain.
  • Carry out a companion rescue.
  • Understand the limits of their training.

TD: How would you say this program is different from other avalanche education programs, or ski programs for that matter?

RW: The unique feature of the Avi Skills 201 program compared to a regular introductory course is the amount of terrain we will be able to access.  The helicopter makes it easy to move around and explore a wide variety of terrain, and give lots of opportunity for everyone to practice their decision-making skills.  Of course, we will get lots of great skiing at the same time – that’s why we are out there in the first place, after all!

TD: What is the length of the program?

RW: The program is 4 days out of the 5 day heliski trip, including two hours per day indoors ( 1 hour morning meeting and 1 hour after skiing) and all the rest of each day is spent out in the field.

TD: What is the cost?

RW: The cost of the program is $5550 CDN and includes all the course materials, food and lodging, and a guarantee of 71,000 vertical feet of heli-skiing.

TD: Sounds awesome.  Any other details people might like to know?

RW: The Avi Skills 201 program is only offered at CMH Kootenay, and will use the CMH Tenderfoot Lodge for indoors sessions, and the vast Selkirk Range at the field location.

When not leading heliskiers through the fantasy-land ski terrain of the Selkirks, Rob is involved with the CAA, a member of the CAA Technical Committee and and Instructor Training specialist.  Rob has been a heliski guide at CMH Kootenay since 1989.

Photo of CMH Kootenay ski terrain and Avi Skills 201 outdoor classroom by Topher Donahue.

For other questions about this exciting new avalanche education program, call CMH Reservations at 1 (800) 661-0252.


A Radio for Every Skier - The New CMH Standard


Starting this winter, every CMH guest will receive a radio to carry with them while they are skiing. After 46 winters of making safety the absolute priority at CMH, this standard-setting safety protocol is the natural next step in giving every skier the safest experience possible. 

Like the avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, the radio should be viewed as an extremely serious part of the system that makes backcountry travel far safer.  If your ski partner falls into a tree well, your ability to use the radio to call for help could save his or her life just as much as your ability to use the avalanche transceiver in case of an avalanche.

radios training heliskiing

Although using the radio, the Motorola CP200, seems easy at first glance, in the past some skiers have struggled with using the radio when they needed it.  Don’t be that guy.  Pay attention in the safety briefing and using the radio will be super easy.

Experienced CMH guests will be familiar with the responsibility of carrying and using a radio.  The guides and pilots use the same frequencies for the complicated logistics involved in orchestrating a day of heliskiing, so the radios are not to be used for unessential radio chatter.

DO NOT use the radio to say unnecessary things like:
“Bro, there’s some sick air to your left!”
“When’s lunch?”

USE the radio to communicate important things like:
“I just lost a ski, we’ll let you know when we find it.”
“I’m not sure which way to go.”

CMH uses two different carrying methods for the radio, a harness or a leash.  Most experienced guests prefer to bring a jacket with a high chest pocket, and use a leash and clip provided with the radio to secure the radio to a zipper.  At a cost of $400 each, losing or taking radios home should be avoided.

Each day, the guides will pass out the radios to their group in the morning, and then collect them in the evening to recharge for the next day.

This new safety protocol makes CMH one of the only heliski operators providing radios for every skier. 

 Information for this article was provided by Todd Guyn, CMH Mountain Safety Manager.

Airbags and Heliskiing – A Rapidly Changing Technology


If you get caught in an avalanche, pull the cord, stay on top of the debris, and when the snow stops moving just walk away and go ski another run.  Sound good?

Sounds really good.  Among a handful of avalanche survival technologies, airbags, now being referred to as Avalanche Floatation Devices (AFD) promise to be the biggest change since transceivers were invented in the early 70s.

airbags snowboarding heliskiing

In the Alps, where wide-open alpine terrain is the norm, airbags are demonstrating considerable effectiveness at helping people survive dangerous avalanches.  In North American ski terrain, however, where trees create both great skiing and dangerous obstacles, the efficacy of airbags is less well understood. 

Also, the helicopter creates an additional aspect of managing airbags.  Airbags are not allowed inside the helicopter – imagine an AFD deploying in a cabin full of skiers. While highly promising, the technology is evolving so quickly that CMH has not yet integrated airbags into the company’s required safety protocol.  AFDs  by  Snowpulse (shown in the above photo from CMH Cariboos) and ABS are available for rental by CMH guests. 

This coming winter, comprehensive airbag research will be conducted in North American ski terrain for the first time.  The device manufacturers will be paying close attention to both the results of the studies and the feedback from companies like CMH who are testing the utilitarian aspect of  AFDs in daily ski guiding operations.

Stay tuned.  Within a few years, some form of airbag technology will likely become as standard in a skier’s kit as transceivers, shovels and probes are today.  But even then, the best technique will be, as it always has been, to avoid the avalanche in the first place.

Visit the safety section of our website for more information.

Avalanche perspective from a heli-ski guru.


Here is a photo I took of an avalanche encounter that turned out just fine, but it was not part of a guided program and we ended up where we should not have been.

While skiing at CMH Revelstoke last week, the guides let us know, in no uncertain terms, that the avalanche conditions were very unstable.  We found ourselves ripping run after run of awesome powder, but the guides directed us exactly where to ride, chose terrain conservatively, and explained much of their thought process to us skiers and snowboarders.  However, I know there is much more going on behind the scenes so I asked Colani Bezzola, the Mountain Safety Manager for CMH and a 36-year veteran heli-ski guide, to share some insights into the system CMH uses to keep us safe out there.

TD: Most of the time while heli-skiing, we meet the guides, go skiing all day, and rarely do we see them dig pits or do much obvious snow stability testing while skiing.  Why is that?

CB: While guiding, we continuously observe the mountain, present and  recent avalanche activity, the weather,  how the snow reacts while skiing and while standing in it or while approaching certain terrain features. While guiding a group of skiers we may look at the surface snow layers and do some quick surface stability tests by ski cutting on top of rolls and by digging a quick test profile. Many of these actions and observations occur continuously even if they are not obvious to you. Being aware of your surroundings and elements is how guides stay alive during a life in the mountains. 

TD: So how do you fit more extensive snow profiles into the high-speed heli-ski program?

CB: To do more extensive snow profile observations and tests we need a bit more time.  On any given day, one guide in each area is designated as Snow Safety Guide.  He doesn't guide a group that day and dedicates his time in the field to check out terrain, runs, snowpack layers and changes with full snow profiles while also doing stability tests.  He may do avalanche control and testing with explosives, look for wind-transported snow, wind loaded pockets, and check out the skiing quality in terrain that we may not have visited for a while.

TD: From what I can tell, the guides feel that just because they bomb something, it is not necessarily safe to ski.  A bomb is pretty violent.  How could a slope slide on a skier after not sliding under the force of a bomb?

CB: We do very limited and selective avalanche control and testing with explosives compared to ski areas or road avalanche operations. Mostly we use explosives to protect helicopter landings and pick ups and remove potential avalanche threats that may run into skiing terrain.
  If we deploy explosive charges on a slope and it doesn’t slide, the questions always remain:

  • Have we applied the trigger (explosive) to the right spot?
  • Have we "tickled" the weakness, the "sweet spot"? 
  • How deep is the potential unstable layer and how stiff is the slab over it? 

If we cannot answer all these questions completely after a slope resists an explosive trigger, we tend to decide on the side of caution. From experience we know of avalanches that occurred naturally sometime after we deploy explosive charges, and without obvious additional trigger; as well as incidents where skiers (additional triggers) have found the "sweet spot" near places where explosives had been applied recently.

TD: Wow, snowpack is a feisty critter.  Can you briefly describe how CMH guides observe and record ongoing changes in the snowpack?

CB: All avalanche, stability tests, snowpack, snow profile and weather observations, hazard and risk assessments are captured in CMH's "SnowBase" database system, shared between all our heli-ski areas, which allows the guide teams to monitor, track and recall the developments in the avalanche, snowpack and hazard history for the winter and gives them a collective tool to help make the appropriate risk management decisions on a daily, run-by-run, and pitch-by-pitch basis.

TD: If somebody is interested in snow science and avalanche forecasts, can you suggest resources for them?



Backcountry Avalanche Awareness  Jamieson, Bruce. 1989, rev. 1997.  Canadian Avalanche Association. Revelstoke, Canada.

Free Riding in Avalanche Terrain, Jamieson, Bruce & Jennie McDonald.. 1999.  Canadian Avalanche Association. Revelstoke, Canada

The Avalanche Handbook,  Dave McClung and Peter Shaerer, 1993. Third edition, 2006.  Available from Mountaineers Books 

Snow Sense, A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard,  Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler, 1994,  The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA.

Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain,  Tremper, Bruce. 2001. The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA. 

Web Links:

Canadian Avalanche Centre

University of British Columbia Avalanche Research Group - central site for international avalanche information centres. 

Cyberspace Avalanche Centre

Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center

Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Utah Avalanche Center

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