Avoiding Collisions While Heliskiing
It was in CMH Gothics. It had been snowing for weeks. The snow was cold, light, white, deep perfection. Everyone in the group was skiing really strong and having the time of their lives.
I was skiing a sweet fall line along the edge of a patch of trees when suddenly something hit me in the side really hard. I was knocked off my feet, flew through the air, and tumbled into the snow.
After getting up slowly, I checked to see if I was ok. I was slightly dizzy and my shoulder throbbed, but considering the force of the collision I felt lucky. Then I tried to figure out what happened. Lying in the snow next to me was my ski buddy, a good skier who was in the Gothics as a ski model to help with photos. We had collided at high speed but he was also uninjured. We were both lucky.
In talking about it later, we realized that neither one of us had seen the other until the moment of collision. It wasn’t like one of us had been trying to scoop the line or cut the other off. Afterwards, I thought a lot about what had happened and what had caused the collision and what could be done to prevent collisions.
What caused the collision:
- Different perspectives of the fall line. You always feel like you are going straight down, even when you’re angling slightly to one side.
- Terrain. My friend had been skiing in the trees next to where I was skiing in the open. He turned into the open at the exact second when I arrived there.
- Speed. While you may have a good handle on your own velocity, when you combine it with someone else’s speed the sum is a velocity that is beyond our ability to react.
- Perception. The great thing about heliskiing is that it feels like you have the mountain to yourself much of the time. However, there are other people on the mountain, always nearby.
How we could have avoided the collision:
- Slow down at transitions. As I neared the trees, a natural bottle-neck, I should have anticipated that other strong skiers would likely be arriving there at similar times, and my friend should have slowed down when moving from the trees into the open where other skiers would almost surely be skiing.
- Give each other more space. We left the top of the run skiing right next to each other, so it is no surprise that we ended up near the bottom in the same place.
- Check blind spots. We were both wearing helmets and goggles, which was lucky because our heads slammed together with alarming force, but helmets and goggles also block peripheral vision. If either of us had checked our blind spots at the transition, we might have avoided the crash. With snowboarders, a common excuse skiers give for collisions is that "snowboarders have a blind spot". Well, skiers have blind spots too, a big one on each side.
- Take it easy near other skiers. The snow had been so good that we all felt invincible. There are good times to let it rip and times to take it easy. We should have been taking it easy.
I’ve seen dangerous collisions in both trees and on wide-open slopes. Every time it is a similar story – two skiers start perfectly in control, but the pattern of two skier’s turns gets closer and closer, until they meet violently, way more quickly than either skier anticipated.
Although not the culprit in my collision, most of the collisions I’ve seen have been when someone approaches the regroup and falls or runs into a skier who is standing still. Speed in the mountains is deceiving – begin stopping about twice as far above of the group as you think you need.
Photo of skiers giving each other space to play in CMH Cariboos.