Helmets and heli-skiing: a guide's perspective
“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.