The Heli-Ski Blog

Disturbing tree skiing rumors in Heli-Skiing debunked

Posted by Topher Donahue on Jan 8, 2013 8:01:00 AM

Last night I heard a horrifying rumor about Heli-Skiing in British Columbia. One of the CMH Heli-Skiing staff was enjoying herself in the lithium-rich springs of the Halcyon Hot Springs Resort, the legendary springs where the CMH Nomads South program is based, and she heard someone say:

“I’ve heard that when Heli-Skiing the snow is so deep they simply lose people up there.”

Wow. I spent three years researching a book, Bugaboo Dreams, that tells the story of Heli-Skiing from its invention by CMH Heli-Skiing in the mid 60s through the state of the art today.  In the process I interviewed dozens of guides, including competitors of CMH, attended guides training, and went through accident statistics with the president of CMH. I heard hundreds of stories, and never did I hear even a whisky-induced whisper of a skier getting lost in the deep snow.

It makes me think that people who have never been Heli-Skiing must have the most outrageous and inaccurate perception of what we do out there. One of the greatest unknowns is how skiers avoid getting lost in the fantastical tree skiing terrain of the Columbia Mountains that CMH Heli-Skiing calls home. 

Well, here’s how it works:

tree skiing safetyThe Track. When a ski goes through fresh powder snow, it leaves a really obvious track, so the guide leaves a pronounced trail all the way down the hill. Then the next skier leaves a track next to the guide's track. And so on. Stay close to the guide’s track, and it is virtually impossible to get lost.

Guide Instructions. When a run enters the trees, or the guide reaches a place where he or she plans to traverse or enter new terrain, they stop and give instructions.

For example: “The group ahead of us skied to our left, so I’m going to ski to the right of their tracks leaving space for you on my left. Stay to the left of my tracks. When we break out of the trees into a meadow, stay to the left to the heli pickup. Stay left of my tracks and you can't go wrong.”

The Buddy System. Early in the day, the guide asks everyone to pick a ski buddy to ski with in the trees. For the rest of the day everyone skis in teams of two, or sometimes three if there are odd numbers, while following the guide. The buddy system consists of five important aspects:

  1. Take turns going first - just because it’s really fun going first.
  2. The first skier leads the way, keeping an eye on the guide’s tracks and listening for the second skier. 
  3. The second skier yodels, whistles, cheers, yelps, howls, sings, whoops, and makes noise frequently so the first skier can hear that everything is ok.
  4. If the first skier suddenly stops hearing the second skier. STOP IMMEDIATELY. If the first skier falls over, it should be obvious to the second skier...
  5. Most of the time, the other skier shows up and you both carry on down the hill. If the second skier doesn’t show up really soon, CALL ON THE RADIO for the other skiers in the group to watch for them.  Usually, they have just fallen, and are searching for a ski or pole, and a little help from another skier can save a lot of waiting and exhausting work.

The buddy system is so important because tree wells are a very real danger in tree skiing; a hazard not unique to Heli-Skiing. Any backcountry areas or ski resorts with deep powder have tree well hazards, and using these techniques anytime while skiing deep powder in the trees is a good idea.

Tree wells form around trees, where the falling snow is pushed away from the trunk of the tree by its branches. The tree forms a hole in the snow called a tree well. If the snow is four metres deep, the tree well can also be four metres deep.

While deep powder skiing in the trees, be it in a resort, while ski touring, cat skiing or heli-skiing, change your technique around trees:

  • Don’t stop right above a tree - It is easy to tip over while trying to stop, so stop with at least a couple of body lengths of space between you and the nearest tree in your fall line.
  • Don’t turn right above a tree if you can help it - Often you can turn a little earlier, or wait a bit to turn below the tree, or go straight into a clearing, to avoid a hard turn directly above a tree.
  • Take it easy - You’re going to get more powder turns than you can imagine in a day of Heli-Skiing. No need to squeeze in that last turn before a group of trees. Instead, give the trees a wide berth.
CMH Heli-Skiing guides are almost uncanny at helping skiers in the trees and showing everyone a good time. We’ve skied in snow so deep that we step out of the helicopter and sink up to our armpits. Our areas see nearly 50 feet of snow each winter. We’ve skied when it’s snowing so hard that we ski back to the lodge rather than use the helicopter for the last flight, but we’ve never, ever, in 48 years of Heli-Skiing, had the snow so deep that we “simply lose people up there.”

Photo of tree buddies during an epic storm cycle at CMH Galena by Topher Donahue.

Topics: Tree skiing, CMH Guides, CMH Experts, Tricks of the Trade, safety, heli-skiing, powder skiing