The Heli-Skiing evolution of the ski basket
“It’s a thing of beauty.” Said Dave Cochrane, the manager of CMH Bugaboos, when I asked him what he thought about the new ski baskets that were installed on Alpine Helicopter’s fleet of Bell 212 helicopters in the last few years.
It may be hard to believe that something as dialed as the CMH Heli-Skiing system would need to change something as simple as the ski basket, but the story of the ski basket, like much of the Heli-Skiing story, is long and colorful. The heli-ski ski basket has gone through an evolution every bit as significant than the evolution in snowboard, ski and snow safety technology.
To begin with, the ever innovative ski guides and pilot Jim Davies attached to the skids a simple ski rack designed for an automobile, and strapped the the skis and poles to the rack with bungie cords. (Photo at right. Note the extra gas can strapped to the side of the helicopter - there were no fuel caches in those days.) While this method would never fly (so to speak) in the modern world of safety-obsessed Heli-Ski companies and oversight from Transport Canada that has to approve every detail of air transport, it was a workable solution in 1965.
After the car ski rack was retired, the first real ski basket turned out to have a serious safety flaw. They began using a basket built to fit the helicopter - but the basket had no lid. Jim Davies explained that they figured it would work fine because when they were lifting the group to the top, the airspeed and rotor wash would tend to pin the skis in the basket, and in those days nobody ever flew back to the lodge. Instead, they always skied to the bottom of the valley or to the lodge at the end of the day, so there were never skis in the basket while the helicopter was flying downwards.
Then one day a tired skier wanted to go in early. As the helicopter quickly lost eleveation, the skis were lifted out of the basket by the airflow, and flew through the rotor. The skis were chopped in half like a carrot hit by a machete, and the skis carved a dinner plate-sized chunk out of the rotor. The pilot, none other than the original Heli-Ski pilot Jim Davies, mustered his considerable skills and managed to land the wobbly and aerodynamically compromised machine safely at the lodge.
The next basket was built to handle the speed, power and safety of modern Heli-Skiing, and it served the industry well for decades - until we changed the dimensions of the tools we use to ride the pow.
Fat skis and snowboards came along, pushing the well-designed little basket to overflowing, and requiring the most recent basket design change (above) which accommodates our larger boards without sacrificing aerodynamics and weight. The new basket required years of design innovation and approval from Transport Canada, and each one costs upwards of $15,000. But it seems the new ski basket can handle the high standards of safety, equipment and efficiency that we’ve all come to expect from the modern world of CMH Heli-Skiing.