The Heli-Ski Blog

A Heliski Guru's Ultimate Avalanche Education Course

Posted by Topher Donahue on Dec 14, 2011 10:01:00 AM

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.


Topics: Product Information, Mountain Guide, Educational Travel, safety, CMH Kootenay, Avalanche Safety, sidecountry