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Skiing from the Sky

For Skiers Tired of Following Other People's Tracks, Heli-Skiing Takes Them Away from It All
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 3)

Safety is an important consideration in heli-skiing. Skiing is an inherently dangerous activity, and flying helicopters in the mountains in winter weather exacerbates the risks involved. Since these are not groomed ski areas, there is also the possibility of avalanches, a very real threat that should never be underestimated. On the other hand, many of the accidents that take place at conventional ski areas are the result of skiers going too fast on groomed or icy surfaces, falling on hard pack, and colliding with man-made objects and other skiers on crowded slopes, none of which are likely to happen while heli-skiing. Still, the major operators are extremely serious about safety and always up-front about the dangers.

"Safety drills are very intimidating," says Royer. "Every other word is death. There's a huge risk out there that no one is trying to hide, and we want to make sure that everyone is willing to assume it."

In the past few years, high-profile accidents have included a crash that injured supermodel Christie Brinkley and another that killed Frank Wells, then the president of Disney. Heli-skiing literature is full of waivers and warnings, and CMH's excellent publication, the "Heli-Skiing Handbook," tackles the safety issue before delving into anything else. The company is candid about the risks and detailed in its precautions. As the handbook states, "In spite of all of our efforts over more than 32 years, and 80,000 skier weeks, there have been 28 fatalities; 21 of these in seven avalanche accidents."

Every skier is given an avalanche transceiver, an electronic device that can be used to locate them in case they get buried in the snow. No one should go heli-skiing with an operator that does not provide these devices and explain how they are used. "We view a safety video, go through the equipment, shovels, avalanche probes, et cetera," says Woit. "Then we have a transceiver session and a helicopter safety orientation."

"Safety instruction begins long before they get in the helicopter," says von Neudegg. "It begins when they get their first information packets. They have a safety briefing on the bus from Calgary. Then we have additional briefings at the lodge." CMH employs aerial photography, and each evening employees at all the resort's lodges communicate with one another by radio, comparing data to ascertain weather and avalanche conditions.

Skiers selecting a heli-ski operator should be demanding when inquiring about safety. In addition to each guest's transceiver, each guide should carry a radio, a shovel and other essentials. Other standard precautions include using a buddy system when skiing among the trees. Do not hesitate to inquire about the guides' training. Many outfitters use only guides who have been certified by a body such as the International Association of Mountain Guides, which has stringent requirements. In addition to skiing and understanding snow conditions, these individuals are professional mountain guides, who are trained in climbing, evacuation, survival and first aid.

Weather plays an important role in heli-skiing, and despite the high price of the sport and guests' desire to ski, helicopters are sometimes grounded. Frequent skiers say they rarely lose more than one day a week to inclement weather, and CMH estimates that its areas have five or six days a year when flying isn't feasible. At these times other diversions, from curling to cross-country skiing, are provided; besides, the skiing can be so exhausting that some guests welcome a break. Ruby Mountain in Nevada uses snow-cats, motorized vehicles with treads, that make skiing possible even on the worst flying days.

The steep terrain and rocky peaks have given heli-skiing an extreme reputation, but this is far from accurate. The companies say that although many guests believe that heli-skiing is beyond their abilities, it is within the grasp of the strong intermediate. "Heli-skiing is not the place for beginners," says von Neudegg, "but the overwhelming majority of skiers are good enough to go. You should have been skiing regularly for at least four seasons, and be able to manage any terrain at your ski area."

Since the areas served by heli-skiing are so vast, there is terrain for many different abilities, and skiers are organized into groups accordingly. CMH and Wiegele offer introductory heli-skiing packages aimed at less accomplished skiers who need more individual attention. "It's not for someone who can barely get down a blue [intermediate] run," says Forte, "but an intermediate who can ski expert runs but doesn't do it with confidence can definitely go up there and have a wonderful time."

Still, some frequent skiers, including Fields, yearn for the old days, when the sport was more exclusive. "Right now there is a real problem with people who think they can cut it because of fat skis but still can't," he says. "Just because they have the money and are intermediate skiers, they think they can go up there and do well, and it's just not true. When you get people who [only] ski two or three times a year, they struggle. With the fat skis, people think, 'Now, surely I can do it.' Someone who is a borderline skier can ski more with fat skis because it's less fatiguing, but it doesn't necessarily make you a better skier."

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