Heli Skiing Safety
Pursuing anything has inherent risks; driving a car, leaving the house, or hopping in an airplane can all lead to life-changing events. But we do it anyway. Skiing and snowboarding in the mountains isn’t much different; an inherent risk is involved. The probability of something going wrong is probably higher than if you sit on your couch all day, but falling and hurting yourself can happen just about anywhere.
To think that heli skiing is too dangerous for your average Joe or Jane to pursue is pure myth. When looking at the safety records of heli skiing in Canada, you’ll find there is little evidence to skip the incredible experience of heli skiing. Statistically it’s incredibly safe. And for the most part, it’s a risk well worth taking.
Heli Ski Safety Statistics
Back in 2019 the first extensive study of heli and cat operators by Simon Fraser University expert Pascal Haegeli drew on 713 incident reports from 3,258,000 skier days between 1970 to 2016. They found that for the duration of the study there were 19.4 deaths per million skier days for heli skiing and 16.2 deaths per million skier days for cat skiing.
Fantasy Versus Reality
So you saw the latest ski porn flick; it had guys jumping out of helicopters onto steep Alaskan chutes that were one continuous no-fall zone. This is not reality. Sure, if you’re a sponsored pro and that’s what you want to do (and are capable of it) the heli ski operation may entertain your ideas. But that’s not a three-day heli ski package you buy over the internet. For the average heli skier, you’ll be paired with like-minded skiers and snowboarders, made to ski at all times with a guide and never go beyond the boundaries they set for you.
The Right Stuff
Most heli ski operators won’t let you ride or ski without having the right gear with you. This will include an avalanche transceiver. These devices allow guides to find you should an avalanche occur. You’ll be trained to use one before getting in the chopper. You’ll also be issued a shovel and a probe to help look for others should they be caught in a slide. You’ll be trained to use those too. And if that isn’t enough, many operators offer AFD (Avalanche Floatation Devices) rentals. Some operators ensure every skier and snowboarder has a two-way radio so they can always communicate with guides no matter where you are on the mountain.
Heli Ski Guides and Safety Protocols
No matter which outfit you’re skiing with, you’ll always be with at least one guide. These girls and guys are hardcore lovers of the mountains that have absolutely worked their butts off to get where they are.
If your guide is an ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) qualified guide then he/she/they spent an incredible amount of time getting there. The prerequisites to even start on this program are a CAA Professional Level 1 Avalanche course and an 80-hour wilderness first aid course. From there they need to pass multiple exams, including a 9-day apprenticeship exam in remote glacial terrain. The final exam is even harder and the entire process takes 3-to-5 years to complete.
Simply put, heli-skiing guides are seriously qualified. ACMG accredited guides even more so. If you’re concerned about your heli-ski outfit’s safety record, ask about their guides.
Probably the most dangerous part of any heli ski trip is the snowpack. Avalanches are the most dangerous part of your day out here, so everyone involved in each operation takes meticulous notes and pays attention to the forecast and snowpack information available. If you want to stay informed, websites like avalanches.ca can help douse (or ignite) your concerns.
Every heli skiing operation worth their salt takes safety seriously. Major operators dedicate entire sections of their website to the safety concerns of potential skiers and riders. But it goes way beyond a simple web page. The reputable operators put money where their mouth is by hiring the most qualified guides, providing extensive training and ensuring every guest has the latest and greatest safety equipment.
If you want an unbiased opinion from a non-operator, try contacting Helicat Canada, the trade association of Canadian helicopter and snowcat skiing. Contact them with any concerns you have about going heli skiing.
The Helicopters and Pilots
Flying a helicopter in the mountains is no joke. That’s why most heli ski operators hire experienced pilots with a history and a track record. Many try to hire the same pilots year after year, so they become familiar with the terrain and the varying conditions.
Strict guidelines and regulations ensure helicopters are well maintained. While few operators own and maintain their helicopters, some do. Ask about their safety guidelines. Other operators partner with local helicopter companies; ask who they partner with and if you’re concerned give them a call too before booking your trip.
It Never Hurts to Ask
If you’re looking into a heli skiing trip, there’s no reason you can’t straight up ask the operator about safety measures and records. Use the above notes to formulate a list of questions you want answers to. You’re about to spend a lot of money with whatever operator you’ve decided on, and part of them making the sale is making you feel safe. If you aren’t satisfied with their answers, move on to the next operator.