Heliski Safety and Guides
The heliski industry is primarily self-governed. There are industry associations that develop and encourage standards for the heliskiing industry. In Canada it is HeliCat Canada Association. This trade association “promotes the continual improvement of the industry through research, education, advocacy and overseeing a trade accreditation program.” HeliCat Canada sets strict standards for its members and ensures that they meet them through audits of their operating procedures. To date they have been very successful at self regulation and have a very good safety record.
HeliCat Canada Heliski Members:
Canada and US are the gold standard. Hopefully, others will follow. In other countries, exercise extreme caution. Ask lots of questions.
One of the critical points to consider is Guide Qualifications. HeliCat Canada recognizes ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) and the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide’s Associations) of which the ACMG is the Canadian member. John Forrest, GM and Lead Guide at Northern Escape Heliskiing, explains that ACMG requires many years of training and experience, “Most heli ski guides have spent a lifetime advancing their skills and the trade of guiding mechanized skiing. In heli skiing, specifically, the pace at which you move through what may be vast and differing terrain and snowpacks leads to a very challenging decision making matrix. This requires a vast amount of mountain experience to do well. The more the better.”
HeliCat Canada also recently recognized the Canadian Ski Guide Association – CSGA.
On the first day of a heliskiing trip, clients receive detailed safety briefing and training. Some include video and/or slides, as well as field training. Among the most important topics are backcountry risks and how to ameliorate them. This includes how to recognize and reduce avalanche threats. Avalanche procedures are explained and practiced. This includes training and practice with avalanche beacons.
Clients learn how to wear, operate and maintain avalanche beacons. Guides will check to make sure all beacons are set to ‘send.’ In the event of an avalanche, everyone in the group turns their beacon from send to receive, which is extremely important. Then the systematic search protocol is explained and practiced. Guides bury a beacon and the group practices search and recovery in a controlled outdoor setting. Most importantly, make sure the others in your group pay attention, as they will be the ones digging you out….
Many operators now provide or rent avalanche airbag systems. In the event of an avalanche these devices significantly decrease the chances of being buried.
Use of probes, shovels and radios is part of the training as well. Typically all of these will be carried in the backpack of every client. That is a good place for an extra pair of gloves, goggles, neck gator and maybe a thin vest.
Finally, guests learn how to act around and in the helicopter. In addition, loading and unloading procedures are explained. Listen to the do’s and don’ts for the safety and enjoyment over everyone. Every guest needs to know the location of emergency equipment and how to use it.
Guides begin their day with safety review and forecasts. Heliski operators share data on snow conditions and stability. Guides combine assimilate this information and detailed weather and avalanche forecasts. This information is used to formulate plans for the day, including what aspects and slopes offer the safest and best skiing, and which to avoid. Throughout the day, guides continuously monitor snow conditions, including digging pits to check for depth and stability of snow layers. They may seem relaxed and casual, but the guides are constantly evaluating risks, and how to minimize them.
Many operators in the US belong to Heli-Ski US Association. These members “work cooperatively to help establish the highest safety and operating standards in the helicopter skiing industry.”
Members of Heli-Ski US:
Alaska Snowboard Guides
Chugach Powder Guides
High Mountain Heli Skiing
Majestic Heli Ski
North Cascade Heli
Points North Heli-Adventures, Inc.
Ruby Mountain Heli-Skiing
Sun Valley Heli Skiing
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge
Valdez Heli Ski Guides
Wasatch Powderbird Guides