Published: December 2004
No, you won't be jumping out of helicopters, which is what an astonishing number of people think when you tell them you're going heliskiing. Still, there are safer ways to vacation.
Hot-tubbing, for instance. From 1999 to 2003, the British Columbia Coroners Service recorded 13 hot-tub deaths-an average of 2.6 per year. During the same period, there were 14 heliskiing deaths in B.C., the world heliskiing capital. That's 2.8 per year, a number that would be far lower were it not for the January 2003 avalanche near Revelstoke in which seven skiers were killed.
Heliskiing will make few people's list of safe activities, but as risky pursuits go, it's almost disappointingly benign. The B.C. Coroners report noted averages of 6.4 snowmobiling deaths per year, 7.8 from hiking/climbing, 9.4 from fishing and 12.8 from swimming. Canadian Mountain Holidays, the world leader in heliskier visits, quotes safety statistics that are fairly reassuring. In 39 years, CMH guides have led some 7 million group descents. Nine ended in avalanche fatalities, which claimed 23 lives in all. Again, the numbersare inflated by one particularly tragic incident: A 1991 slide in the Bugaboos killed nine. Add six tree-well deaths and one crevasse fall, and that's the extent of CMH's skiing-related fatalities. Risky, but not reckless.
Ah, but what about helicopter crashes? Most skiers remember Christie Brinkley's 1994 brush with death in Telluride—and all the negative publicity it generated. She sprained her pretty wrist, but no one died. Since 1981, CMH has been leasing its Bell 212s from a company called Alpine Helicopters, which also provides pilots. In all of those years, there hasn't been a single crash.
Every one of CMH's guides is a member of the International Mountain Guide Association, and all 100 or so are out there all winter, assessing the snowpack and comparing detailed data. The vast majority of skiers killed in the backcountry are those who are traveling without a certified guide.
It comes down to this: Killing customers is bad for business, and not just because dead men don't heliski. When you put your life in the hands of a commercial heli operation, odds are they'll bring you back alive, out of self-interest if nothing else. Still, these outfits are known to have a shocking number of hot tubs. Be careful in there.