While not quite risk-free, heli skiing actually has some safety advantages over alpine skiing or resort ski trips. Many skiing accidents occur because of crowded conditions on slopes -- that's not a problem with heli skiing. Also, beginner skiers are more likely to get hurt due to inexperience, but it's the more advanced skiers who are the likeliest to heli ski. Heli skiers also have a guide nearby, not to mention rather prompt access to an emergency airlift should one be needed.
Heli ski operations and the guides they employ take safety very seriously. In British Columbia, only 54 people have died from the beginning of heli-skiing in the early 1960s to 2000 [source: Fry].
Pilots hired by heli ski operators should have loads of experience and flight hours and familiarity with the terrain. They must account for wind, quickly changing weather conditions, whiteout conditions and high altitude, all while making multiple takeoffs and landings each day with changing weight loads. You should feel free to ask about pilots' qualifications when you're making inquiries or reservations -- every reputable heli ski company will be happy to brag about its pilots.
Guides should be qualified and trained in first aid (many boast Wilderness First Responder, Outdoor Emergency Care and EMT training), have mountaineering certification, and have experience with the mountain range you're skiing.
Many countries have heli ski associations (such as HeliCat Canada or Heli Ski U.S.) that work to educate operators, guides and pilots on the latest safety techniques. Professional heli ski associations also establish industry-wide protocols for aircraft safety, operating procedures, and pilot qualifications and training.
Before your first trip, you'll be given a pre-flight helicopter safety lesson to orient you to your new mode of transportation such as the operation of the seat belts, how to exit in an emergency and the best way to avoid getting decapitated while boarding or disembarking.
All skiers should have personal transponders so they can be located in an avalanche. Other safety gear may include:
- avalanche probe and beacon
- snow shovel
- two-way radio
- safety harness
- locking carabiner
Different heli-ski operations have different rules or site-specific instructions about the amount and type of gear you can bring, so be sure to cover this with them before you leave for your trip.
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