By Paddy O’Connell
There exists both a sincere desire and an obvious need for the standardization of safety protocols within the heli-skiing industry, especially in the great wilds of Alaska. What is unclear is what those standards should look like and who should set them.
Alaska has been home to helicopter-skiing operations for almost 40 years, and with every heli segment that lights up the screen in a ski film, the public froths to claim an AK spine. But a recent spike in on-mountain deaths has led to both public and governmental pressure for change.
Most observers agree there’s a need for standardized protocols—rules by which all operators abide so that clients and guides are safe and the playing field is level for competing operations. But the specter of increased government regulation worries many operators, who think they know best what standards are and aren’t needed. Their hope is to guide the process to a conclusion that enhances safety and oversight while still allowing them to operate profitably and show guests a good time.
The deaths of three guides and one client in the last three seasons have prompted calls for action. Nickolay Dodov was a 26-year-old snowboarder killed along with his guide, Rob Liberman, in a March 13, 2012, avalanche on Takhin Ridge near Haines, Alaska; his parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the heli operation, Alaska Heliskiing LLC. At the same time they created the nonprofit Nickolay Dodov Foundation, calling for sanctions against Alaska Heliskiing as well as industry-wide safety improvements and increased diligence on the part of government agencies charged with oversight. Also in the wake of the Dodov-Liberman accident, the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Administration began auditing heli-ski operators in an effort to review safety protocols and create standardized operating procedures, although that review process seems to have stalled, with no date yet scheduled for resumption.
The industry group Heli Ski US, a nonprofit corporation made up of some, though not all, of the heli-skiing operators in the United States, hopes to help shape the process of standardizing heli safety rules and enforcement. Its stated aim is to standardize credentials and “establish the highest safety and operating standards in the helicopter skiing industry.” To that end, it has publicly shared its own safety protocols, called the Helicopter-Skiing Safety & Operating Guidelines, a formerly proprietary 43-page document, in hopes that it might establish a baseline. Last year it created the Mechanized Guide School, where prospective guides can learn safety tactics and techniques for heli-skiing.
HSUS president Kevin Quinn, who owns Points North Heli-Adventures in Cordova, Alaska, has said the organization is working hand-in-hand with OSHA to improve safety, though there is concern about the “big dark shadow” an outside agency casts. “If we don’t set these standards then someone else will,” Quinn says. “We’re the pros. We should be setting the standard.”
OSHA oversight and compliance with new rules could mean additional costs to heli operations, as well as possible fines, sanctions, and shutdowns in the event of accidents or violations. But Quinn says he and other HSUS members are cooperating in spite of their trepidations. “We are working with them while they are helping us. And in turn, we are educating them,” he says.
HSUS represents only a portion of Alaskan and Lower 48 operators. Nonmembers set their own safety protocols, which vary. Quinn has complained in the past that the lack of uniform guidelines allows startup companies to cut corners, spending less on safety. “This shoestring approach creates an uneven playing field,” he wrote in a 2014 Avalanche Review article. “Existing operators place themselves at a competitive disadvantage to newcomers who have not made similar investment.”
HSUS members submit to semiannual reviews, must adhere to protocols and guidelines, and operate with 270 years of combined experience, Quinn says. “We’re not better than anyone else. But we do operate under the same umbrella, so it makes us safer—as safe as you can be out there. We’d like to see all the great operators join us.”
But not everyone in Alaska wants to. Dean Cummings, owner and lead guide of Valdez’s H2O Guides, left HSUS, citing what he felt was a blatant failure of the association to live up to its own protocols. “Standards help, and that’s great, but that’s not what was happening,” Cummings says. He claims that a lack of permit enforcement by HSUS, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and local legal authorities has led to a “cowboy attitude” in Alaska and, he argues, preventable deaths. “The state has no standard. They’ve ignored infractions and failed to cite companies, even after deaths. I’m here to protect my operation, my permit, and our industry.”
Aaron Brill, owner of Silverton Mountain Guides, the largest heli-skiing operator in the U.S., with services in Alaska and Colorado, employs safety standards he feels surpass the industry norm. “I don’t want an organization holding me back from the highest level of safety I feel is necessary,” Brill says. “I want to define that. Bureaucratic processes take years to implement. Change needs to happen quickly.”
Brill preaches professionalism, observational awareness in avalanche terrain, and continued practical education and training. He designed an avalanche certification and training program, called Practical Protocols for Snow Professionals, to set a new standard where he feels traditional avalanche Level 2 and 3 curricula have failed, even those of the American Mountain Guides Association. “AMGA guides aren’t always qualified for high level, high consequence top-down guiding. That isn’t how they’re trained. Their standard doesn’t fit what we do.”
It seems that most everyone in the industry agrees on the need for standard safety protocols to be used by all heli-skiing operations. There’s also seemingly broad agreement on the need for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to enforce more stringent qualifying requirements for permit applicants. Quinn: “It’s just not that hard to get an op going.” The more colorful Cummings: “Any idiot with a fistful of hundreds, a heli, and a downloaded safety plan can get a permit.”
Tragedy births grief and, in this case, hopefully, reform. The “why” behind the deaths in recent seasons is pehaps not as important as the “what”: what happened, what could have been prevented, and what needs to change.
Increased media exposure and access to thousands of vertical feet of untracked steeps has led to increased demand in Alaska. Heli skiing there expresses our untamable spirit of adventure, but that spirit needs guidelines, and those guidelines need to be uniform. Clients and guides deserve a unified effort by all parties involved, from operators to agencies. Because, in the end, what’s better than untracked powder skiing is getting safely home after.