Ready for Takeoff?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Destinations, March 1999


Ready for Takeoff?
Required reading for any would-be heli-skier

By Susan Reifer

In April of last year, after three weeks of storms, the Chugach Mountains near Valdez, Alaska, were ù as the regulars put it ù stacked to the max, their spiky summits loaded with snow. Nearby motels were filled with skiers and snowboarders who'd thronged to the spring powder haven to experience helicopter skiing's most radical big-mountain descents. Everyone was twitch with desire, lusting for the rush of the super-steeps. but a thin layer of surface hoar, snow crystals that make slopes more likely to avalanche, had formed earlier in the month and now lay lurking under the new feet of white. On the day the weather finally cleared, only the heli-ski guides stood between the fired-up masses and the still unstable snowpack.

"When you've had a big storm, everybody is champing at the bit," says Doug Coombs, two-time winner of the World Extreme Skiing Championships and owner of Valdez Heli-Ski Guides. "But you have to start slow." In fact, no one was

Get Smart
Every winter in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, the American Avalanche Institute (307-733-3315) offers two- to five-day avalanche-safety courses for skiers and snowboarders. Tuition runs from $155 to $475. From December through mid-April, American Alpine Institute (360-671-1505) takes groups of up to four skiers for six days in California's Sierra Nevada or Colorado's San Juans. For $790 to $1,440, you'll learn transceiver use, avalanche assessment, and rescue techniques. Finally, for more exotic instruction, sign on for a week in La Grave ($1,995) or Verbier ($2,495) with Doug Coombs' Steep Skiing Camps Worldwide ([email protected]).
willing to stay off the slopes that day, which soon became known as Black Monday. Reports on what occurred vary, but it's clear that all four Valdez operators ventured out and most triggered significant avalanches; luckily, no one was killed. An H2O Heli Adventures Guide was buried but saved by a quick rescue. Teton Gravity Research filmmaker Steve Jones, flying with Valdez Heli-Camps, was also buried and rescued. And one of Coombs's clients was reportedly dragged by rampaging snow. Less fortunate were a pair of skiers who, two weeks earlier, walked out onto a cornice while their Alaska Backcountry Adventures guide ù a newcomer to the outfit who was working alone ù helped other clients. The cornice broke and one skier died.

Of course, no backcountry guiding operation is immune to accidents. But what many consumers fail to realize is that in the United States, unlike Europe, no regulatory body oversees ski guiding. Which means that anyone, regardless of qualifications, can hang a shingle.

Nowhere is this fact more sobering than in Valdez, where heli-skiing's rising popularity has far outpaced the supply of qualified, Chugach-experienced guides. As recently as 1995, you could simply buy a $35 ski-plane ride from the town's sole operator and get dropped into the backcountry without a guide. (At most destination lodges in British Columbia, by contrast, clients pay $4,000 for all-inclusive ski weeks and are always accompanied by at least one guide.) Today, six Valdez-area operators are jostling for dollars during the March-to-May season, with new guiding businesses spring up every year.

The Preflight Check

Before booking with any heli-ski outfit, advises Peter Lewis, executive director of the Colorado-based American Mountain Guides Association, "Do a lot of homework." Start by calling the prospective operator and firing off questions. How long has it been in business? Has it had any accidents and, if so, under what circumstances? And, most important, what experience and training is required of its guides? (It's also not a bad idea to be put in touch with a previous client, assuming he's not the owner's best buddy.)

Next, ask about daily safety practices. How often do the guides dig snow pits to help them assess the stability of the snow? (Best answer: daily.) Do they keep detailed records of the season's snow observations? (The should.) Do guides debrief each other regularly? (The best ones do it in the morning and again at night.) Do both guides and clients carry avalanche beacons, probes, and shovels? Do guides familiarize clients with search-and-rescue basics? (On both counts, they must.)

Once you've signed up, arrived, and been assigned a guide, it's a good idea to check into his or her background as well ù a simpler project north of the border, thanks to the Canadian Ski Guide Association. Founded by renowned B.C. operator Mike Wiegele, the CSGA is the only group to train folks specifically for heli- and Sno-Cat guiding; its rigorous requirements include two years' apprenticeship, advanced first aid, and coursework ranging from crevasse rescue to group management. Certainly many American guides are as qualified as their Canadian counterparts ù even now in Valdez, operators are establishing voluntary standards ù but the only way you'll know about yours is to gently interrogate. And remember, if an operator or guide is offended by your questions, or gives vague or blustery answers, take it as a red flag.

Finally, be sure you've been interviewed, too: Operators should ask about your backcountry experience, skiing or boarding level, and familiarity with search and rescue tools. If you haven't been quizzed, that's yet another sign that the outfit's more interested in your credit limit than your safety.

Janeiro for Less Dineiro
If ever you've dreamed of canoeing the Amazon or gawking at Copacabana, this may be your chance. Unprecedented bargain airfares both to and within Brazil are expected in the wake of the country's final round of airline deregulation. And the timing couldn't be better: March typically brings perfect beach weather and blissful, post-Carnaval quiet. At press time, round-trip tickets from Miami to Rio were running about $500, but poised to drop steadily in predicted price wars. The best source for checking current fares on all local airlines is the rather grandly named Brazilian American Cultural Center (800-222-2746), which is in fact a travel agency.

Ups and Downs
While it hasn't been a banner year for western powder, it's been a good year for western deals, as several resorts followed early season discounting by Vail Associates. (The predictable exception: Aspen, which blithely hiked lift tickets to $63.) This spring, the deals continue. A sampling of the best:

Lake Tahoe: On April 1, Heavenly Ski Area (702-588-4584) launches an ultrareasonable midweek package: four nights' motel lodging, breakfasts, and a three-day lift ticket for $209 per person. For an extra $100, stay at the swank Tahoe Seasons Hotel.

Vail: Starting April 11, lift tickets drop to $45, $16 less than in peak season. And after Easter, doubles at West Vail Lodge (970-476-3890) plummet from $212 to $79 a night.

Utah: Through April 28, if you fly in on Southwest (800-435-9792), kids under 11 fly ù and stay ù free. From the D.C. area, for example, two adults and a child can jet to Salt Lake, spend four nights in a three-star Park City hotel, rent a car, and ski three days at Park City or Alta for only $1,429.

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