Last year’s Canadian avalanches called "unusual"
Canadian heli-ski tour operators usually find easy pickings in the High Country when it comes to recruiting customers. But a variety of factors – including last winter’s record number of avalanche deaths – have created uncertainty about this season.
There were 30 fatalities related to avalanches in British Columbia and Alberta last winter. Only one involved a customer on a heli-ski tour. The other accidents killed backcountry skiers, some on professionally guided tours, and snowmobilers.
It remains to be seen if the accidents have a chilling effect on business this winter, acknowledged Reid Christopher, a senior guide with Selkirk Tangiers, a 26-year-old heli-ski outfit based in Revelstoke, B.C. Selkirk Tangiers has traditionally been popular with residents of the Roaring Fork Valley and Vail area.
Up to now it’s relied only on word-of-mouth to draw customers. But for the first time Christopher is taking a slide show on the road to promote heli-skiing and his company. It’s partly out of opportunity – he’s visiting his girlfriend in Colorado – and partially due to tougher times in the industry.
Christopher said his company wasn’t involved in any avalanches last winter, but two of the most horrific accidents occurred in mountains the firm shares with ski tour operators. Selkirk Tangiers leases 1,500 square miles of land from the Canadian government.
One of the worst accidents occurred on Jan. 26 when seven strong and experienced backcountry skiers were killed in the northern Selkirks. A group on a professionally guided trip led by Selkirk Mountain Expeditions had split into two parties. A triggered avalanche buried eight of the 11 skiers in the lower party. Two men with Aspen connections were on the trip, but neither was hurt.
A natural slide in the Selkirks buried a school group from Calgary on Feb. 1, killing seven. Christopher said guides from the company he works for got involved in the rescue efforts with that avalanche.
Despite extensive experience studying snow conditions and working in avalanche control, as well as guiding for 13 winters with Selkirk Tangiers, last year’s events “certainly were cause for reflection when you’re out there 100-plus times,” Christopher said.
But he also believes snow conditions were an anomaly. “In more than 20 years, I’ve only seen only one other year like it,” he said.
Typically the Interior Range, about 100 miles west of the Canadian Rockies, gets heavy, wet Pacific snowfall. That solidifies the snowpack and generally makes it safer than in the Rockies. But sparse early snow created a weak snowpack that never solidified during the season.
For whatever reason – the avalanches or weak international economy and strong Canadian dollar – business didn’t boom last season. “I would like to think avalanches weren’t responsible for the downturn,” Christopher said.
Basalt resident Mike Taets has gone on 11 heli-ski trips with Selkirk Tangiers. The accidents last year aren’t scaring away him or the group of locals he travels with. He said he knows the company’s guides have extensive training on snow conditions and experience in the backcountry.
“I’m extremely comfortable with [our guide],” Taets said. “He’s not going to put us in a situation where we can get killed.”
But Taets acknowledged that there is always a danger when skiing the backcountry. Heli-ski tour customers must take some responsibility for their decisions.
Taets said he often organizes trips that include 10 other locals. Selkirk Tangiers gives groups the 11th spot free if there are 10 paying customers.
Last year Taets couldn’t fill a group. He’s uncertain if he can this year for a trip in January. He blames the economy, not the avalanches.
“It’s tougher to put a group together than five, six years ago,” he said.
Heli-ski trips aren’t cheap. Seven-day packages, which include a hotel room, meals and helicopter shuttles, cost $4,200 for low season and $6,200 for high season. Three-day packages are $2,100 for low season and $3,000 for high season.
But for many skiers, the experience is well worth the price. Christopher said his company experiences an 80 percent return rate among customers, possibly because of one simple promise: Customers on the seven-day trips are guaranteed 100,000 vertical feet.