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Why Heli?

OK, that’s it. The fun’s over. Turn off those helicopters and give me the keys. Helicopter skiing is too dangerous, too expensive, too remote, and too decadent. Burn those Miller Softs while you’re at it, too. Don’t worry—it’s for your own good. Sports Illustrated said so.

For a while last winter, it seemed as if the whole world was down on helicopter skiing. First, there was that heli-skiing story in SI in which the writer complained about, among other things, snow that was too deep, trees that were too thick, and blizzards that were too, well, blizzardy. Then, after an avalanche that killed nine people at Canadian Mountain Holidays’ Bugaboo Lodge, there were rumblings in B.C. to clamp restrictions on heli-operators. In a follow-up story on the tragedy, Sports Illustrated went to far as to urge that “Canadian authorities take a closer look at heli-skiing” and that standard liability waivers be disallowed, because heli-operators “would then have a strong incentive to emphasize safety.” Excuse me? You mean they don’t now?

What are we, Jell-o? Are we so helpless, hopeless, and spineless that we need to be looked after like newborns? Are we so unconcerned with our own safety that we need some surrogate mom to say, “Sorry, boys and girls, but that helicopter skiing’s just a tad dangerous for you. Why don’t you stay inside and play Battleship?

The fact is that helicopter skiing—indeed, skiing in general—takes place in the mountains. Mountains—they’re pretty wild places, remember? So wild that several hundred years ago travelers through the Alps would blindfold themselves to ward off the insanity that might come from gazing upon the gruesome magnitude around them. They are the home to uncountable dangers and endless ways to die, from crevasses to rockfalls to avalanches.

But, if you approach them carefully, they are also home to some of the most sublime moments in life. Only in the mountains will you experience the ethereal sensation of floating and flying at great speeds through the softest medium on earth. Only in the mountains will you feel the cold kiss of powder skiing. Only in the mountains will you see snow ghosts like the ones on this month’s cover, or sun dogs that burn in dancing ice crystals, or giant pyramid-shaped shadows cast by peaks against the clouds.

So, it’s an equation. On one side is risk, on the other, fun. The yin and yang of this should come as a surprise to no one, least of all to someone who loves powder skiing. The question is, is it worth it?

I think it is. I think the risks, while serious and potentially deadly, are no higher than those you face driving on a crowded freeway or walking the streets of Manhattan at night. Riding a bicycle around town without a helmet is, to my mind, infinitely more dangerous than helicopter skiing, yet how many people who never consider heli-skiing do that without a second thought?

Much of the fear of helicopter skiing comes from ignorance of the backcountry. Avalanches, tree wells, creekbeds, cornices, cliffs…all of these dangers can be minimized or eliminated by paying attention. The key is to listen to the guide, who knows more about mountain rhythms than you could ever hope to…and who has just as much incentive as you do to be alive at the bottom of the run. Be humble, and do what he or she says. Keep your eyes open. Listen to the mountains, too. Think about where you are and what can hurt you and what you can do to avoid being hurt.

If you do that, you will have some of the most beautiful experiences of your life. The peaks and ridges and valleys you visit and the turns you make will glow in your memory long after the fears are forgotten. Can you ask anything more of life?

First published in Powder Magazine, issue 20.3, November 1991. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.

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