“Bear Valley, CA Resident Teaching ‘Know Before You Go’ Avalanche Awareness to Californian Schools and Ski Resorts” SnowBrains Media-AvyBrains/September 10, 2018

Chilkat Valley News – Editorial by Tom Morphet; Four heli-skiing deaths in Haines since 2012 are an unacceptable toll.

CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS

Volume XLIV Number 11 Thursday, March 20, 2014

Editorial

by Tom Morphet

Four heli-skiing deaths in Haines since 2012 are an unacceptable toll.

They’re also a black eye for our town, an unnecessary public expense

and a hindrance to the efforts of well-meaning people to make a home

for the industry here.

To protect the lives of guides and clients, government must step in

and establish reasonable safety regulations, just as it does in other

hazardous industries such as construction, mining, logging and

commercial fishing.

Here’s a proposed regulation: On commercial trips, require guides

or others leading groups to wear deployable air bags. Used properly,

the bags have proved to be highly effective at keeping skiers atop snow

during avalanches.

You can’t go near the Port Chilkoot Dock these days if you’re not

wearing a hardhat. Down at the harbor, commercial gillnetters are

required to carry a survival suit for every deckhand. But basic, lifesaving

safety gear is not required in the heli-ski industry, where workers

and clients routinely encounter risk of injury or death from avalanches.

Three of the four heli-skiers who died in Haines were guides.

The State of Alaska takes steps to protect other workers in avalanche

zones. Ten years ago, state prosecutors convicted Whitewater

Engineering of Bellingham, Wash. of criminally negligent homicide

after one of the company’s workers operating a backhoe was killed in

a 1999 avalanche near Cordova.

In that case, the state’s occupational safety office alleged that basic,

required safety procedures were not followed and the company exhibited

gross negligence after being warned of high avalanche danger. A

judge agreed and Whitewater was fined $150,000, and ordered to pay

restitution to the dead man’s family.

Is the state concerned about avalanche risk for some workers, but

not others?

Local heli-ski companies have previously made statements about

self-imposed safety improvements, but Saturday’s death testifies that

changes aren’t coming fast enough. For weeks, operators have been

aware of an elevated avalanche hazard created by this year’s uncommon

snow conditions.

In addition to deaths since 2012, there also have been heli-ski

injuries and close calls involving survival after live burials. Harrowing

footage of one such burial here was circulating on the Internet this

Self-policing by this industry does not appear to be a credible or

timely route to minimizing risk. The government has the authority to

improve safety now and the power to make those improvements stick.

If state or federal land managers aren’t interested in saving lives,

the Haines Borough could require use of air bags as part of its heli-ski

tour permit process.

For commercial guides going ahead of clients down mountains,

donning an air bag should be as automatic as strapping on a seat belt

before driving a car.

— Tom Morphet