CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS
Volume XLIV Number 11 Thursday, March 20, 2014
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
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
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
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
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