January 10, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 1

National heli-ski group focuses on standards

The Haines Borough’s heli-ski season is just around the corner, and in the wake of an accident that killed two people last spring, concerns about safety aren’t going away.

Like much of the recreation industry, heli-skiing falls largely outside most state and federal regulations concerning occupational safety and health. Similarly, the borough, which requires heli-ski operations to acquire a tour permit and to submit a safety plan, does not regulate safety.

Some, including the parents of the Alaska Heliskiing client who died in the avalanche last April, have pointed to an association called heliski US (HSUS) as a potential solution to the lack of standards.

According to its website, “the main purpose of the Heli-Ski US Association is to set the highest level of operation standards and protocols for its members,” which it does through the implementation of its Heli Operations Safety Procedures document.

  The document, in its seventh edition, includes standards – such as operating protocols, snow safety and weather forecasting programs and emergency response planning – that all companies must maintain as members of the association.

Three Alaska heli-ski companies are full-fledged members of the association - Girdwood-based Chugach Powder Guides, Cordova-based Points North Heli-Adventures, and Valdez Heli-Ski Guides.

  According to Kevin Quinn, owner/operator of Points North, membership in the organization is somewhat hard-won. Quinn said he was eight years in the business before he was accepted, and “just kept pounding on the door” for the association to take him.

The process is also ardous: once a company has at least three to five years under its belt, it can become a prospective member - Juneau-based Alaska Powder Descents is currently one - for two years, Quinn said.

During this probationary period, the company is monitored and mentored by another member of the association. At the end of the two years, the company can ask to be reviewed for acceptance as a full-fledged member, which involves an extensive audit and review of the operation by two members of HSUS, Quinn said.

  Quinn, HSUS President Paul Butler, and several other operators acknowledged that while HSUS is the “gold standard” endorsement of a heli-skiing company, that’s not to say non-member companies aren’t operating to those same high standards.

  “I think the benefit to the client is they are assured they are working with the best in the country, that they are working with a company that has met the standards that the association members have imposed upon themselves. I think a lot of companies already do that, but it’s a stamp of approval. I think it’s important a client knows who they are skiing with,” said Scott Raynor, owner of Valdez Heli-Ski Guides.

HSUS’s critics point to the cost of membership, which can be prohibitive, and the association’s club-like exclusivity. According to Quinn, members pay a one-time $5,000 fee, plus $1,500-$2,500 in annual dues.

Dean Cummings, owner of Valdez-based H2O Guides, belonged to HSUS for 12 years. Cummings helped craft the association’s safety document, but bowed out because of what he perceived as a “lack of direction” and the association’s failure to rotate leadership.

“I think they are doing okay. They’re more of an exclusive association where they handpick their members,” Cummings said.

Cummings also said that the association, while nationwide, “distances itself from Alaska.” The industry, he said, would benefit immensely from a similar statewide association that focuses solely on Alaskan heli-skiing, which he said is different than heli-skiing in the Lower 48.

According to Haines Borough Manager Mark Earnest, in the wake of the fatal avalanche last spring, the borough discussed the idea of requiring local heli-ski companies to belong to an association like HSUS. Assistant to the manager Darsie Culbeck contacted HSUS president Butler regarding the idea and summarized his findings in an email to Mayor Stephanie Scott.

“At this point no other municipalities or land managers in the country require membership and I doubt we want to be first. In addition, they don’t necessarily certify operators or take on any liability for the actions of their members. It seems their main value is a peer review of the members’ plans. While this will certainly be great for any operator, I don’t think the borough wants to require this,” Culbeck said.

“I think (HSUS)  probably, so far, gives the most oversight in safety plans, but it’s just an organization that has no authority. It’s a member-driven organization,” Culbeck added in a later interview.

Culbeck also said Natalia and Alex Dodov, the parents of the client who died in the accident, submitted details from the accident to HSUS for review and judgment. HSUS declined to participate.

Scott Sundberg, owner of Haines-based Southeast Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) said his company has been looking into becoming a member of HSUS for several years. Time and money, though, delayed Sundberg from initiating the process, as did his opinion – similar to Cummings’ – that the industry would benefit more from an association focused solely on Alaska as opposed to the entire country.

“You have to go through an audit with them and you have to get a sponsor and you have to pay a bunch of money to get in. In some ways it is kind of prohibitive in the early start-up of the company,” Sundberg said.

This season, though, Sundberg said Colorado-based HSUS member Telluride Helitrax has agreed to mentor SEABA, the first step to becoming a part of the organization.

“Through recent discussions we’ve been convinced that it’s worth it because of their lobby presence and their resources that way. They’ve got pretty good client manifests,” Sundberg said.

Sundberg also said that SEABA is currently operating up to HSUS standards and expects to pass any audit they perform.

As the growth of HSUS demonstrates, the heli-skiing industry seems to be heading toward some sort of rudimentary standardization. As the industry continues to grow – and operators statewide agree that it’s booming – more voices seem to clamor for some kind of oversight agency or regulation.

Fatal accidents like the one last spring only increase the volume of that clamor. But people need to remember, Points North owner Kevin Quinn said, heli-skiing is an inherently risky activity. And not even a litany of rules and regulations can guarantee that nothing will go wrong.