Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966



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, life-saving 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 week.

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


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