Perspective and Probability in Heli-skiing

January 7, 2012


I was interviewed on Radio NL 610 AM late last week in regards to two avalanche fatalities in the final days of 2011. Part of my message was that while these deaths are distressful, some perspective is in order. For example, there were four shooting murders in the four days after Christmas in Surrey, BC, just three hours west of where I live. Further, there are approximately 400 drowning deaths a year in Canada. Some have argued (as did my interviewer in an earlier editorial) that the answer lies in the regulation, legislation and criminalization of the behaviour (ie. reckless skiing, boarding or sledding) which gives rise to these deaths. I believe that many people who pursue such activities balance the risks and make informed decisions but I also acknowledge that some go in blind with little real skill and are essentially playing Russian roulette. The bottom line for me is the right of recreationists to take risks and make mistakes – even if it costs them their lives. The ‘solution’ (assuming there is a problem) is not to legislate or criminalize but to educate and hope that good and safe decisions are made.

The second avalanche fatality involved a client with a commercially guided heli-ski operation. According to a piece in The Globe and Mail (click here to read the article), what I found interesting was Canadian Mountain Holidays Inc. lawyer Marty von Neudegg’s efforts to brand heli-skiing in the aftermath of an avalanche fatality as a “wilderness experience sport’ rather than “extreme sport” which almost makes it sound like he’s selling safe heli-skiing. He comes closer to the edge in acknowledging that risks exist but the inconvenient truth is that heli-skiing is inherently dangerous and that even the best guides cannot eliminate all risks. Says von Neudegg, ‘There are risks, for sure, but our guides … want to come home at the end of the day and they are not pushing the edge. We try to stay well inside the boundary, but obviously in this case, something went wrong.’

It is incredibly sad that Greg Sheardown died and my heartfelt sympathies go to his family. Clearly something went wrong though. But that doesn’t necessarily mean someone did something wrong. CMH has had 11 avalanche fatalities in 9 million group ski runs; those are pretty good odds. This may just be an unfortunate and tragic instance of the laws of probability catching up in the heli-skiing industry.

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