Diplomacy: the art of telling someone to go to hell in a way that makes them look forward to the journey.
Let me preface this post by stating that while it is my opinion that heli-skiing is a luxury our environment can't afford, this is not an "anti" heli-skiing argument. I'm not a saint and don't want to throw stones from a glass house. Furthermore, I try to keep an open mind to the way other people solve problems and manage to get from a to b. Again, I am not perfect.
That said, what is I saw last week in the Aguas Calientes valley near Nevados de Chillan was, let me be as diplomatic as possible here... total bullshit.
This is a helicopter parked on a small island of rocks in the middle of a stream. This stream is a special destination because it flows with hot water - a natural hot spring in an undeveloped environment. It's even more special because one can tour to it in about 45-minutes from the resort and get back in about the same time, with very little elevation gained or lost. It's about as easy to access as it gets. (I toured from the base and it only took an hour and a half.) I am standing next to a pile of "bio-degradable" trash left behind. (I picked it up and carried it out.) And in the background is a avalanche caused by the guided group (I am not sure of the details) on a day when the hazard should have been extremely easy to forecast. In short, there is a lot of bullshit happening here.
I have thought about why I want to write this versus just keep it to myself. I really don't want to drag another guide service through the mud, even though I think this practice is disgraceful. I would like to see the people of Las Trancas and Nevados de Chillan have a productive discussion about land use and safe guiding practices. And if I can be a resource, I will gladly do all I can. I also would like to illustrate that we all have to make choices and sometime the answers aren't that "cool."
First of all, don't leave trash in the wilderness. Even if it is orange peels. Imagine if every person that visited here left his or her orange peels, apple cores, wax from cheese, etc. The place would be a dump. Leave no trace is very simple. NO trace. Bring it in, bring it out.
Much more importantly, flying a helicopter to a river which is easily, and often, accessed by people using snowshoes and touring gear is wasteful and ridiculous. It is like driving your car from the living room to the bathroom. Helicopters use Jet A as fuel. It's essentially kerosene, a highly refined fuel, which requires ten-gallons of oil to make one-gallon of gas. This party used at least ten-gallons of Jet A to get to and from the hotel. 100-gallons of oil. My hotel was just a couple blocks away from the heli-pad, but I only used half a gallon of gas to get to the trailhead and back, and a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the rest of the trip.
Helicopters are amazing. The places they can go! Go there. My friends at Powder South and Third Edge Heli access ridiculous terrain and serve up fantastic conditions even when it's low tide. Yes, I wish fewer people would use so much gas for something that is not necessary, but if you're going to do it, at least make it worthwhile. Again, why don't you drive your car in the house? Because it's wasteful, unnecessary and would suck for everyone in the house. The same applies here.
Moving on, I think it is important for a guide to understand that one of his primary roles is risk management - keeping people out of harm's way and making sure small errors don't have big consequences. I think an operation which depends on a pristine environment should be its steward, not just use it until it's gone.
It was apparent that this pilot was highly skilled. (No sarcasm) He was flying in wind that closed the resort and made it difficult for me to stand at ridge tops. I thought it was risky to fly that day, but the pilot clearly handled the machine well. But, even with that skill, is it worth the risk to park in the middle of the stream? What if something happens? There would no longer be a pristine hot spring to visit; there would be a polluted river and a crash site.
As for the "guide" well... There is a lot more to becoming a guide than creating a website and leasing a helicopter. Or there should be anyway. The process of learning to guide well involves learning to make decisions in a complex environment. Inevitably, mistakes are made. Proper education and apprenticeship are fundamental because they hopefully prevent big mistakes. Team work and protocols are the ways in which we keep small mistakes from becoming catastrophes. It scares the shit out of me to watch guides operate in this terrain without any of these things. I, too, love the freedom we have in the Andes; but it comes with a lot of responsibility.
On this day I watched the clients ski a few runs of terrible windboard, presumably because the pilot was limited by the wind, and these are the runs, which "normally" get skied. I left the valley for a while and when I returned, there was an avalanche with the group's tracks exiting it. (They were soaking in the hot spring, so I presume all was fine.) I would guess someone got sick of skiing windboard and dropped into the protected valley, in the process they triggered the cross-loaded wind slab, which was the one, easily recognizable hazard on this day. This is the hazard that should have been identified in the guide's meeting they likely didn't have.
I am a proponent of the free market. I believe excessive regulation can stifle innovation. I am not saying that certification or permits should be required. But with freedom comes responsibility. One of those responsibilities is consumer education. Just because we can do something, it doesn't mean we should. This article isn't really directed at the guide service which only served to illustrate a point. This piece is addressed to the people I care about - skiers.
We need to take care of ourselves and our environment, be it local or global. If you will hire a guide, inquire about his or her qualifications. They may have lots of pieces of paper, but no experience; or lots of experience and no certification; or a little of both; or a lot. Ask about their protocols. Do they have a risk management plan? Track record? Anyone can have a flashy website and fancy gear. Do yourself a favor and ask questions. Here's a good gauge, ask the questions you would ask if you were sending your family into this terrain. Would you trust this person with your mom's life?
We also have a responsibility to be respectful of our community and our environment. Every commercial operation wants to offer a service for income. You don't have to rely on them to have integrity. You can have it, too. If you can afford to go heli-skiing, you aren't an idiot. You know when someone is ripping you off. If someone charges you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to fly to a place other people are walking to, shouldn't some alarms sound? (Let me remind you that I have seen people snowshoe here - in jeans - happily.) Voice your opinion. If you're going to use a helicopter, go to the places where a helicopter is required. Then, understand that a lot of resources are being used, do your best to keep the orange peels and motor oil out of the streams - not putting them there would be my suggestion.
It is my opinion that we, as a culture, especially those of us from wealthy, developed nations, have some big changes to make. But I understand as well as anyone that it's hard to make these changes by going cold turkey. I'm not perfect either. If we can't make big leaps, we need to take little steps. Cutting out the bullshit would be a really good start.