Heliski: the helicopter ski-lifts

heliski.jpgThe conclusion of a TV report was pretty clear: using helicopters as ski lifts is big business and so, unlike France (which bans it completely), OFAC are very unwilling to put any curbs on it.

On Sunday, 9 January 2011, the evening Swiss TV programme Mise au Point included a ten-minute report on the increasing usage of helicopters to drop skiers high in the Swiss mountains so that they can ski virgin slopes. The proponents and opponents of this practice, which in 15,000 flights transports about 20,000 skiers each year, alternated in giving their reasons for and against.

In the program were some facts which appear to lead to the conclusion that the governing Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA, OFAC in French) has resisted calls from various bodies, including a request from the Swiss government to re-evaluate the number of places in the mountains where helicopters may land. Of the 42 designated landing places, about 20 of which are used for heli-skiing, the only response of OFAC has been to move one from the region of the Aletsch glacier to Zermatt. A petition from the Worldwide Fund for nature (WWF) for the suppression of landing places in the region of the Aletsch glacier appears to have been completely rejected, even though it had already caught the attention of the media, including the BBC, last year.

It is clear that, for the ski guides and the companies that operate the helicopters, this practice is financially attractive. To me, it is slightly less clear that, as stated by a representative of the pilots, these flights are good training for genuine helicopter rescue missions. I am not sure how flights in good weather (skiers are hardly likely to want to go up in bad weather!) to a limited set of accessible landing spots is good training for rescues which may be in poor weather and/or to inhospitable places.

The fact that, as stated in the emission, this practice has been banned in France for the past 25 years suggests that French skiers may have chosen to come to Switzerland to do this. I suppose that the weakness of the euro relative to the Swiss franc is inlikely to be a deterrent to people able to afford such a luxury. The commentary at the end of the emission summarised this fairly concisely with the statement that

La protection de la montagne pèse peu face aux intérêts touristiques et économiques

The protection of the mountains counts for little when compared to the tourism and economic interests.

heliski4.jpgIn looking on the Web I did find one company (Air Powder) which, while stating that Heliskiing in Switzerland is restricted to certain landing zones in order to protect the environment and natural beauty of the Alps, said that there are still a huge range of landing sites across Switzerland.

I did take an interest in the ten different helicopters which were shown during the emission, but could not identify one blue one. Most of these are operated by either Air Glaciers or Air Zermatt. One, however, is operated by Berner Oberländer Helikopter AG (BOHAG) and was seen twice in Geneva in 2010, and another one is operated by a company called Hélicoptere Service SA, based in Sion.

This latter one has aircraft registration HB-XQD, Curiously, like two of the others (HB-XTY and HB-XRP), it does not appear in the official list of all Swiss helicopters, available via the Web site of OFAC. For this, which could suggest a slight inefficiency of OFAC administration, I can find no explanation: it is hardly likely that a company wanting to promote itself should have requested anonymity for its aircraft. I did, however, find a nice list of all Swiss helicopters, plus a video of a rescue mission involving HB-XQD.

Even though Swiss companies are prominent, it is clear that French ones also want to profit from heliski activities in Switzerland. One such company, Chamonix Heliski, does a particular promotion of heliski in the Valais region of Switzerland.

It will be interesting to see if there are any reactions next Sunday, at the start of the next edition of Mise au Point.


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