Opinion: The Hypocrisy of Helicopter Skiing

When I was 21, I packed up my life, put my car on a ferry, and landed in Haines, Alaska, to work for a heli-skiing operation. At the time I was seeking adventure, I was looking for something to shake up my life, and shake it up it did.

As a rookie you get very little time in the bird and lots of time sitting on the tarmac, fueling the choppers for stoked clients who just had the best ski run of their life. I figured I had to put in my time, just like everyone else, so I sat in the van and fueled the whirly birds day after day. Down days were spent bushwhacking through thick alders to ski the dense powder above, with occasional forays at the snow cat hill. I even got up high a few times and gawked at the sea of stunning mountains.

While there, I started to become more aware of my surroundings and my life in general. My parents hadn’t taught me about climate change, they taught me to love life and chase my dreams, but we ate at McDonalds and participated in what some would call redneck activities. No one can deny that it’s a riot to rally around on a dirt bike or a snowmobile, and shooting guns in the woods is a hootin’ good time. That was my childhood and I whole-heartedly embraced every minute of it.

The fall after my first season in Haines, I went to Churchill, Manitoba, on a whim. A mentor of mine ran an organization called Polar Bears International and invited to me to come up and volunteer. I didn’t have anything better to do at the time and figured it would be really cool to see polar bears and try something new. What I didn’t know is that my time in Churchill would change my life in a big way, transforming me from simply a nature lover to a full-on environmentalist.

I learned a lot about climate change that fall. I learned that unlike some endangered things, you can’t put a fence around it – climate change knows no borders or boundaries, and it affects everything, everywhere.

This made me think twice about returning to Haines to work in the heli-ski industry, but I went anyway. I’d groveled so much the previous year, dispatching from the tarmac, fueling helicopters, and doing any and all grunt work I could find. I hadn’t made a dollar, and I wanted to reap the rewards of my groveling. I wanted to go back and actually get paid. I wanted to ski in the magnificent Chilkat Mountains, and part of me wanted to do it for the ladies because at the time there were no female heli-ski guides in Haines.

So I returned, but it didn’t feel right.

I was fueling the helis one day and asked the pilot how much fuel they consumed. “Oh, roughly 45 gallons of Jet A per hour.” Wide-eyed, I replied “Oh, that’s a lot,” and put my head down. It seemed ridiculous to waste that much fuel and contribute that much carbon pollution to the environment for skiing, for pure recreation with no real purpose. It could be called frivolous at best.

Despite diving back into the grunt routing, I’d barely skied since I arrived that season. Then my cabin burned down and a friend and fellow guide died in a terrible accident. “The universe is telling me something,” I thought. After a long eight weeks, I packed my car and left. I haven’t touched a helicopter since.

I may be tainted from the accident, or perhaps just jaded in general, but using helicopters to ski doesn’t seem worth it to me. I get it. I’ve been there. Jeremy Jones was there, too. He saw the mountains changing, he saw winter disappearing and he decided to do something about it. He stopped snowboarding via helicopters and started doing all his projects via his own two feet, human powered. A handful of other athletes have done the same, myself included, and it’s cool to see.

But there’s still a strong contingent of professional snow athletes and film companies who emit huge amounts of carbon pollution every year by using helicopters to get photos and footage, negatively impacting the sport that is their livelihood and is vanishing before our eyes.

Spring 2014 felt especially poignant to me. It was a rough snow year in the Lower 48 and athletes and film companies were hurting for shots and the turns they had been lacking for much of the season. April rolled around and it seemed like everyone was up in AK. Instagram and Facebook were flooded with heli-skiing images.

Day after day, post after post, the flood of Alaska pow shots went on, and I couldn’t help but think, “Don’t these guys get it? We are having the worst winter we may have ever seen, and they’re dumping carbon pollution into the air like it’s their job?” Oh wait, it is.

It was especially ironic on April 22, 2014…Earth Day. A handful of fairly big players in the ski industry posted Instagrams about how much they loved the mountains and the earth…but the photos they posted came from helicopters. On top of which, some of those who posted heli-ski photos on Earth Day have also advocated for Protect Our Winter’s #ActOnClimate project and Climate Reality Project’s I am Pro Snow campaign.

What I want to know now is when will we as a culture be willing to sacrifice our frivolous joys for the sake of the future? It’s great that the ski industry is talking the talk, but when will everyone, companies and athletes included, choose to walk the walk? And what’s the line? Is heli-skiing okay if you only do it a few time a year, but the rest of the year you act as an environmentally aware citizen? Is it okay if you offset the carbon burned? If you use the images you gather to warn others about the effects of climate change?

I don’t think so.

Getting out in nature is more important than it’s ever been, and so it skiing. But blatant disregard for the impact of climate change throughout the environment is unacceptable, and people of influence should live by the values they preach. I’m trying to do that in my life, even when it isn’t easy, and I encourage others to do so, too.

Photo by Kt Miller



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