How Alaska’s Top Heli-Skiiing Hub Manages Risk

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Home to one of the world’s top heli-ski operations, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge is about as remote as it gets. The luxury alpine retreat tucked in Alaska’s rugged Tordrillo Range is over 60 miles from the nearest road, a 40-minute flight from Anchorage, and only accessible by small fixed-wing aircraft. Nobody’s just stumbling upon this place—including the staff. “With just 12 guides, we’re selective with who we hire,” says Hugh Barnard, head guide and de facto head of safety at the lodge. “You want different voices in the room. Different backgrounds mean we’re always learning from each other,” Barnard adds about his crew, which includes an emergency medicine doctor, ex-ski patrollers, and a guide with 15 Everest summits.

Founded by an Olympic gold medalist and an Alaskan heli-ski pioneer, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge is widely considered the standard for heli-ski operations around the world. Also on payroll is an Anchorage fire department captain, a world-record holder for the most runs in 24 hours, and a few avalanche experts.

Heli ski guides and clients walk to small yellow airplaneAndy Cochrane

“We try to tap into each knowledge base during our pre-season training in January and early February,” says Barnard. “This year we had a full session on spinal management, a module on crevasse rescue and troubleshooting complications in the field, and practiced patient packaging and moving into a helicopter.”

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Barnard speaks with a balance of humility and confidence, describing rigorous classroom work with even more applied practice outside. Next week he’ll head up to Alaska to begin preparations for guests, which include testing airbag packs, checking radio repeaters, flagging heli-landing spots, and handling numerous other important tasks. “It’s a long to-do list,” he says.

Fortunately, this is old hat for Barnard, who has three decades of heli-skiing experience, making him one of the most knowledgeable guides in the industry. He’s also the general manager of Harris Mountains Heliski in his home town of Wanaka, New Zealand; the former chief guide at Himachal Heliski in the Himalaya; and runs heli-ski trips to Greenland and Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

Distant image of helicopter flying past giant mountainAndy Cochrane

“For simplicity’s sake, I’ll divide the potential risks into three buckets—snow safety and avalanches, human factors and communication, and heli operations,” Barnard explains. “But in all honesty, it’s like a Venn diagram, with circles more overlapped than not. Of the 30 or so heli-ski operations in the country—and thousands of flights each year—there are very few accidents because we all take this stuff seriously.”

The elephant in the room is the high-profile helicopter crash at Tordrillo last March, killing five of the six onboard. As the first deadly accident in over 20 years across all North American heli-skiing operations, it received considerable coverage, adding to the high-risk reputation portrayed in the media. However, the actual track record suggests just the opposite. With many writers spilling ink on heli-skiing’s inherent dangers, the data clearly shows that outfits like Tordrillo Mountain Lodge are safe endeavors—with people like Barnard to thank.

How Tordrillo Mountain Lodge Does Snow Safety and Avalanche Forecasting

“The Tordrillos have a maritime snowpack, which means a lot of snow and pretty good stability, generally speaking,” says Barnard. “People think more snow equals higher avalanche danger, but that’s not really the case. In Alaska it snows so much that you rarely get the weak layers like the lower 48 do. The snow often comes down wet and heavy, cools down during the storm, and most hazards will slide naturally.”

Heli-ski clients and guides unload small twin-engine plane at the top of the mountain in AlaskaAndy Cochrane

The challenges at Tordrillo come from the remoteness, lack of other skiers in the area, and the terrain. Forecasting duties are shared between three key guides, including Barnard. Thanks to a small, lodge-based environment, it’s easy for these three to work closely together and share the load. Due to a lack of outside resources and observations, Barnard says they rely on a higher degree of extrapolation from core data.

“Unlike forecasters in Wyoming or Colorado, we have considerably fewer observations and only one remote weather station—so we lean into our experience heavily,” says Barnard.

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Using real-time data from their weather station—wind speed and direction, precipitation, and snow depth—along with observations from the previous few days and decades of experience, they’re able to accurately forecast weakness in the snowpack and the best slopes to ski.

Heli-skiers stand on an upper slope overlooking a giant Alaskan mountain panoramaAndy Cochrane

“We talk with a few other operators in the area, but for the most part keep it pretty self-reliant,” says Barnard. “We’re at the western end of the Alaska range while most others are in the Chugach. Our snowpack isn’t quite the same.”

Day to day, most things stay the same. Weaknesses in the snowpack don’t heal quickly. Fortunately, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge deals mostly with storm stability issues that heal faster than persistent layers. Each morning the team has a guide meeting in which the lead guides present the forecast while others share observations. Collectively they discuss potential hazards.

“A lot of this isn’t about snow but about how to manage expectations,” says Barnard. “We’re trying to align on a decision-making mindset. Unlike the movies, it’s not always ‘open season’ when heli-skiing. You often need to operate with caution.”

Human Factors and Communication Systems

Good communication starts with the guides being aligned and engaging in discussion before decisions are finalized. Working on a consensus model whereby the default position is the most conservative, Barnard says the decisions made in this clinical environment are often better than those in the field. “We won’t apply new field observations until the next day after a group decision is made,” he says.

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Agreeing on danger rating and hazard issues is often easier than setting expectations with clients on what they’re going to ski. “We’re fortunate that the snow is stable most of the time and we can meet the ideal of powder skiing, but that isn’t always the case,” says Barnard. “Matching expectations with conditions is key. It changes every day and you have to ski to that—not what you’ve done in the past.”

Interior of helicopter. Pilots watching skiers through the cockpitAndy Cochrane

Tordrillo uses its own radio system to communicate in the field. Using two ridge-top repeaters and line of sight to the helis, they’re able to communicate across dozens of miles. Each group has its own radios—a Garmin InReach to send messages and a satellite phone. Each heli has satellite tracking and satellite phones as well, and checks in every hour with a designated dispatcher at the lodge.

“We try to keep the comms continuous but managed, with chatter to a minimum,” says Barnard. “Guides can switch to a different channel to have a longer conversation if needed without talking over the aviation comms.”

Helicopter Maintenance and Operations

The model used throughout the world is to contract an aviation business to supply, maintain, and fly helicopters. There are a few outliers, but the vast majority do it this way. These aviation contractors are required to follow FAA requirements on maintenance and training. On top of that, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge will add in safety and gear training specific to heli-skiing.

Heli-skier skiing down a powdery slope in AlaskaAndy Cochrane

Each heli is equipped with an avalanche transceiver to search from the air. Pilots are able to refine the search field to just five meters in a short period of time. They also get training on medical equipment, crevasse rescue, and snow landings that are common in heli-skiing.

“It’s always the call of the pilot if they want to land or not,” says Barnard. “All of our landings are mapped out beforehand and most have been used hundreds or thousands of times—but pilots are also managing micro-wind shifts and the best snow surface to land on.”

Heli-skier skiing through a powdery gullyAndy Cochrane

Like many parts of heli-skiing, there’s a standardized approach to landings, but also a recognition that some decisions are best made situationally.

“It’s a dynamic environment with so many factors,” says Barnard. “We work very closely with the pilots. Ultimately, that relationship is key to keeping everyone safe.”

 

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