Back-country heli-skiing is no circus ride


Fresh from a near-death avalanche incident, Alpine Heliski owner Tim O’Leary tells Ryan Keen why it’s one of the riskiest activities in town


Tim O’Leary is refreshingly blunt when describing the risks of his adventure tourism activity of choice.
“We haven’t had anyone die – but it can happen. I don’t think people quite realise as customers – it’s not a bungy jump. 

“It’s probably the single highest-risk guided activity in Queenstown out of all the adventure activities by probably a long shot because it requires the client to have a level of skill – whereas most of the other ones don’t.” 

O’Leary adds: “They’re basically circus rides, a lot of the other activities.” 

Alpine Heliski was sharply reminded of the risks three weeks ago when a large avalanche struck during a private charter in the Eyre Mountains near Kingston. 

A client, Guy Pope-Mayell, got trapped under two metres of snow and – certain he was going to die – blacked out before spending 15 minutes buried in darkness with little air. His son Elijah, mates on the trip and Alpine guides managed to locate him and dig him out. 

Incredibly, he regained consciousness immediately and Pope-Mayell avoided becoming Queenstown’s first heliskiing avalanche fatality – and the industry’s fourth since 1986. 

The incident comes as the heliski industry is in what O’Leary describes as a “state of transition” over safety.
O’Leary is one of six members of the New Zealand Heliski Operators Group formed two years ago to improve standards for heliski operations. It usually meets pre- and post-winter. 

The other two Queens­town-based operat­ors, Harris Mountains Heliski and Southern Lakes Heliski – of which O’Leary is a shareholder – each have representatives on the group. 

As it stands, each company has its own operating procedure and there’s no requirement to meet any industry-wide standard. 

O’Leary says the group is working towards that now. 

“Theoretically, in the next five years, we should get quite standardised between all operations.” 

The group is considering things like whether safety helmets and air bags – which virtually guarantee the wearer remains on top during an avalanche – should be compulsory. 

O’Leary’s guides wear air bags but they’re usually not available for clients unless they bring them themselves. 

O’Leary told Mountain Scene three weeks ago that air bags for clients were the next item on the company’s upgrade list. 

“[But] we’ve just bought new radios, new skis, 20 transceivers at $500 a piece, trauma kits. You can only spend so much.” 

Asked if he felt negligent in relation to the Pope-Mayell’s lucky escape, O’Leary said: “I don’t feel negligent but I feel we could have ensured a better level of safety if we’d had them.” 

Overall, O’Leary says the risk of an avalanche injury or death on a trip is very low – 6000 heliskiers complete trips every year across all the companies. 

O’Leary adds: “The reality of heliskiing is there are far more trauma injuries than avalanche injuries. 

“Last week there was a broken femur with a heliski operation. You won’t even hear about that – but a broken femur is a life-threatening injury. 

“There’s been lots of major trauma injuries over the last few years with heliskiing – broken arms, femurs, broken tibs, fibs. People fly down the slope, smack into a rock – boom. 

“Heliskiing is actually a fairly high-risk activity.”

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