Heli-ski firm suspends operations


The heli-ski operator that flew in an experienced skier who was hit by an avalanche near Queenstown and later died has suspended operations.

Sydney skier Roger Greville, 58, originally from New Zealand but who had been living in Australia for many years, was pulled from the avalanche near the Devil’s Staircase in the Hector Mountains about 2.45pm yesterday, but died soon after.

Greville was one of a party of five on a guided trip run by Southern Lakes Heliski. His family are expected to arrive in Queenstown today.

The company said today’s decision was taken despite excellent snow and weather conditions coupled with an assessment of a low avalanche risk.

Southern Lakes Heliski director Julian Field says: “Whilst other companies may continue to operate, a decision to resume our operations will be made later today when we have had time to complete a detailed analysis of yesterday’s events as well as our systems and procedures.

“We remain committed to aiding the external investigation team and have confidence that they will be able to determine the exact cause of this tragic accident.”

While heli-skiing was not considered to be dangerous, Field says that, like any adventure activity, it carried “inherent risk”.

“We take our responsibilities very seriously which is reflected in the fact that this is the first incident of this kind for our company and its predecessors in over 30 years of operations.

“Our thoughts remain with the family and friends of the deceased.”

Field last night says it had been “a tough day”. He said one of the company’s pilots called the Southern Lakes Heliski operations team at 2.38pm informing it a group of skiers had been involved in an avalanche on the Hector Mountains.

It was confirmed one skier had been buried in snow, and emergency response procedures were activated immediately.

“At 2.48pm, we received confirmation that the skier had been located. However, despite the considerable efforts of guides and paramedics the skier was pronounced dead at the scene some time later.”

Field says the trip was part of normal operations.

Police said cause of Greville’s death was still unknown, and the death had been referred to the Coroner.

Alpine Cliff Rescue team co-leader Chris Prudden says there had been new snow in the area, so there would be a few spots that were “a little bit sensitive”.

However, overall the snow pack was relatively stable.

Greville’s death followed two avalanche events in the area near the Remarkables in the past few days where people had been dragged away – one partially buried – but survived. They were assisted by ski patrols.

“It’s a signal to everyone you’ve got to be continuously vigilant on snow conditions,” Prudden says.

“It doesn’t matter even if the avalanche advisory report says the hazard is low, you’ve still got to be vigilant. There is no such thing as no avalanche danger when you’re dealing with snow.”

Prudden says activities in the outdoors near Queenstown did involve risk.

“There is a statistic that goes with people going out in the back country. That could be with heli-skiing, that could be on foot, ski touring, as people do. There’s an element of risk all the time.”

People needed to make themselves aware of safe practices.

Regional avalanche forecaster Chris Cochrane says there had been strong southerly winds in the past 24 hours which had caused ”wind slab” conditions, where there was very stiff snow, causing tension in the snow pack.

In his bulletin yesterday he had said the weight of a single person could be enough to trigger an event.

“It’s just an inherent danger that is always present in the back country,” he says.

Even the most experienced guides could find it difficult to predict when an avalanche might strike, a southern mountain club president says, in the wake of Greville’s death.

Federated Mountain Clubs president Robin McNeil told Radio New Zealand this morning that further investigations into yesterday’s incident would now take place.

“They will be looking at the snow pack, conditions of the snow … the aspect of the slope. It’s basically investigating the snow.

“Predicting avalanches is a real art, and a huge amount of science goes into it and it is not at all straightforward. You needs lots of observations to be anywhere near accurate.

“Unfortunately great skiing conditions in the back country also tends to be where the highest avalanche risks are.”

McNiel says investigations would likely reveal whether the area was inspected once the skiers were flown into the area by helicopter.

– david.loughrey@odt.co.nz/ additional reporting NZME