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Tragedy on Bay Street
It was one of the last runs of the day—March 12—for 13 helicopter-skiers in the Bugaboos of British Columbia. As they headed down a steep and open slope called Bay Street, a shelf of snow above them broke loose without warning, sending a torrent of powder down the mountain. Three skiers avoided the avalanche, but 10 were buried under the snow, and only one of them, guide Jos Lang, could dig herself out. It was the worst tragedy in the history of heli-skiing in Canada, bringing to more than 40 the number of heli-skiers who have died there in the last 12 years.
The victims came from Britain, France, Germany, Spain and the U.S.—testimony to the lure of wilderness skiing. But with the pleasures of deep powder come the perils. In SI's Jan. 14 issue, E.M. Swift wrote a chilling account of his week of heli-skiing, during which a small avalanche stopped just short of him and a fellow skier died of suffocation. By coincidence, Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), which took Swift and his friends heli-skiing, is the same outfit that operated last week's tragic outing.
Five certified professional mountain guides employed by CMH had deemed Bay Street safe. But others feel that the skiers should not have been out there. Frank Baumann, a Canadian avalanche expert, as well as a heli-skier and former heli-ski operator, told SI, "I don't know the specifics of the conditions, but I feel that run is an obvious major avalanche slide path. You can certainly reduce the risk by skiing lower slope angles, by being cautious as to how soon after a major storm you ski, by making conservative judgments on the condition of snowpacks. This accident shows that they may not have been conservative enough."
There have been cries to ban the sport, but heli-skiing is a $27 million industry in Canada, and provincial governments have gone out of their way to cooperate with heli-skiing operators. In 1985 the British Columbia government allowed operators, suffering from high insurance costs, to have clients sign waivers of liability, so that those clients would have difficulty suing heli-ski firms in the event of injury or death. "In developed countries, our governments should monitor safety standards," says Baumann. "But here the people who make the money also make the decisions on safety."
It is time that Canadian authorities take a closer look at heli-skiing. At the very least, the ski companies should not be allowed to force clients to sign liability waivers, even if that means high insurance rates. The companies would then have a strong incentive to emphasize safety. In the meantime, potential customers should also take a closer look at heli-skiing and ask themselves whether the thrill of the sport is really worth the risk.
Last week Lenny Dykstra, the Philadelphia Phillies' center-fielder, was called to testify in federal court in Oxford, Miss., as a witness against Herbert Kelso, who was charged with running high-stakes poker games. Although Kelso was acquitted by a jury, Dykstra testified that he had written checks totaling $78,000 to Kelso to cover gambling losses sustained in both poker and golf between 1988 and early '90.
To some in the Phils' camp in Clearwater, Fla., Dykstra's gambling debts seemed more a matter of amusement than concern. When Dykstra was asked last Friday what he told a group of minor leaguers he had been invited to address, he sang, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." Teammate Wally Back-man said, "If they decided they wanted to go after everyone who plays cards and makes a little wager on it, then nobody would be able to field a team. Murph [ Dale Murphy] would be the manager, general manager and only player."
But even in this era of skyrocketing baseball salaries, there was clearly nothing little about Dykstra's wagers. The Phillies and commissioner Fay Vincent's office talked to Dykstra about the losses last year. The club—from owner Bill Giles on down—seems to think that the case is closed, although Vincent says that it is not.