Comments Needed on Heliskiing and a Heliport in the Park City and Summit County Area

| August 3, 2016

The Synderville Basin Planning Commission recently held a work session to discuss commercial helicopter use in Summit County and the Park City area.  The Wasatch Powderbird Guides have been actively involved with the planning process, presumably to try and establish a heliport base somewhere in the Park City area. Comments can be sent to the Community Development Director, Pat Putt, and the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission.  A public meeting will also be held on August 9th at the Sheldon Richins Building at Kimball Junction.

As a bit of backstory, the County Council placed a temporary ban on non-emergency/medical helicopter landing facilities after  UberChopper exploded with popularity during last year’s Sundance Film Festival where patrons took UberChopper rides to/from the SLC airport and Park City and landed on someone’s private property.  While I’m sure the person who owned the property was psyched, his/her neighbors were not and heli services were temporarily banned until September 9, 2016.

Some points to consider:

  1. The Wasatch Powderbird Guides are permitted for heliskiing by the Forest Service, but the scope of their work extends far beyond just heliskiing and includes flightseeing, helicopter taxi service, UDOT work, film work and general helicopter logistics. During the winter when the weather is good, they can be operating three helicopters on an almost nonstop, all day basis. According to the WPG 2014/15 season summary report, they flew 1,599 ski runs alone, not to mention all of the other flights mentioned above.
  2. As part of their work, WPG often flies with explosives both for their own backcountry avalanche control work and when they are flying UDOT work. I don’t think flying with and deploying explosives is a great mix for a crowded area like Park City.
  3. The WPG business model is based on doing multiple very short flights, some lasting only 2-3 minutes. A single helicopter may service three groups, which means they take the first group out from the heliport, then return for the second, then return again for the third with each one of these trips requiring both a takeoff and landing.  The end result is a very loud, repetitive heliport, especially when they are operating more than one helicopter.  On sunny powder days, especially over the three day weekends, the noise is nonstop.
  4. WPG claims to adhere to the “Fly Neighborly” guide, but in truth that is nothing more than an informal set of guidelines assembled by the Helicopter Association International to help deflect noise, vibration and privacy complaints caused by excessive helicopter operations in urban areas.  WPG consistently flies close to ridgelines and other skiers, as well as flying the same route over and over.  Even by their own admission, the Helicopter Association International admits “Helicopter operations are undeniably noisy.”
  5. WPG is permitted to fly roughly 1,100 skier-days per year, which is a tiny percentage of Utah’s almost 4 million skier-days per year, yet their noise effects everyone.

If a person chooses to build a house next to an airport or heliport, they should obviously expect it to be noisy.  However, dropping a heliport into an existing neighborhood is unfair to the existing neighbors as it creates endless noise and devalues both the homes and the residents quality of life.  If a heli skiing heliport is to be built in Summit County, it should be somewhere far away from the resort centers and existing neighborhoods, and preferably it would be somewhere down by the Heber airport where people already expect helicopter noise.  Also, the number of flights should be capped and flying with explosives over neighborhoods should be prohibited.

WPG on one of their trademark landings on a bumped backcountry run which is literally a two minute flight from their Snowbird helibase, packed with other backcountry skiers and right on the perimeter of Alta. 

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Category: Announcements, Wasatch Mountains

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber and Mountain Unicycle rider. He and Polly Samuels McLean are the parents of two very loud little girls.

Comments (5)

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  1. OMR says:

    WPG’s over do it. I ski mostly in Davis County (Sessions, as WPG erroneously calls everything between City Creek and Bountiful Peak) and I’ve seen them track out certain drainages in less than an hour when it takes me several hours just to hike in to start my laps. Without helicopters those drainages go untracked, except for one or two of us who are willing the fight the long approaches and the brush of Davis County. Anytime Wasatch BC skiers choose to ski outside the tri-canyons it’s a good thing, by spreading the pressure it leaves more for all. WPG’s are not good BC neighbors because of their ‘mass production’ business plan.

  2. I fully agree OMR. I think another major factor with WPG is that there are so many more backcountry skiers nowadays that they are having a hard time finding places that aren’t already packed with people. What people don’t understand about heliskiing in the Wasatch is how small it is and how many other people there are using the mountains – it is hardly remote Alaska or Canada.

  3. Maciej Pike-Biegunski says:

    I don’t live in SLC, but when I do, the presence of heli-Texans in Cardiff, Silver, and Days fork is obnoxious. If it only takes an hour to tour into an area, why do heli drops there?

    Of course, the answer is easy money. Why burn a lot of aviation fuel getting into more remote terrain when Big Tex won’t care? So….I tour under the LZ’s when I can. At least that’s one spot the heli’s can’t land on a given day.

    If enough SLC locals set their tracks up the most prime lines, it could crimp the heli-ski model for the area. Fight the man, tour under the handful of good LZ’s in the Cottonwoods!!

  4. Leo Americus says:

    I think you need to post a position on the proposed Silverton Mountain heli expansion.
    This is BLM land it belongs to all Americans and should be seen as not just a regional issue. People who like to blog about the backcountry and profit from it need to speak up and represent the backcountry skiers.

  5. Hi Leo – I have to admit to being uniformed about eh Silverton Mountain heli expansion, but based on my experience from skiing in the Wasatch, I’d be very hesitant to endorse anything like it. The Wasatch Powderbird Guides, aka WPG was permitted decades ago at a time when heli skiing may have remotely seemed logical, but nowadays, it seems ridiculous. We’ve got close to 2 million people living in close proximity to SLC and although the heli skiers are outnumbered close to 40:1, they still fly right in the center of the range, regardless of the number of other people who happen to be there. The best way to think about WPG is to consider if they never existed and if they were only now applying for a permit – which they would never be granted. Once in, heli operations are there for good and only want more space, more exemptions, more terrain, more helicopters and more special considerations. Heli skiing operations represent Big Money and the people behind it – they exist only for the .001%.

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