There’s nothing small about Dean Cumming’s vision of what heliskiing should be. So it’s no wonder he ended up in Alaska. (Texans like to crow how everything is bigger there. You could fit Texas into AK twice, for Pete’s sake.)
Cummings, a big-mountain-skiing pioneer, was on the U.S. Freestyle team, has bagged stunning first descents, starred in big-mountain skiing movies for years, and took second-place in the inaugural World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, returning to win the title four years later. But he found his life’s mission in Valdez when he launched H20 Guides in 1995, and he hasn’t stopped working to improve the sport and its safety protocols ever since.
Cummings and SKI Mag have teamed up to offer an online course on Backcountry Protocols. Here's more on the safety program.
He first started investigating the potential of heli-skiing in the Chugach Mountains in 1991. “It was humbling,” Cummings said to Skiing Magazine. “The pilots were wild guys from the Vietnam War. The lines were unlike anything we had ever seen or skied.”
Cummings realized that safety standards had to be formalized. He was a driving force in pioneering top-down terrain management safety protocols and techniques. Cummings passionately believes the sport’s long-term safety is built on the foundation of accountability from operators. “We are the ones responsible for the evolution of our sport,” Cummings said.
He warns that improved gear and “certifications in our pockets” can lead to false confidence. “It’s all really about terrain management and listening to our instincts,” he said. “Our instincts are really good and we all need to listen to them more.” For instance, any unease at the beginning of your adventure, should never be ignored. “When you start your day with a concern about the snowpack, that concern should last all day,” he said.
To that end, Cummings created the first formal avalanche education programs and curriculum in Alaska, and frequently teaches avalanche education nationwide. He launched a big-mountain ski clinic at Snowbird, Utah, which was the first PSIA-sanctioned program of its kind in North America.
The H2O operation accesses 4,000 square miles of terrain, the most of any operator in Alaska, and includes a special use permit to heli-ski in the Chugach National Forest between Valdez and Cordova. Go here for more info on H2O Guides, and here for H2O's videos.