Schnee von morgen

Schnee von morgen | "Grünes Heliskiing" - meinen die das ernst?

Ein Heliskianbieter erklärt, wie und warum er die Emissionen seines Unternehmens senken will.


John Forrest ist seit 35 Jahren Bergführer. Seinen Beruf hat er in den Sommermonaten auch einige Jahre in den Alpen ausgeübt, aber er lebt in Kanada und betreibt dort seit 20 Jahren ein Heli Skiing Unternehmen. Northern Escape Heliskiing (NEH) ist in Terrace ansässig, ganz im Norden von British Columbia.

John Forrest

John Forrest ist seit 35 Jahren Bergführer. Seinen Beruf hat er in den Sommermonaten auch einige Jahre in den Alpen ausgeübt, aber er lebt in Kanada und betreibt dort seit 20 Jahren ein Heli Skiing Unternehmen. Northern Escape Heliskiing (NEH) ist in Terrace ansässig, ganz im Norden von British Columbia.

Die Gegend ist bekannt für viel Niederschlag und die große Entfernung zu Ballungszentren. Außer Schnee gibt es hier im Winter nicht viel. Als wir kurz vor Weihnachten miteinander telefoniert haben, berichtete John von 10 Meter Schnee in höheren Lagen. Anlass unseres Telefonats war eine Marketing Email, die wir von einer von John betrauten Agentur bekommen haben. Betreff: “Can Heliskiing be green?” In der Email wurde die zertifizierte Carbon Neutrality des Unternehmens angepriesen, die durch Offsets erreicht wird. Das klingt erstmal schon sehr nach Greenwashing, schließlich schreit kaum etwas lauter "dekadente Klimasünde" als Heliskiing. Nach ein paar eher kritischen Fragen per Email war der Enthusiasmus für ein Interview seitens John und der Agentur ungebrochen und weil ich neugierig bin, gibt es jetzt ein Interview. 

John's Argumentation ist im Großen und Ganzen: Als Heliskiing Anbieter wird er sich nicht selbst abschaffen, aber er will sein Unternehmen so klimafreundlich, wie das unter der Voraussetzung "Heliskiing" eben möglich ist, betreiben. Am Schluss des Artikels finden sich ein paar Auszüge aus einem Emissions-Report von John's Firma im Vergleich zu Zahlen für Skiurlaub in Österreich.


PowderGuide: Let me be blunt, when I got that email from your marketing team about green heli skiing my first response was, “are they serious”?

John Forrest: Heli skiing exists here in Canada and elsewhere. That’s a given for us, it’s how we make a living. We’re part of an ecosystem. Heli skiing is a trip people take, not unlike other kinds of luxury vacations. There are definitely impacts from its existence, there’s no doubt about that. We are trying to make it better and I think your readers might be interested to understand that it's substantially less impactful than many people think. The emissions report we did brings it in line with going to many other luxury type destinations. 

You say your business is carbon neutral. Is there more to it than offsets?

Well, we started out partnering with a consulting group that worked with us to identify what our carbon footprint is. We looked at everything our company did, whether it was flying to Europe to do marketing, or our staff driving to work, or generators that produce power, the lodges, helicopter usage, everything that we do as a company.

I saw that even the toilet paper is in the report.

Yeah, everything! Single use plastics, everything. We weighed our garbage. It was a very, very comprehensive audit of our carbon footprint. That basically gave us a starting point to become carbon neutral. At this stage, the only way to do that was to purchase carbon offsets, which we all know isn't the solution. But it’s a start, I would say an improvement. The carbon offsets that we purchase support many initiatives. The majority of them go to the Great Bear Rainforest here in Canada and there are a few others around the world that we invest in. Offsetting is not the end game. It's the starting point. Our true goal, now that we understand our footprint, is to figure out how we mitigate and reduce that as much as possible. 

Everyone jumps on the helicopter usage and says, “Oh my gosh, you fly helicopters around all day, you're producing so much carbon”. When you look at the total carbon footprint of the company, the helicopter usage is only about 30%. Our usage is not as intensive as most people think. The typical helicopter might fly two or three hours a day of actual engine running. 

In my lifetime, we probably won't be able to ever eliminate the carbon usage from the helicopter. Unless Tesla's got something secret going on with an electric helicopter that we don't know about! But as I said, the carbon footprint from the helicopter is actually a fairly small piece of the puzzle. By looking at the rest of our carbon footprint, we can make dramatic reductions. 

Some of your readers may simply be against heli skiing, and I understand that. The principle that we're working on is that heli skiing exists and will keep existing. So how do we improve things? How do we do better? How do we reduce our carbon footprint?

The largest contributor to our carbon footprint is one of the lodges. We have two lodges, one is on the power grid. In British Columbia all electricity is generated by hydroelectric plants. The second lodge runs on generators with diesel fuel. That is the single largest contributor to our carbon footprint. We're looking at investing a little less than half a million dollars into a solar system that will reduce emissions from the lodge by 60 to 70%. 

Vehicle usage is another big one. We drive guests around. We're replacing all of our vehicles with suitable electric units as they come due to be replaced. Again, in BC our power is generated by hydro electric. So electric vehicles actually do have a positive impact as opposed to electricity that's generated by coal elsewhere.

Another example is our staff flying to work. Some of them fly in for shifts, some of them live in Terrace. If we change our scheduling so that they don’t have to fly as often, we can mitigate some of the impact of flying. We can change how and where we hire them from. There are all those steps that we can take before we get to the helicopters, which we really can't do anything about.


What prompted these efforts?

Having been a guide for 35 years, and having lived in the mountains all my life, I see the change, I see what is happening in our world. And I want to be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem. In British Columbia, there are actually really positive things that come out of the heli skiing industry. We operate in very remote areas and we are some of the largest employers there, providing employment over the winter months where pretty much nothing else would be happening. It is how I make my living and how my family lives. We have 70 employees that make their living with us as well. So to be able to do it as cleanly as possible became our goal. 

Have you seen changes to the snowpack or the weather since you started operating 20 years ago?

Not much where we are, but in my travels to different mountain regions around the world I certainly see the impacts of climate change. What I really notice here is that we get much more extreme weather patterns. The weather used to be more consistent, you knew what to expect. Now everything seems more extreme. Extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme snow, extreme drought. Here in Terrace we went through a few very dry years about a decade ago, which was really unusual for us. Now we seem to be in a period of time where we're back to what I call normal. It's snowing and raining tremendously.

And you're so high up that rain events aren’t a problem for the ski conditions?

It's not necessarily that we're high enough, our mountains are just barely 2000 meters high. The valley bottoms pick up at 300- 400 meters above sea level. The vertical rise is quite big compared to many places but the actual elevation isn't that high. We don’t get many rain on snow events mostly because of our latitude. We’re almost as far north as Oslo.

Here in the Alps, it sometimes seems like there is a sense of panic that winter is going away for good. You don’t seem concerned about that?

We don’t really fear the snow going away. The concerning thing for us are the extreme events. British Columbia had the hottest summer it’s ever had. We had temperatures here pushing 50 degrees Celsius, complete towns burned down. It was the hottest summer ever. Then it was the wettest fall on record. It rained every day in Vancouver for two months.


In the report you talk about emissions per skier day. Is that a day of heli skiing for me as a guest, or is that the operation of the company per day?

On a typical day, we'll have 30 people, which represents 30 skiers, or 30 skier days.

Does that include the travel the guests do to come?

It includes everything from when they arrive in Terrace. They're given links for purchasing carbon credits for their travel if they want. That's really the only option that they have to offset their travel here. A jet flying from LA to London uses twice as much fuel as we use all season. I’m trying to demonstrate that the carbon usage of the helicopters, again, is actually a very small piece of the equation.

If I were to come to your operation from Europe, my personal biggest source of emissions would be the flight over there?

Absolutely, yeah. Like 10 times of your usage once you're here. 

Then the scope three emissions in the report have nothing to do with the guests, that’s you and your team travelling around?

Yeah, exactly.

You are planning to invest about half a million in solar power for the lodge. How long would it take to break even on that investmenr?

The initial investment would start to save on the fuel costs, generator usage and all that. But with the maintenance of that programming, the return period is probably 8 to 10 years. But of course you would see an immediate return on investment for reducing your carbon.


Auf der nächsten Seite gehts weiter ---> 


Diese Lodge wird mit Dieselgeneratoren versorgt und trägt erheblich zu den Emissionen von NEH bei. Bald soll eine Solaranlage installiert werden. add_circle
Diese Lodge wird mit Dieselgeneratoren versorgt und trägt erheblich zu den Emissionen von NEH bei. Bald soll eine Solaranlage installiert werden.

Is being “green” also a selling point of sorts? Have guests ever mentioned they'd like to know the details of the company’s footprint?

The vast majority of our guests are probably not thinking of their carbon impact on the world. But I don't think that's just our guests. I think that's pretty much people in general. Our guests have seldom, if ever, asked about the carbon footprint. It's something that we took on as a company, driven by myself but also everyone else. The end goal is to reduce the amount of offsets we have to purchase. That's where we'll make real changes. The carbon offsets are just a kind of bandaid. I feel that we can probably reduce our carbon footprint by 50% in the next three to five years. Mainly the goal is cutting the diesel and installing the solar for the lodge. 

You have snowcats too, right?

We have several snowcats. The technology is not sufficient yet to replace them with electric vehicles. But we can replace the snowmobiles. We do have to be a little cautious because depending on which lodge they're based at, using electricity for those may not actually create a reduction if it’s the lodge that uses the generators. But at the lodge that uses the hydro power there is a significant reduction. 

You say most of the guests don't particularly care. Some people I discussed this with here said that if they were going to go heliskiing they might pick the guy trying to be green.

It certainly wasn't the driving force behind it, but if it is a positive advertising point that's not a bad thing. I think if people start to think about it, maybe it will help drive their choice. Where can I go that’s not as bad as someplace else?

In the Alps, resort skiing is really central to the local economies and quite defining for life in the valleys. Is that similar for the heli industry in the remote parts of Canada?

In the Alps the ski resorts are very much in the public eye, everyone sees them every day. If you walk through the city of Terrace and ask someone about heli skiing, they don't necessarily know what it is we do. We spread out over a large piece of terrain and we have maybe 30 guests all week. It's not a massive operation. And we're away from town at the lodges, so most people don't even know we exist. But we buy all of our groceries and fuel in town, we're the largest employer in the winter and we do bring in tourism.

Around here, there is a lot of discussion about overtourism and expansions of ski resorts. Sometimes there is a divide between people in the resort villages who rely on the ski industry economically and folks from further away, who tend to be more critical of expansions. Do you see any parallels?

It’s not a good comparison since there are so few people here. 90% of the population of Canada lives within 100 kilometers of the Canada-US border. We are 800 km north of the border. There's nothing here. In Terrace, the nearest town is more than a two hours drive away. And that's a tiny town. The nearest town that has more than 20,000 people is six hours away. It’s very, very industrial here - forestry, mining, logging. I see tourism as a positive thing for the region. We bring tourists in and we develop tourism products, which are far greener than the resource extraction based industries.

So more tourism increases the incentive for protecting the natural environment?

Yes. Here, everything is mining and logging. There is a very significant trend towards tourism in the north right now. Mountain biking, fishing, and hiking in the summer and ski touring and snowmobiling in winter. That displaces or replaces much resource based extraction in terms of employment and use of the land. It is a good thing to see tourism coming north.


Do you personally feel guilty? Is that an emotion you have about your climate footprint? 

I don't think I feel guilty because it is how it is, basically. It's what we do. I have a driving force within me to do better and to mitigate it. So no, I don't feel guilty. But I do feel the need to do it better than our competitors and do it better than the general people's impression of what's going on.

When you say people’s impression, do you mean there is an image problem for heli skiing?  Some high profile athletes have been promoting more human powered adventures in big ski movies. Do you notice any impact of that on the industry?

Well, I think a lot of those movies are just going with the public trend right now as opposed to being meaningful. I've worked on a lot of those movies and they're often not as green as the public thinks they are.

Do you want to go into details there? 

No, let’s not!

We had an interesting discussion with our community last year. A reader criticized some of our writing on sustainability and climate change as being too vague, too nice. They felt we should all be more radical. What you’re doing is kind of incremental. Do you understand this desire for more radical solutions?

I always look at life and decisions on a continuum. And there’s no middle ground without the extremes on either end. Here in Terrace, one extreme is mining and resource extraction. That's as bad as it gets. The other extreme is living in a snow cave the rest of your life.

Maybe the radical guys actually live in a snow cave. But if they don't live in a snow cave, they better understand that there's a middle ground there somewhere. The radical people that want to see the end of our carbon usage - I think they need to look at their own selves first, and see what they can do to make an improvement and what they're willing to sacrifice before they point the finger at someone else. Where we exist, we have a carbon footprint, but we're doing everything we can to reduce that.

I’ve lived in snow caves cooking over a fire for longer than any of your readers, I can guarantee that! But that's not reality for life. So how do we find a balance? Given the fact that our existence is going to create a carbon footprint, how do we reduce that? How do we do better?


Do you expect the heli industry to continue more or less as it’s operating now in the next, say, 10 to 30 years?

The heli skiing industry is typically run by advocates like myself. We've all grown up and lived in the mountains and have a connection to them. I think all of the operators will start to look at their current usage and at how to mitigate it or reduce it. I think it's a natural trend in the industry. We are not the very first to do so, but one of the first. (Anm. d. Red.: Bella Coola Heliskiing hat als erster Anbieter ähnlich Maßnahmen beworben.) It's a very big financial commitment for us to go in this direction, but it's also a company philosophy. You know, I've asked all of our managers, right down to housekeeping, how do we reduce single use? How do we get better?

What's your take on weighing individual responsibility against corporate or government responsibility? 

Well, change has to be embraced. I think people have to decide that they want change and I think that's going to start with the bottom rung on the ladder, which is just people. There's a lot of people that preach and make a big deal out of wanting to reduce things, but they still walk into their house and turn on their lights and get in the car and drive to work and they're not really doing anything. I think if we're gonna see change, people actually have to start making changes. 

And again, it's kind of a continuum. There's living in a snow cave and cooking over a fire, but even that fire causes emissions. There's a middle ground that people should strive for. 

There's the argument that creating political pressure just by talking about it and lobbying is action, because we as individuals can only do so much and there has to be top down pressure as well.

I agree with that. But I would like to see the people that are advocating for change walk the walk as well. I'd like to see that they're not just pushing for change to be forced upon them, that they're actively doing something. I feel I'm actively doing something. I made a conscious decision to reduce my impact personally and at a corporate level as well. We’ve downsized our house. No one's gonna go live in a cave, I totally understand that's an extreme example. But if everyone would get a carbon audit of themselves, and then made an effort to reduce it where they can without destroying their lifestyle, we would all be far better off.

Thank you for talking to us!


Im Carbon Audit von NEH wird ein "skier day" mit 0.62 Tonnen CO2 Emissionen beziffert, Sprit für den Heli macht davon ungefähr ein Drittel (0.2 t CO2) aus. Die Zahl beinhaltet die Unterkunft und alle sonstigen Emissionsquellen ab Ankunft der Gäste in Terrace, aber NICHT die Anreise der Gäste nach Terrace. Die Anreise des NEH Teams ist dagegen in der Rechnung enthalten.

Ein Papier des österreichischen Umweltbundesamtes von 2018 gibt für "Skiurlaub in Österreich bei Anreise mit PKW aus typischen Herkunftsländern" 33 kg CO2 Emissionen pro Person und Tag an, also 0.033 t CO2. Hierbei wird von ca. 500km Anreise und Unterkunft im Hotel ausgegangen. Energieverbrauch für Pistengeräte, Lifte, usw. werden bei der Skiurlaubsanalyse miteinberechnet. Emissionen durch die initiale Erbauung des Gebiets sind nicht erwähnt und vermutlich nicht dabei. Laut Umweltbundesamt hat die Wahl des Verkehrsmittels (Bahn, Flugzeug, PKW) hat den größten Einfluss auf die CO2 Bilanz des Urlaubs.

NEH geht bei ihrer Berechnung von etwa 30 Gästen pro Tag aus. Daraus ergibt sich auch der Wert für einen "Skier Day" (alle Emissionen der Firma geteilt durch 30 Gäste). Absolute Zahlen für ein hiesiges Skigebiet habe ich nicht gefunden. Im Überblick des Umweltbundesamts werden für "Aktivitäten" im Skiurlaub und Unterkunft zusammen 17 kg CO2 pro Person und Tag angegeben. Überschlagsweise ergeben damit etwa 35 Skitage in Österreich einen Heli Ski Tag bei NEH, jeweils mit Unterkunft aber ohne Anreise (600 kg CO2 / 17 kg CO2 = 35.3).



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