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Pressure grows on Swiss heliskiing

Anti-heliskiing campaigner on Swiss peak
Campaigners say Switzerland's pristine areas should be out of bounds to helicopters

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Swiss Alps

Even though the regular ski season is over in Europe, the most intrepid skiers and snowboarders are still hunting out off-piste trails they can enjoy in sunny isolation. Some will climb on their own two legs but others will search out the best runs by helicopter.

But a campaign in Switzerland against heliskiing is gaining support, with all of the country's environmental groups petitioning the government to ban the practice.

An estimated 15,000 helicopter flights take place in Switzerland each year, to take skiers up to glaciers not reached by chair lifts or cable cars.

Environmental groups say the noise and fuel consumption is unjustified, pointing out that France and Germany have already banned heliskiing, while neighbouring Austria permits just two landing sites for it.

In Switzerland there are 42 landing sites. Half of them, environmental groups complain, are in protected areas.

If it happens to fly four tourists up to a place you can go by foot, it's absolutely unnecessary
Andreas Leibundgut
Mountain guide

But helicopter companies and mountain rescue services point out that helicopters are a fact of life in the Alps. They are used to deliver food to mountain huts, to rescue climbers and skiers, and to take construction materials up to alpine villages. Banning heliskiing would not, they claim, reduce the number of helicopter flights by any significant amount.

Switzerland's Lauterbrunnen valley is one of the busiest regions for helicopter traffic. And, on a sunny spring morning, more than 60 skiers are already lined up, waiting for their flights to the glaciers.

The helicopters come and go at five minute intervals, and, because of the valley's high rock faces, the noise is very, very loud.

"I don't think it's a problem," says one skier. "These valleys are not really populated, the flights only take a few minutes. And the business is good for the local economy."

Silence shattered

That is a point echoed by Daniel Sulzer, head of the helicopter company Bohag.

Helicopter carries skiers up to Swiss Alps
Around 15,000 heliskiing flights take place in Switzerland each year

"Heliskiing is not a huge part of our turnover," he explains. "But it is a very important part, and if we didn't do it I would have to send people home - there would be less work."

But down in the Lauterbrunnen valley, far below the glaciers and the helicopters, spring is in full bloom, and here, people are worried about the effect the helicopters are having on the environment, and on the local economy.

"The Lauterbrunnen valley is a Unesco world heritage site," explains mountain guide Andreas Leibundgut.

"This is one of the most beautiful spots in Switzerland. But unluckily there is also a lot of flying going on here, it can be very noisy, and sometimes every two minutes you have a helicopter buzzing by."

Still Andreas does accept that the Alps will always have to have some helicopters.

"If it happens now and then for the supplying of a mountain hut, or for a rescue, it's OK," he says.

"But if it happens to fly four tourists up to a place you can go by foot, it's absolutely unnecessary."

"It spoils the silence of the mountains, and that's what I, as a mountain guide, and many other guides in Switzerland, try to sell to our guests - the silence and the beauty of the Swiss Alps. So heliskiing really ruins our business and that's a problem."

Difficult balance

So, while there is agreement that Alpine glaciers and pristine powder slopes are also part of Switzerland's tourist attractions, there is huge disagreement over how accessible those areas should be.

Skiers trek off-piste in Switzerland
Some think skiers should "work for their turns" by trekking uphill

Within Switzerland, the campaign to ban heliskiing is gathering momentum. Many keen Swiss skiers happily put "skins" on their skis to enable them to hike uphill to the glaciers. It takes several hours and a high level of physical fitness but, many say, if people really want the unique experience of skiing on the glaciers they should be prepared for that.

This month Switzerland's major environmental groups, including the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), handed a petition with over 15,000 signatures to the Swiss government, demanding a ban on heliskiing.

"I think it's time," says Esther Hegglin of the environmental group Mountain Wilderness. "When you think that France banned heliskiing in 1984 and here we are in 2010 and Switzerland still hasn't done so."

"These remote Alpine areas are rare now," she continues. "We have very few really silent, really natural places left, and we should protect them."

Nevertheless Ms Hegglin is realistic enough to realise that whatever decision the government makes on heliskiing, it is likely to try to keep all the vested interests happy.

"Of course we want to ban heliskiing totally," she says.

"But it would be a first step to ban it from the really protected areas, because there are a lot of landing spaces in those areas. That could be a first step and I think that would be fair."

The Swiss civil aviation authority is now scrutinising Switzerland's network of helicopter landing sites and, it is thought, some landing sites may, eventually, be closed.

So while those beautiful untouched high altitude slopes will still attract skiers, it may soon take a good deal longer to get up to them than it does to get down.



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