COVID-19 Positive Case
The first time Ian Tomm, president of Eagle Pass Heliskiing, realized the real threat COVID-19 posed to his company was during a dinner party in January this year.
By the end of February, Ian was working hard to prepare. “I really pressed pause on everything,” he told the Mountaineer.
Yet, the inevitable thing happened. Even though Eagle Pass had been screening for weeks, one of their guests tested positive for COVID-19 after flying home to the U.S.
Eagle Pass Lodge will be closed
Tomm points out that dealing with infectious diseases is not something new for heli skiing lodges, as, “the Norovirus cripples at least one heli ski operation a year.” However, with the severity of COVID-19, this year will be a little different. Eagle Pass’ luxury lodge will be closed for bookings and only functioning as their staff accommodation.
On the flip side, multi-day heli-skiing guests will be staying in privately booked accommodation and seeking out local restaurants and bars in the evenings. In other words, guests will be exposing themselves to further risk, which they potentially could bring back into the helicopter the next day. However, Tomm is hopeful and points to the success of distancing protocols in schools across B.C.
Screening ‘pulse oximeter levels’
This season, Eagle Pass is not only taking the temperature of guests and staff, but they are also checking their ‘pulse oximeter levels’ (blood oxygen levels and pulse rate) in an attempt to catch pre-symptomatic cases. When it comes to COVID-19 specific testing, Tomm says he is frustrated with the government. “I spend too much time every day trying to get rapid testing for Eagle Pass — it’s really hard.”
Impossible to social distance in a helicopter
Eagle Pass has always operated with small groups of four. This season, the operation specifically asks groups of singles and doubles to get a group of four friends together, trying to avoid merging pre-existing ‘bubbles.’
However, if this cannot be achieved, groups of strangers will be sitting closer than six-feet apart inside the helicopter. Ian reassures that the windows will be cracked open, “and if you really think about it, wearing gloves, masks, googles, and helmets, we already got PPE on.”
Guests will only spend two minutes in the helicopter between runs, and a little longer flying in and out for the day. Tomm justifies this grey area with research showing heightened risk of contamination when spending more than 15 minutes in close proximity to someone. Ian admits how fragile the operation is, “It only takes one lazy person, staff or guest, then it all falls apart.”
Cutting costs and keeping staff
Today, Tomm is thankful they decided to keep all their staff on and protect their wages. Instead, Eagle Pass has been cutting costs on “literally everything,” and keeping their pricing the same, in contrast to other heli skiing providers offering big discounts for local Canadians. To attract a more local crowd, new programs like ‘heli-assisted ski touring’ have been released. Inspired by the mountain biking and golf industry this summer, Ian hopes to see the same “big domestic boom” for heli-skiing.
Eagle Pass Heliskiing is still marketing internationally. “We simply cannot take a pause from fueling the stoke,” Tomm said. Most overseas guests have chosen not to get a refund but to hold on to their seats. If the borders open and there is rapid testing available, Eagle Pass will welcome guests from outside of Canada.
Ian empathizes they will “do the right thing” this winter, and that they are prepared to close. “We probably cannot survive the loss of a full season,” he said. However, he doesn’t doubt that their shareholders will have their back. Tomm thinks it is important to operate a business during times of a pandemic. “People need employment, but they also need enjoyment.” Ian wraps it up on a positive note: “There are deep friendships within the heli-skiing industry, and those friendships are going to see us through.”