March 15, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 11

Heli-ski guide, client killed in avalanche

Slide danger was ranked ‘considerable’

A heli-ski guide and a client died after being caught in an avalanche Tuesday morning during a heli-ski tour near Chilkat Lake.

Alaska State Trooper Josh Bentz said Robert Liberman, 35, of Telluride, Colo., was pronounced dead at 12:30 p.m. at the Haines clinic. Nickolay Dodov, 26, of Truckee, Calif., died Wednesday afternoon at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.

Autopsies will be conducted on both victims, trooper Bentz said.

Dodov and Liberman had been buried in six to eight feet of snow and were unresponsive when other skiers dug them out 20 to 25 minutes after the avalanche, Bentz said. Troopers were notified at 11:11 a.m.

Six skiers, including guide Liberman, had started out on an Alaska Heliskiing tour around 10:30 a.m. and were at the south end of Takhin Ridge, on a slope that faced northeast, Bentz said.

They were making the first run of the day down a familiar heli-ski peak known as “Swany’s,” that some of the skiers on board had descended about a week before.

Liberman descended first, positioning himself downhill and to the left of the clients. Using a walkie-talkie system that linked members of the group, the guide radioed skiers to come down, one at a time.

Three skiers had descended when Dodov headed down the peak, skiing a little farther toward the right than had the previous ones, apparently triggering the slide. Skiers at the bottom of the slope were on a ridge and reported the avalanche passed within 20 feet and on both sides of where they were standing.

Liberman and Dodov both were wearing electronic beacons that helped locate them beneath the snow. Dodov was wearing an “Avalung” breathing device and was found with its mouthpiece in his mouth. Dodov also was wearing a rip-cord-triggered air bag. The bag – designed to keep skiers atop avalanches – had not been deployed and its rip cord was still zippered into a pocket on Dodov’s suit, Bentz said.

Client Dwight Bailey, 35, of Avery, Calif., was at the group’s starting point, about 500 feet down from the top of the mountain, and the last group member still waiting to ski, when the avalanche occurred.

He told Bentz the crown of the avalanche was four to five feet high and that he thought guide Liberman had positioned himself in a safe spot.

The skiers had received a day of safety training, including on use of locator beacons and helicopters, Bailey told the trooper. “Everything was top notch,” Bailey said in an interview later with the CVN.

Bailey told the newspaper that members of the group didn’t make any avalanche tests on the peak, such as digging a snow pit, and he didn’t remember Liberman doing any tests. But he said he didn’t know it would have mattered, as such tests aren’t foolproof. “It wasn’t apparent to any of us that it was a danger.”

The group had been skiing Monday and the snow seemed firm enough that on Tuesday Bailey packed only his Avalung, and not the air bag. The other clients in the group carried both safety devices, he said.

“The stability was good, but different peaks, and different elevations and different exposures…,” he said.

Liberman had worked for Alaska Heliskiing for six years. In a narrative on the company’s website, he described himself as a former college ski racer.

Dodov’s trip here was his first, and he was accompanied by three close friends, including Bailey, a skiing buddy from eastern California.

Both Liberman and Dodov rated their skiing ability as “expert” in pre-tour paperwork filed with the company. Dodov wrote that he skis 100 days a year. Other clients in Dodov’s group Tuesday included Casey O’Steen, 35, of Murphy, Calif., Brandon Corbett, 34, also of Murphy, and Ryan Kirkpatrick, 28, of Salem, Ore.

Trooper Bentz said Alaska Heliskiing had three helicopters working in rotation and 40 skiers, including six guides, on the mountains at the time of the avalanche.

Erik Stevens, Haines avalanche forecaster for the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, said he’d posted a warning of “considerable” avalanche danger in Haines Sunday, his most recent update.

Although the center’s scale of avalanche danger includes higher ratings including “high” and “extreme,” most human-caused avalanches occur at the “considerable” notch because the danger then is most difficult to discern, he said.

“No one goes out when it’s ‘extreme,’ and when it’s ‘high’ you know which slopes are going to slide. It’s easier to predict,” Stevens said.

Avalanche danger increases when a heavy snow falls on multiple weak layers of accumulation, as occurred late last week, he said. Stevens had ratcheted up the danger to “high” on Thursday and Friday, when several mountains shed during “natural” avalanches.

“The problem is that not every slope has reached the critical amount of snow that causes a natural slide to occur,” he said.

Recent cool weather in the mountains means that layers of accumulated snow hadn’t compressed and bound together, he said. Stevens said south winds last week would have tended to load snow onto the north sides of peaks.

Alaska Heliskiing co-owner Vicki Gardner declined to answer questions about the accident this week, but issued a statement. “We are all in a great state of mourning over the loss of our dear friend and our hearts and thoughts are with the family and friends of both victims… I would like to thank everyone in Haines for your expressions of compassion received yesterday and today.”

The company suspended operations Wednesday and was reportedly conducting its own accident investigation.