One week after an avalanche claimed the lives of a heli-ski client and guide, key details of the March 13 accident are missing, including its precise location.
Alaska State Trooper Josh Bentz said Wednesday he has asked Alaska Heliskiing four or five times for the coordinates of the accident, information he needs to complete his incident report. The Haines Borough also is seeking the coordinates.
The company did not return phone or e-mail messages left by the Chilkat Valley News this week.
Orion Koleis, business manager for Alaska Heliskiing, told Bentz last week the accident occurred on a northeast-facing slope of a peak on the south end of the Takhin Ridge. About half the ridge, including its eastern and southernmost parts, is outside the borough’s heli-ski boundaries.
Dwight Bailey, who was with the group caught in the avalanche, identified the peak to trooper Bentz as “Swany’s,” an apparent reference to Dave Swanwick, a former World Freeskiing Champion who organized the filming of “Snowthrill of Alaska” here in 2002.
Mayor Stephanie Scott said she’d heard rumors immediately after the accident that the skiers were outside the borough’s prescribed boundaries for commercial heli-skiing. “I thought it would behoove the borough to get out in front of that rumor,” she said.
Scott said she asked borough manager Mark Earnest to request the coordinates of the company on March 14. As of Wednesday morning, Earnest said he hadn’t requested the information, as he’d been out of town since late last week. “We’re working on that,” Earnest said.
Erik Stevens, Haines avalanche forecaster for the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, this week said he was awaiting a report on the accident for information he’d include in his forecasts of avalanche danger in the area.
Reports of fatal avalanches are posted on the website of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a clearinghouse for information on accidents nationwide. But this week, the site only offered an initial report that two heli-skiers were buried and killed on Takhin Ridge.
Blanks in an information form posted on the site this week included the type of avalanche, its trigger, size, sliding surface, and the aspect, elevation, angle and characteristics of the slope.
Stevens said information in the avalanche report – that he understood was pending – is important for ensuring the safety of others in the backcountry. “It’s not about casting blame. It’s about finding out what layers failed and how it was triggered and what kind of terrain they were on. The public needs to know what to look out for.”
Avalanche fatalities involving commercial tours are rare, Stevens said. “It’s almost always a private individual or a group, not a guided operation.”
Kent Scheler, who has previously guided for Alaska Heliskiing, has been brought in to write the detailed report, Stevens said. That has stirred a conversation among avalanche monitors.
“We’re concerned that all the details won’t make it through Alaska Heliskiing’s attorneys... Kent’s as professional as they come but there are many in the avalanche community who think there would be value in an independent review of events,” Stevens said.
It was unclear this week what, if any, safety assessments Alaska Heliskiing had done on “Swany’s” before guide Robert Liberman led five clients to the peak on the morning of March 13. Client Bailey said last week he and the four other clients hadn’t done any tests and he didn’t remember Liberman doing any.
Stevens said detailed reports typically involve interviewing members of the group caught in the avalanche, including whether there were concerns expressed about slope stability and what slope assessments were done. Such a report would include after-the-fact stability tests to see how weak were the snow’s weak layers there and what layers failed.
Stevens said heli-skiers, including clients, can make different kinds of tests of snow stability, including digging snow pits, using ski poles to probe the firmness of snow layers below the surface, and even digging shallower pits by hand while resting on peaks.
“No guide will tell you you can’t dig a snow pit, if a client is concerned. They just have to speak up. That can change the whole dynamic,” Stevens said, though he added that it may be intimidating for novice heli-skiers to raise the questions to a veteran guide.
“It’s part of a group, decision-making process. It’s not just about following the guide. (That kind of decision-making) is probably what the guides are encouraging anyway,” Stevens said.
Stevens said he would likely include information from the detailed report in his own, supplementary report to emphasize how local backcountry users can learn from the accident and how to modify their backcountry practices accordingly.
Stevens is a backcountry skier who holds a Level II certification from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. He has a master’s degree in Remote Sensing, Earth and Space Sciences and served four years as president of the Backcountry Club at University of Colorado-Boulder.
He founded the Haines Avalanche Information Center in 2010 and was made a forecaster by the Alaska Avalanche Information Center.
There’s no standard set of qualifications to be considered an “avalanche forecaster,” Stevens said. “I like to think that all guides are forecasters. You can’t be taking people into the backcountry without forecasting skills.”