March 29, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 13

Coordinates put avalanche inside heli-ski zone

Coordinates provided to Alaska State Troopers last week by Alaska Heliskiing put the site of the company’s March 13 fatal accident five miles southwest of the Tsirku River’s “Devil’s Elbow,” inside the Haines Borough’s helicopter skiing boundaries.

Commercial pilot Paul Swanstrom, who flew in the area last week, said he spotted a slide there that a nearby heli-ski pilot identified to him as likely the one involved in the accident.

Trooper Josh Bentz said the company also provided photos of the avalanche site March 21 identified as ones approved by the firm’s attorneys. The photos, which Bentz declined to make public, show a bowl that generally matches Swanstrom’s description of the slide site as “more of a gentler slope.”

The company told Bentz a delay in releasing the information was due to a heavy workload in the wake of the fatal slide.

The accident is under investigation by the state’s Office of Occupational Safety and Health, but the agency’s final report will await coroners’ reports on the two deaths and may not be public for months, said Keith Bailey, assistant chief of enforcement.

The agency enforces federal workplace safety laws in Alaska, but avalanche regulations fall under parameters for construction sites in avalanche zones, not recreation uses, Bailey said. “There are not really any (regulatory) standards for this.”

Bailey said agency reports typically include interviewing those on the scene and include recommendations on preventing such accidents in the future.

Dwight Bailey, a skier in the group involved in the slide and no relation to the state safety official, told troopers he and other clients didn’t perform stability tests on the slope before they started skiing down it, and he didn’t remember seeing guide Rob Liberman conduct such tests.

Trooper Bentz, who interviewed the four surviving clients in the party, said there were no discrepancies in their accounts of what occurred. “They all thought they were doing everything they could to be safe.”

Ethan Greene, director of Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a clearinghouse for avalanche reports nationwide, said his group is awaiting a report of the avalanche from the company.

“We’ve been told there are still legal issues surrounding the incident. (The company) didn’t want to give us everything until things were cleared up,” Greene said.

Information submitted by Alaska Heliskiing to his group may not include much detail but that wouldn’t be uncommon for avalanches involving commercial outfits, Greene said.

Avalanche reports are voluntary in most states outside of Colorado, where a state agency is involved.

“In the absence of professional avalanche groups in the area, (an investigation) usually falls on the operator. In those situations, sometimes we get a lot of information, and sometimes we don’t,” Greene said. “There’s no mandate to do (a report). We just basically put up anything they decide to send us.”

One exception in Alaska is accidents involving avalanches on U.S. Forest Service land, such as the Chugach National Forest in southcentral Alaska. There, the Forest Service would likely be involved in an investigation, particularly to see if the agency’s operating plan for the activity was being followed, Greene said.

“It’s different in a place where you have a government group that’s doing avalanche work,” Greene said.

Greene described the Alaska Avalanche Information Center as an information-sharing group.

The Alaska center started in 2008. A Haines Avalanche Information Center was launched by resident Erik Stevens in 2010. The statewide group named Stevens as the Haines-area forecaster. The group insures Stevens’ work, oversees his forecast and provides peer review.