May 10, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 19

Industy, skiers revisit safety issues

The deaths of two heli-skiers in an avalanche here has generated safety discussions among firms conducting the tours and among backcountry skiers.

The March 13 avalanche buried Alaska Heliskiing guide Rob Liberman and client Nick Dodov under six to eight feet of snow. Recent autopsies determined both died of asphyxiation. The slide occurred as Dodov was descending a Takhin Ridge slope and Liberman was standing off to one side. Liberman and three other clients had already descended the slope when the snow slid.

Both Liberman and Dodov were wearing electronic beacons that helped locate them beneath the snow, but excavating them took between 20 and 35 minutes, according to state trooper and coroner reports.

Dodov apparently was using an “Avalung” breathing device before he was uncovered. Avalungs allow skiers to draw breath from a relatively large area and exhale it behind them, potentially reducing carbon dioxide in a trapped skier’s breathing area and increasing survival time.

Dodov also was wearing an inflatable flotation pack aimed at keeping skiers trapped in avalanches on the surface, but had not pulled its rip cord, which was tucked into a zippered pocket.

Guide Liberman wasn’t wearing either device.

Scott Sundberg, general manager of Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), said the accident prompted his company to reconsider some issues, including the location of skiers downslope of a client making a descent.

“With something like this, there’s always a shake-out where a company goes through its protocols and analyzes the event,” said Sundberg, who is also the firm’s lead guide. “We tried to learn what we could from it, including response time, but it was hard to take any one thing out. (Liberman and Dodov) were pretty deep.”

Sundberg said most of his company’s guides wear the float packs, and his company “strongly encourages” their use. SEABA also rents the packs to clients and provides inflating canisters to skiers who show up with their own.

Sundberg said the devices have been shown to have about a 95 percent survival rate. “Even when you do get buried, you’re pretty close to the surface and the (excavation) time is pretty quick,” he said.

The packs’ effectiveness became evident during a winter that saw a high number of avalanches in the Lower 48, he said. “Sales of those are up after this year. (Skiers) who had the (air packs) were the ones who survived.”

Sundberg said he recommends using the air packs alone to simplify things for a skier caught up in an avalanche.

The March accident also prompted SEABA to reassess locations where skiers who have descended slopes come to a stop. “Placement of the guide and placement of clients when (a client) is skiing is part of our study,” he said. “That was a heads-up that this event gave to us.”

It’s possible to excavate skiers buried deep in snow, but “we don’t like that,” Sundberg said. Resident Elijah Donat was buried upside down, with his head 10 feet or more under the surface, after getting caught in a slide about six years ago near 18 Mile Haines Highway.

Skiers – including a group of four or five equipped with shovels who happened to be in a nearby helicopter training for avalanche response – tunneled an airway to him within seven or eight minutes, said Sundberg, who was on the scene.

Donat, who passed out before the group reached him, said this week that he was so tightly compressed by snow that taking a breath was difficult. “You can’t take a breath. It’s like having a truck parked on your chest.”

Donat, who was not wearing a flotation or breathing device, said he believes the extra rescue crew was the difference between life and death for him. “It’s pretty clear to me I wouldn’t have (survived without them),” he said.

Sundberg said about 15 minutes is the maximum survival time for a fully buried skier.

Alaska Mountain Guides president Sean Gaffney said the March avalanche could have happened to any of the valley’s three operators. “It’s a constant concern.”

He’s hoping to see a program for public sharing of beacons, extending to backcountry users like snowmachiners. “If you go without them, you’re rolling the dice with your life. Safety needs to be the focus of all users.”

Sharing of information about avalanche risk is “critical,” including getting information from recreational users like snowmachiners, he said.

Float packs are an “enormous step forward in technology to make people safer,” Gaffney said. “We support their use.”

“You need education and you need tools. I think we’re moving forward that way,” Gaffney said.

Erik Stevens, a backcountry skier and forecaster for the Alaska Avalanche Information Center in Haines, said “a clear channel of communication” between his organization and heli-ski firms about snow conditions also would improve safety.

Stevens said he has had limited communication with heli-ski firms, which he said are understandably concerned about sharing their research about snow conditions, as such information might be intercepted by competing firms or misinterpreted by the public.

Stevens said he is confident he could interpret companies’ information into his forecasts without divulging specifics. Information about aspects and elevations where they see avalanche activity, including regions where they’re not necessarily skiing, could be very useful, he said.

“The more information, the better for all parties involved. In the end, it’s all in the spirit of making things safer,” Stevens said.

Alaska Heliskiing declined comment for this story.