September 13, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 37

Victim's family: Revoke heli-ski permit

The parents of a 26-year-old man killed by an avalanche during an Alaska Heliskiing tour in March want the Haines Borough to discontinue the company’s permit, saying details of the fatal accident showed the firm did not follow its own, borough-approved operation and safety plan.

“We believe permit requirements and compliance to policies, procedures and protocols in the operations plan have been broken, resulting in the death of Nickolay Dodov. We have documentation of negligence, unsafe operations and procedures not followed,” Alex and Natalia Dodov wrote to the borough Aug. 17.

The couple sent 23 pages of documents including ones comparing the company’s operations and safety plan to details contained in an avalanche incident report written by Alaska Heliskiing guide Kent Scheler.

The complaint became known this week after the Dodovs forwarded it to the Chilkat Valley News. Phone calls and e-mail messages to Alaska Heliskiing Tuesday and Wednesday were not returned to the newspaper.

Alex Dodov describes himself as a professional ski and snowboard coach who worked as a heli-ski guide and operator in Europe. In an interview this week, the couple said they would sue Alaska Heliskiing for gross negligence.

“We realize that heli-snowboarding is an inherently dangerous sport. We have a life of outdoor experience… We have learned that Alaska Heliskiing was extremely negligent, ignoring normal safety protocol. We believe to attract kids with your advertisement and not do your job in a professional way has no place on the mountains,” they wrote.

Nickolay Dodov, 26, of Truckee, Calif., and company guide Rob Liberman, 35, of Telluride, Colo., died in a skier-triggered avalanche at “Swanny’s,” a mountain bowl on the west side of Takhin Ridge at about 10:30 a.m. on March 13.

The couple’s allegations, in several areas, contradict statements made to Alaska State Troopers shortly after the accident by Dwight Bailey, one of five skiers in the group on the fatal trip.

In an interview this week, the Dodovs said their information includes footage from a “Go Pro” film of the outing and testimony from another skier in the group, Casey Osteen, a friend of their son.

“There’s a lot of conflicting information,” Natalia Dodov said this week in a telephone interview.

The couple said the film shows Bailey expressing suspicion about snow conditions and eliciting this response from guide Liberman: “Don’t be concerned. The snow should be fine. It’s just an alpine bowl.”

Liberman also referred to Swanny’s as “the bunny hill,” according to the Dodovs.

According to the Dodovs, skiers in the group first were taken to a peak where Liberman tested the snow condition and found it unsafe. They proceeded to a second slope, where they made a run, but wet snow there was sticking to their snowboards.

Osteen told guide Liberman he didn’t want to spend any more money on “crappy snow,” but Liberman told the group that the company was already paying for the helicopter, the Dodovs said.

“My boy was getting close to Rob (Liberman). He’d support Rob in any way,” Alex Dodov said in an interview.

But the Dodovs also claim Liberman made jokes about his clients wearing safety gear, including breathing devices and inflatable cushions that keep skiers atop avalanches. Dodov was wearing both devices when he died. Liberman wasn’t wearing either one.

“He said, ‘Why are you wearing that stuff? I never wear that stuff.’ (Liberman) said, when his time comes, it’s okay with him,” said Alex Dodov.

The Dodovs said the company had a responsibility, as outlined in its permit, to study and understand snow conditions, to check the stability of slopes and choose appropriate routes.

Inconsistencies they cited include a company report that the avalanche danger rating on March 13 was “moderate,” while the Haines Avalanche Information Center reported it as “considerable.”

The “considerable” rating is the most hazardous and comes when avalanche danger is high, but not immediately obvious.

“Avalanche education courses teach that slopes with 25 to 40 degree pitch with a considerable avalanche rating in effect are the most prone to major catastrophic avalanches,” the couple wrote.

The company’s report that the snowpack on March 12 was “right side up” conflicts with the avalanche information center’s that the snow was “upside down,” including “widespread weak layers,” the Dodovs said.

Among the questions raised by the family are:

· Why the Haines Borough hasn’t requested a full investigation of the accident and the company’s accident report;

· Why two other skier groups – one on a nearby ridge waiting to ski the same slope and another in the air – weren’t used in the attempted rescue of the buried skiers, as suggested by company’s avalanche plan;

· Why Liberman didn’t check on the readiness of his clients’ safety gear;

· Why an ambulance instead of a helicopter was used to bring Dodov into town; and,

· Why no one from the Alaska Heliskiing contacted them until two days after the accident.

The Dodovs also said that emergency contact information and a pilot roster information on the company’s permit application is out of date. “The Haines Borough put its stamp on a permit with information that was outdated four or five years. It’s like a small-town patting (the compnay) on the back,” Alex Dodov said this week.