Film features story of extreme skiing, risks
The March 2012 deaths of a heli-ski guide and client near Haines are profiled in a film currently making the rounds on the festival circuit in the Lower 48.
From mid-February to mid-March 2012, filmmaker Ben Clark skied and interviewed staff and clients of Haines-based heli-ski operator Alaska Heliskiing. The result of Clark’s time here is “The Alaskan Way,” a one-hour documentary film billed as raising the question, “Is living the dream worth risking it all?”
The opening scene features footage and radio communication recorded March 13, 2012, when an avalanche killed Alaska Heliskiing guide Rob Liberman and client Nick Dodov near the west side of Takhin Ridge.
“Rob...Rob...do you copy?” a voice crackles over the radio. “I need you to get on Rob’s frequency right now and get me a count ASAP.”
The film was profiled in a Tuesday New York Times story about risk, death and grief in extreme winter sports.
Clark, in addition to summiting Mount Everest a decade ago, has guided, skied and climbed all over the world. In an interview with the Chilkat Valley News this week, Clark said that while heli-skiing here he witnessed a higher tolerance for risk than he has seen in other places.
Clark also said he was “not surprised” by the death of heli-ski guide Christian Cabanilla here Sunday. Cabanilla worked for Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), one of three local heli-ski firms. Clark didn’t ski with SEABA, a company that in May said it was reviewing safety procedures following the March 13 deaths.
In addition to observing a major cornice collapse and other close calls on the peaks during his time in Haines, Clark said avalanches were commonplace and guides pushed to “the edge of what’s reasonable.” By continually pushing what Clark referred to as “the edge,” “you’re eventually going to get the result of this past weekend,” he said.
Deaths of guides is particularly distressing, Clark said. “It would seem to me that if you’re losing your staff, you have to start putting some investment into not having that happen. If the people who are the most experienced and are the best at assessing conditions are dying – and in subsequent years – that to me is really alarming.”
“When it comes to losing Rob Liberman, a top industry professional, you have to stop and say, ‘Wait a second. How do we protect ourselves?’” Clark said.
Scott Raynor, who has owned and operated Valdez Heli-Ski Guides since 2000, said heli-skiing deaths in Alaska “are very few compared to other heli-skiing areas around the world.”
Raynor said in addition to the three Haines deaths, he is aware of three other Alaskan deaths ever occurring during a commercial heli-ski tour: one in Valdez in 2009, and the other two, also in Valdez, in the late 1990s.
“Statistically, it looks like the Chilkats might be an area to observe. Maybe with the popularity of more people coming there and the frequency and the allotment of skier days, perhaps that increase in sample size of the users is suddenly starting to show the weaknesses in the assessments of what’s going on,” Clark said.
Assessments and research of snow conditions in the area are key, Clark said. Getting sufficient data will require cooperation between Haines heli-ski operators, other users and the Haines Avalanche Information Center (HAIC), which is lacking, said HAIC founder Erik Stevens.
“I’ve been trying to set up a good observation sharing system for a while now. There’s hurdles to overcome, and we’re still in the process of overcoming those... It’s a sensitive issue. (Heli-ski companies) have their proprietary information; they don’t want to lose their competitive advantage. And I want to protect that, while also getting the information out there and keeping the public safe,” Stevens said.
Clark said he understands some level of “trade secret” protection, but said companies need to be more open with their information about area snow conditions.
“I don’t understand why these guys couldn’t just say, ‘I was at this aspect on this elevation.’ If they can’t and you have three people dead in the last year – which was totally unprecedented for Alaska and heli-skiing – it’s kind of like, look, take a moment and look at what you’re doing. There could be some room for some changes,” Clark said.
An absence of self-reflection and internal improvements paired with the high death rate will ultimately lead to outside regulation, Clark said.
Although he ultimately can’t offer a definitive solution, Clark said part of the answer is hitting “pause” instead of “stop.”
“I think the bottom line in Haines is the area needs more research done before people can properly assess it. I hope our film is a catalyst that spurs some investment in helping these guys learn more about it and creates funding for avalanche organizations to contribute to that education as well,” Clark said.