Avalanche buries skier on event eve
Sundberg dug out of slide
Despite a Wednesday morning avalanche that partially buried the event’s co-coordinator and an insurance snafu delaying the Haines Borough’s issuance of a permit, the Freeride World Tour will go on, organizers said.
Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures co-owner Scott Sundberg, 40, was partially buried by an avalanche in the Telemark Ridge area of the Kicking Horse drainage around 11:35 a.m. Wednesday.
According to state troopers, Sundberg’s head was buried beneath the snow and part of his body was exposed. Rescue personnel quickly located Sundberg and recovered him from the snow, at which time he regained consciousness and was breathing, troopers said.
Sundberg was taken to the Haines clinic for evaluation but suffered “no injuries,” according to a brief SEABA press release signed by co-owner Nick Trimble. Sundberg deployed an avalanche airbag he was wearing, Trimble said.
Five international and local guides, including Sundberg, were assessing snow conditions for the Freeride World Tour’s upcoming free-skiing event when the avalanche occurred. Troopers said Sundberg performed a “hard carve” while skiing, triggering the slide.
Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures is partnered with Freeride World Tour for the international skiing and snowboarding event, which will feature 36 top athletes from around the world.
Freeride World Tour general manager Nicolas Hale-Woods was with Sundberg when the avalanche occurred. Hale-Woods and the other guides were a safe distance away from where the “small to medium” avalanche was triggered, he said.
“Everybody on the field was in a position to see most (parts) of it,” Hale-Woods said. “We were in a safe place when that happened and could react quickly.”
Within minutes, Sundberg was in a helicopter and a couple of hours later, Sundberg was in the SEABA office taking part in the safety debriefing, Hale-Woods said.
Hale-Woods declined to say how far Sundberg fell and characterized the accident in positive terms.
“The whole point of this (safety inspection) exercise is to prepare the rescue crew,” he said. “The whole security and rescue procedure went really well.”
Hale-Woods said Sundberg’s use of the avalanche airbag played a key role in his rescue. Airbags are inflatable backpacks deployed with a ripcord that keep skiers on top of avalanches, preventing or minimizing burial.
“Athletes (competing in the Freeride World Tour) will have exactly the same gear: avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, airbag, back protection and helmet. This is one of the key points in this type of competition,” Hale-Woods said.
Hale-Woods said the accident hasn’t given him second thoughts about pushing forward with the event. “It’s not ordinary, but it happens in mountains, especially when you are in the mountains a high number of days during the season, it does happen,” Hale-Woods said.
Guides will be scouting out other potential venues for the event, in case conditions in the Telemark Ridge area remain unstable over the next several days.
“Should one of these venues not work, often we find one that works, and today it is impossible to say where and when the event will happen,” Hale-Woods said.
The Freeride World Tour has a weather window from Saturday until Sunday, March 22, to hold the event. “We have to work according to what Mother Nature presents,” Hale-Woods said. “The good news is there is good snow out there, and there are windows in the coming days.”
Haines Avalanche Information Center director Erik Stevens said recent conditions have been moderate, with little wind. A storm moving into the area Wednesday night was expected to change conditions, Stevens said.
“General stability will be decreasing with new snow,” Stevens said.
The avalanche wasn’t the only hiccup in operations that threatened the event. As of press time Wednesday, Freeride World Tour hadn’t secured its borough permit for the event, said borough manager David Sosa.
The issue concerns the Freeride World Tour’s insurance coverage, said tourism director Leslie Ross. The tour’s coverage is under SEABA, and the companies are considering two insurance quotes and intended to sign the paperwork by Thursday, March 12.
“It is true they cannot hold the event without insurance, however that scenario is extremely unlikely and we should see everything finalized today or tomorrow,” Ross said Wednesday.
“Usually these events are held at a resort where the insurance is covered by the resort. This has been a new situation for Freeride World Tour and one that proved more complicated than they anticipated,” Ross said.
Ross met with Hale-Woods Tuesday to discuss the issue.
“He discussed the fact that this is a first for their organization to have this sort of paperwork pushed to the time limit, and it is not their normal or preferred mode of operation. However, they are not concerned and are confident everything will happen today or tomorrow. Freeride World Tour at this point has thousands and thousands of dollars invested in Haines and this competition and will see to it that this event occurs – and legally with insurance,” she said.
Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters said troopers will not be investigating the avalanche, as the agency has limited resources and the accident wasn’t fatal.
“This isn’t something that is under investigation. It’s a medical assist and now that the person is recovered and okay, there is nothing for us to investigate because we investigate criminal matters,” Peters said.