Some of Nick Dodov’s GoPro videos.
Some of Nick Dodov’s GoPro videos.
We spent the whole summer of 2012 investigating. We spent endless hours on the phone with guides from the heliskiing industry, Avalanche Centers in Alaska and National Avalanche Centers, Haines Borough, Federal Bureau of Land Managment, and Alaska Department of Natural Resources. We learned that the Alaska Heliskiing Company operating permit (that was signed and stamped by Haines Borough) was five years outdated. We learned that permit requirements and compliance to policies, procedures, and protocols in the Operating Plan had been broken, resulting in the deaths of our son, Nickolay Dodov, and Rob Liberman. We found documentation of negligence, unsafe operations and procedures not followed. We learned that Haines Medical Clinic has advanced life support that can sustain life for only two hours. Our son, Nickolay Dodov, was kept in the clinic for over six hours.
Finding out that a political borough is responsible for signing and stamping an operating permit for heliskiing companies was very disturbing. To learn later in our investigation that the borough doesn’t have the budget and expertise to monitor the heliskiing companies was shocking.
We couldn’t find on the Haines Borough web site where to file a complaint. We spent hours and days trying to talk with somebody from the borough to ask where to file. Finally we got in touch with the Haines Borough clerk, Julie Cozzi. We were told that we should call Rob Goldberg and he would explain to us where to file. A couple of days after our conversation with Julie Cozzi, Haines Borough created a page on their web site for filing complaints. In the conversation with Rob Goldberg, he admitted that at the Memorial held for Nick and Rob (after the avalanche accident), Sean Brownell and Vicki Gardner were crying because they were concerned about loosing their business and he (Rob Goldberg) was told by the Alaska HeliSkiing snow forecaster Tim Thomas that the company was aware of the dangerous conditions on the day of March 13th. Rob Goldberg also said that Alaska Heliskiing was the best company.
Here is what a heliskiing guide had to say about Alaska Helisking Company and their guiding school.
“First, you should understand that Alaska Heliskiing’s guide school is not certified by ANY association. Not the American Mountain Guides Assocation, or the National Red Cross or the Heliski US. To my knowledge, AK Heli-Skiing guide school is a great resource for people who are looking to get into guiding, but the main reason is to make money. They offer this course to ski-bums who dream of being a heli-guide, only to string them along, teach them some skills (only pertinent to heli-skiing), have them work for free, fuel helicopters, and clean dishes and lastly, make them pay for it.” They are saying that they are setting the standard of heliskiing in Alaska.
Thats the thing; its companies like these that are making these outrageous
claims that they are “creating” and “setting” the standard when its these
companies that should be investigated the most.” An organization has to exists not to make money but create protocols that are necessary in running a “safe” work
On August 17, 2012 we filed a complaint to Haines Borough along with 20 pages of supporting material.
We requested all actions taken on March 13, 2012 by Alaska Heliskiing prior to and after the avalanche be thoroughly investigated. We requested Haines Borough to take action and hold Alaska Heliskiing accountable for their non-adherence to compliance regulations in the Operating Permit and the consequences to be a NON-RENEWAL status of Alaska Helisking Operating Permit from all current and future governing authorities: Haines Borough, Department of Natural Recourses and Federal Bureau of Land Management.
Full Copies of Our;
There was another article in Chilkat Valley News with controversial statements from Alaska Occupational Safety and Health (AKOSH) and State Trooper Bentz . On March 29, 2012 Assistant Chief of Enforcement for Alaska Occupational Safety and Health (AKOSH), Keith Bailey stated:
“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”. It is not clear if AKOSH received a report from the coroner, with a toxicology report of the deceased Rob Liberman, that shows in his blood high levels of marijuana THC. This important information wasn’t included in AKOSH accident report.
Alaska Heliskiing filed with OSHA;
Fiscal Year ,Summary Report Date,Date of Incident,Preliminary Description of Incident FY 2012,3/31/2012,3/13/2012,"Alaska Heliskiing LLC, Hanes, AK 998273",Worker at a snow ski resort was buried under nearly eight feet of snow after an avalanche.
Rob Liberman was killed during commercial heliskiing operation in the backcountry, not at a ski resort.
On March 19, 2012 Sarah Fletcher (CSHO) had a conference call with the Alaska Heliskiing attorney, Tracy L. Knutson, who was presented as Alaska Heliskiing general counsel. On March 20, Sarah Fletcher stated that she would not conduct a site investigation. Nine days after this on March 29, The Assistant Chief of Enforcement for Alaska Occupational Safety and Health (AKOSH), Keith Bailey, told Chilkat Valley News that there is ongoing investigation.
From AKOSH Accident report;
“On March 19, 2012, I (CSHO Fletcher) was dispatched by Chief of Enforcement , Steve Standley to investigate a fatality that wasn’t reported to Alaska Occupational Safety and Health (AKOSH), and occurred during a ski and snowboarding excursion on Tahkin Ridge on March 13, 2012 by Alaska Heliskiing, LLC, P.O.Box 1448, Haines , AK99827. AKOSH heard about the fatality through the media. Alaska Heliskiing, LLC operates February through May and offers helicopter skiing and snowboarding using state of the art turbine A-Star helicopters.
At 13.40 hours on March 19, 2012, I contacted Base Manager, Orion Koleins who referred me to Alaska Heliskiing general counsel Tracy L.Knutson, who was not aware that they needed to contact OSHA for the fatality. They did contact the Medical Examiner’s office and Department of labors work Compensation. Business license lists Sean Brownell as the registered agent. Miss Knutson stated that Vicki L. Gardner is the sole owner of Alaska Heliskiing, LLC, and Sean Brownell is business partner. Alaska Heliskiing employs twelve to fifteen employees seasonally from February through May. The fatality occurred at Tahkin Ridge on March 13, 2012, at approximately 11.00 hours. The ridge is south of Mile 33 of the Haines Highway. It was a clear day and the terrain was mountainous.
Guide Rob Liberman was fatally inquired wile skiing down Tahkin Ridge. Clieant #4 from Telluride, Colorado was snowboarding down Tahking Ridge, and was also fatally injured. They were on their 3rd or 4th run when the avalanche occurred. Second guide in the area, Gabe Gioffre came around the corner and saw the avalanche. Mr. Gioffre contacted base and base notified emergency responders. The equipment involved on this trip was a helicopter, ski’s, snowboards, avalanche detectors, beacons, shovels and probes.
I conducted an opening and closing conference with Alaska Heliskiing LLC’s counsel Miss Knutson on March 20, 2012 at 14.25hours via teleconference. I explained why I had contacted her in regards not to informing AKOSH within 8 hours of fatality. I EXPLAINED I WOULD NOT BE CONDUCTING A SITE INVESTIGATION and went over the opening conference check list. I requested OSHA 300 logs for the years 2011, 2010, 2009.
Based on the findings and information obtained, the following alleged violation was noted:
– FAILURE TO NOTIFY OSHA WITHIN 8 HOURS OF FATALY.
I covered all 11 items on the closing conference checklist, recommended the use of consultation and training, encourage informal conference with the chief of enforcement, covered the Protection Part of OSH act, provided the client representative via fax of the employer responsibilities, following an AKOSH inspection and a list of safety websites. Closing conference concluded at 14.50 hours.
The type of the violation was concluded SERIOUS, and yet there was no investigation. Alaska Heliskiing was fined $750.
The information given by the Alaska Heliskiing attorney wasn’t correct; Rob Liberman was from Telluride, Colorado, our son Nickolay Dodov was from Truckee, California. The trip was not an excursion it was a commercial heliskiing operation, where the clients pay top dollar for guiding services.
A Full Copy of;
In conversation with Keith Baily, we were told that AKOSH investigators couldn’t investigate because Alaska Heliskiing was closed for the season, and they couldn’t talk to the owners and the guides and take statements from the eyewitnesses. There was a statute of limitations of 180 days and after this AKOSH closed the case.
In the Chilkat Valley News article Trooper Bentz stated that all of the eyewitnesses statements were the same, stating that the clients didn’t check the snow. In a heliskiing commercial operation the clients pay the guiding service to check the snow and they sign a waver to follow the guiding instructions. Trooper Bentz has been using in his report and the in the newspaper articles only the statements from Ike Bailey and Brandon Corbett. If he had the other survivors Casey Osteen and Ryan Kirkpatrick’s statments he would know that Rob Liberman did snow stability check on the run prior to the avalanche, and he didn’t check the snow on the run where the avalanche occurred.
We spoke to Ethan Greene, The Director of Colorado Avalanche Center. He was concerned why Alaska Heliskiing ignored the avalanche conditions. He was concerned about the slow and inadequate search and rescue. He was concerned why a political borough is responsible for issuing operating permits for the heliskiing companies.
CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS
By Tom Morphet
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 ColoradoAvalancheInformationCenter, 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 ChugachNational 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 AlaskaAvalancheInformationCenter as an information-sharing group.
The Alaska center started in 2008. A HainesAvalancheInformationCenter 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.
Trooper Bentz didn’t investigate the avalanche accident. He closed the case with the conclusion: Non Criminal. AKOSH didn’t investigate. They fined the company $750. Alaska Heliskiing filed controversial information to OSHA and to the trooper.
Not being able to get any accident reports from either Alaska Helisking or Trooper Bentz, we decided to get legal help.
The day before we went to San Francisco to meet with the lawyers, we received a phone call from Haines. It was Donna Cottati. She said they were able to collect money from Haines residents for us to go there. Alex explained to Donna that after learning disturbing information about the avalanche, not getting any accident report from Haines, and knowing from the trauma center doctor that Nick died in Alaska, we started to believe that Dr Nobel, from Haines Clinic, was covering up for Alaska Heliskiing, and there was possible malpractice. Alex told Donna that we were going to meet with lawyers to find a legal way to request a report. Donna was surprised and sounded upset with our decision, asking “Do you have money for lawyers?”
The same day Alex also talked to Brandon Corbett. In the conversation, Brandon said that he would give us a hard disk with footage from the group with Rob Liberman, taken minutes before the avalanche. He also said that he had erased the search and rescue footage and kept only 36 still images. The next day, while we were meeting with the lawyer, Kalei received on her phone an accident report from Alaska Helisking. A thought came to our minds: who, of the two we spoke with the day before on the phone, might inform Alaska Helisking that we were going to meet lawyers?
Avalanche danger level in the accident report was downgraded to “Moderate”, compared to Eric Steven’s information from Haines Avalanche Information Center of “Considerable”.
There was controversial information between the eyewitness accounts and the Alaska Heliskiing statements.
At this time, Alaska Heliskiing report wasn’t filed with the National Avalanche Center in Colorado. Part of the report was filed with Colorado more than seven months later, on November 27, 2012. In respond to the false report we published a comment in Chilkat Valley News.
AVALANCHE REPORT INCOMPLETE, FALSE
By Alex and Natalia Dodov
On November 27th, seven months after the avalanche accident that killed two people, ColoradoAvalancheCenter received an accident report from Alaska Heli Skiing Company. The author of this report is an employee of Alaska Heli Skiing Company and was also on site as a rescue member.
The report is hasty, uncompleted with false information.
The report didn’t have any information of the snow conditions on March 13th. After new snowfall accumulations of approximately 5ft with additional wind deposits, the avalanche warning coming from HainesAvalancheInformationCenter was posted as “Considerable”. The websites forecast/conditions/rating describes an upside down snowpack with 3 distinct week layers.
In a private conversation Alaska HeliSkiing Company snow forecaster Tim Thomas told our friend and Haines Borough member Rob Goldbeg that Alaska Heliskiing was aware of the dangerous condition (unstable snow,growing surface hoar layer and wind deposit snow) on the day of March 13th.
Why the report didn’t have any detailed information about the safety protocols & precautions of the day such as the snow stability check. If the report was based on the eyewitnesses statements Alaska Heli Skiing Company would know and include in their report that a snow pit was dig by Rob Liberman on the previous run before the avalanche. The snow pit showed an unstable snow condition. The guide didn’t take the group to ski this run but instead of following his safety protocols to call the helicopter to pick up the group, he took the group to an alternative run without checking the snow. Taking the group to the second run, the guide did not check the snow there either, even though the clients expressed concern. He assured them “Don’t be concerned, it is just an alpine bowl” ……
Why was the crown inspection four days after the avalanche?
What the report was based on?
Alaska Heli Skiing Company have in their accident report that the third skier took a heavy fall and impacted the snow, but did not trigger the avalanche. The truth is, according to the eyewitnesses that the third skier was Casey Osteen. Casey didn’t fall on his run, it was the second skier Ryan Kirkpatrick. He was caught by surprise by a rock outcrop and roll, flipping forward, landing on his board, without impact the snow. This happened at the end of his run, at the bottom of the gully. Alaska Heli Skiing Company’s report states that Nick Dodov CHOOSE to go much farther to the right and this is where he triggered the avalanche. The truth is according to the eyewitnesses that they all heard on their radios Rob Liberman guiding Nick Dodov ; “Go to the right, there is a better powder snow there.”
Why Alaska Heli Skiing Company doesn’t want to reveal the actual time line from the moment the victims were buried under the snow until the victim bodies were excavated? According to the eyewitnesses statements the first guide was dropped on the avalanche debris at least thirty minutes after the avalanche broke.
Why doesn’t the report include clients Ryan Kirkpatrick, Dwight Bailey and Brandon Corbett were involved in the search and rescue? If the company questioned them, according to their statements they would know that only two guides helped, it wasn’t until late in the search and rescue when the place was swamped by the other guides, too little too late. Why Alaska Heli Skiing Company doesn’t have the names and the level of emergency wilderness first AID, CPR qualification of the guides involved in the search and rescue.
After the accident Rob Liberman was transported straight down to Haines Medical Clinic, why Nick Dodov was transported to the base of the AH to wait for a paramedic car? Why doesn’t the report say who made these decisions?
Why Alaska Heli Skiing Company didn’t have in their accident report the findings of Rob Liberman’s toxicology report? The report shows THC marihuana three times higher than background levels.
What was the Alaska Heli Skiing Company drug policy?
The Alaska Heli Ski Company published fraudulent information on their web site stating that they are members of fictitious heli ski association that monitors very closely their safety programs and all of the company’s guides meet the requirements of this non existing heli ski association.
If Alaska Heli Skiing Company crafted false information on their web site to attract clients, we are not surprised that their accident report has been fabricated with false information too,
When we got back from San Francisco, we received a letter from Donna Cottati saying; “It matters not to me if they shut down this company. But please don’t allow the lawyers to file charges on our emergency services or the clinic.” We also received an email from Vicki Gardner, the owner of Alaska Helisking;
Dear Alex and Natalia, Let me begin by offering my blessings. Please know that you are in my prayers daily. Sometimes words do not come easy, especially ones that may bring pain to others who receive them. And in these times, such words must come directly from the heart. I have had many hours of deep thought over the incident and the deaths of Nick and Rob. I would like to introduce to you who I am and offer my help with any questions or thoughts that you may have. I hope it is not overdue, but I felt that you would contact us when you were ready and that it may take a generous amount of time for that to happen. When Kalei contacted me, I directed her to Orion because he had the logistics of the slide that I did not have with me at the time. But since then, I have felt that I needed to share with you my thoughts and feelings. I am a mother of four children, each of who enjoy their natural surroundings and extreme sports. My oldest, Nicholai, is a raft guide in Haines on the Chilkat River which is a very swift moving body of water of extremely cold temperatures. They all enjoy surfing, sailing, paragliding and they all are heliskiers. I cannot imagine the devastation that a loss of my child would bring to me and I have tried to put myself in your place but I believe that no one could imagine that pain until it is real. My Grandmother lost her son at an early age and she said to me that it was the hardest pain to bear for any person. I have had many recent feelings of holding my children back from their dreams in light of Nick and Rob’s death this year. But my daughter, who is 8, just today climbed back on to her horse through tears, the same horse who broke her foot by stepping on it a year ago. She cried in fear as she made the jump up, nothing was going to stop her from doing something that she loves so dearly. This is how I feel about my guides in Alaska and the customers this business brings to us. My reason for being involved in this livelihood is not for economic reasons, fame or even because I love the sport so much. It is because of the people that come to us with such excitement for life. They are living their dreams and have such wonderful spirits that I feel blessed to just be a part of it all. I was at base the morning of the avalanche. I sat by Nick while medical attention was being rendered and I prayed. I gave my heart to him, asking him to stay with us and continue to live life with us. But for the first time in my life, nature took him, therefore taking something from me that I wanted very badly. I wanted him to live, to share the ski stories again with us and to continue to follow the dreams that made him so happy. But I was called to the clinic to identify Rob and I sat with Nick’s group when the doctor gave us the news of his condition. It was one of the saddest days of my life. I asked myself if I wanted to be a part of something so risky and if I wanted my children to be a part of it. And after three days, I looked in to the creamy white mountains of Haines and knew that I could not deny anyone their dreams of being there in the very heart of those mountains, doing what they love to do. I also spoke to Donna Cattoti and Rob Goldberg in great length a few days after the incident and they enlightened me with your family history. I know that it was only a matter of time before I needed to contact you myself. Please do not feel pressured to respond but know that I am here if at any time you would like to talk. I would love to meet you and could travel to California whenever the time is right. Also, please know that you are more than welcome to visit me at any time. During the summer months, I live in Pemberton, BC farming (my girls ski here until the end of May). And Alaska is always home and open to you. Peace be with you and yours. My love, thoughts and sincere heartfelt.
Vicki Gardner Alaska Heliskiing 1 877 SKI HAINES (907) 303-0040 cell
After our lawyer called the Haines Police Dept, he received Trooper Bentz’s incident report.
Again there was false and controversial information between the eyewitness accounts and Trooper Bentz’s statements.
The time line from the medical clinic in Trooper Bentz’s report was incomplete, and there was no real report from the clinic from the time Nick arrived there to the time he was flown to Seattle. A very important part of the report, that Trooper Bentz didn’t send to the lawyer, was Rob Liberman’s toxicology report.
A toxicology report on a heli-ski guide involved in a fatal avalanche March 13 found marijuana-based THC in his blood at higher than background levels.
Alaska Heliskiing guide Robert Liberman, 35, and client Nickolay Dodov, 26, were killed in the avalanche that occurred during a commercial trip by Alaska Heliskiing. Four other clients were in the group during the morning outing on a peak near the TsirkuRiver. Recent autopsies of the men showed both died of asphyxiation.
Liberman’s toxicology report, requested by the State of Alaska and conducted by NMS Labs of Willow Grove, Pa., found THC in Liberman’s blood at 2.8 nanograms per milliliter. According to the lab, levels of THC run between 50 and 270 ng/mL after smoking a joint, and drop to less than five nanograms after two hours.
The reporting limit for THC, the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is one nanogram per milliliter, according to the report.
Liberman’s toxicology report also found “Carboxy THC,” a metabolized form of THC, in concentrations of 16 nanograms per milliliter, where the reporting limit was five nanograms. Levels of the metabolized compound range from 10 to 101 ng/mL, 32 to 240 minutes after smoking marijuana, according to the report.
Officials with NMS Labs and the state coroner’s office each declined comment on the report.
It’s difficult to say whether the amounts of THC cited in the report would have an effect on a person, said one state official. “Whether someone would have a response to that level (cited in the report) is up to the individual,” said Dave Verbrugge, a chemist who studies analytical toxicology at the state’s public health lab.
“There’s going to be some individual variability, including factors like physiological response,” Verbrugge said.
No toxicology report was requested in Dodov’s autopsy, which was conducted by the KingCounty coroner’s office in Washington state. Dodov was flown to Seattle immediately after the avalanche, where he was pronounced dead.
Alaska Heliskiing had no comment on the matter this week.
Later in the summer, while investigating, we found out Rob Liberman’s nick’s names were “Go Red”, “Outlaw” and he was known by his Telluride friends as “Rob The Stoner”. Why a great skier like Rob would need to get stoned? Was he really need to get stoned before guiding clients, or was it the bad influence of Alaska Helisking owners? We learned through our investigation that Alaska Heliskiing owner, Sean Brownell, has a history of smoking marijuana while heliskiing with clients. We learned that Sean Dog was kicked out of Skagway, where he was heli guiding with Out of Bounds Heliskiing company for pot smoking. We have been told that after this he moved to Haines and, before he established Alaska Heliskiing, he was dealing drugs and smuggling heavy drugs over the border.
For the last day of the season Bear Valley Mountain Resort always brings live music. For the end of 2012 winter some of Nick’s friends were going to spin reggae music along with a reggae band. The
morning happened to be a powder day.
We rode together with Nick’s fiancé Kalei and Casey and Brandon, two of the avalanche survivors. We shared our concerns about the controversial information in the newspapers. Casey Osteen’s reaction was: “Alex, these guys from Alaska Heliskiing were just a bunch of wild cowboys”. He also said that in the evening, after the avalanche accident, he went back to the base of Alaska Heliskiing to pick up his and Nick’s gear and found all the guides dead drunk. He said that Sean Brownell walked by him, not saying a word. Casey confirmed that Alaska Heliskiing made them sign papers right after the avalanche accident and said, “we were still in a big shock, I don’t know what we signed , they guided us through the papers, telling us what to do”.
Forty five days after the avalanche accident there still was no report from Alaska Heliskiing filed with the National Avalanche Center.
Kalei, Nick’s fiancé, was the first one to call Alaska Heliskiing to ask for an accident report. She was able to speak to Vicki Gardner, the owner of the company. Vicki Gardner asked Kalei, “Why do you need a report?”. Kalei politely explained to Vicki that we want to learn about the accident and come to closure. Vicki Gardner said in return, “Come to Alaska. Our guides will explain to you what happened”. After Kalei’s response that we don’t want to go to Alaska, we just want a report, Vicki Gardner lost her nerves and asked, “What are you after?”
We emailed our friend in Haines, Rob Goldberg, that it had been forty five days since the accident and we hadn’t received an accident report from Alaska Helliskiing and the State Troopers Department, and asked him how to get in touch with Trooper Bentz. It was a week later when we received an email from Rob Goldberg with Trooper Bentz’s phone number. We called Trooper Bentz to ask for his report. He was surprised that we were even contacting him. Trooper Bentz assured us that he would send his report to us a couple of days after the report was signed by his supervisor. The next day we tried to call Trooper Bentz more than twenty times, with no answer from him. We wanted to ask him for the local avalanche report by Eric Stevens, as well as the Alaska Heliskiing accident report. We never received any report or a phone call back from Trooper Bentz.
Kalei received an email from Orion Koleis;
I know there was too much going on around the memorial to get into the details. I assumed you would have talked to Brandon and Ike about it; but they are having a hard time with it also, having been there. Especially Brandon. I called today and left a number for the office. Both Brandon and Ike have all of my contact info, so if you or Alex or Natalia ever want to talk about anything, please, don’t hesitate. I was in the field the last two days and couldn’t find time to call you back, it is still busy around here. Even though our season is winding down, so is our staff; which means I am always working.
There has been an avalanche report completed and is filed in with our company accident report. Which we have given to our attorney and insurance company. Because of the legal process, it is not being released to the public. However, If you or Nick’s parents want to talk; I am fully willing to go over the details with you. I want you all to know what happened to cause the avalanche and what was done afterwords. There is a process that we have as a company, which we accomplished. But, there is another process with the insurance company which I am still dealing with. It will likely continue for a few months as it is a detail oriented process, with many checks and balances. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to balance all of the different sides of this equation. I won’t go into details in an email, but when we talk I will tell you what ever you want to know.
This is my company email address, my personal one is firstname.lastname@example.org, and my cell phone number is (907) 317-1757. I don’t get cell reception around our base, only when I’m in town or when I go back to Anchorage. The office number is what I left on your voice mail, (907) 767-5601. I want to thank you all for being so kind and welcoming to me when I was down in California. I was honored to be present with all of the people important to Nick, it was a warm and positive experience, and I want the same kind of celebration of life when my time comes. You are a remarkably strong person, and his parents are amazing. I look forward to seeing you all again. I hope I can help bring some closure to this subject to help move through the grieving process. If there is anything I can do to help anyone at anytime, just ask.
All of my best, with peace and love,
For us it was very disturbing to learn from this email that Orion came to Nick’ s Life Celebration and he never introduced himself to us as a manager of Alaska Heliskiing. We were told that he was an Alaskan Ranger. Natalia lent him one of her powder skis and personally talked to him after the Celebration for more than twenty minutes, without knowing that he was a member of Alaska Heliskiing. We questioned ourselves why Orion came to our son’s Life Celebration if he didn’t introduce himself formally to everyone as a member of Alaska Heliskiing and speak regarding the accident.
Many questions started to rise; we spoke number of times with Casey Osteen. He said that a week prior to the avalanche, they went to ski Swanny Run (the same run where the accident happen), and the snow conditions were more like spring conditions. After five days of storm they received three to five feet of snow. The day before the accident the snow conditions were stable. Casey recalled that jumping off a cliff on a run called Overhang, landing he sunk in over his head in the snow. He got scared. He said to us, “I don’t know how Rob Liberman let us jump in these deep conditions.” Casey said the next day was a different story; the snow was crusty and sticky, more like wind deposit snow. Rob told the group before they left the base on March 13 that they will ski the lower mountain, the “bunny hills”, because of the overcast conditions. Ike Bailey didn’t even take his air backpack. Casey told us that on the run prior to the avalanche, Rob Liberman did a snow stability check and didn’t let the group ski the site. Instead, he took them to alternative run. Casey said the snow was so sticky there, he took his board and walked half of the way. At the bottom of the run, while waiting for the helicopter to pick them up, Rob didn’t share with the group the danger in the snow and why they had to take alternative route. He left the clients to decide whether or not to continue skiing. Casey said that he told everybody he doesn’t want to pay more money for crappy snow, but the group decided to continuing skiing. This is when Rob told everybody he was also paying for the helicopter and let’s go find better snow.
Casey said that going down the long traverse to the drop zone, the snow was crusty. Ike Bailey told Rob, “to me the snow looks suspect”. In return Rob said, “I have a good feeling about this run”. Rob didn’t do a snow stability check. He traversed down to the left of the group and started calling for the skiers to come down the hill. First was Brandon Corbett; second was Ryan Kirkpatrick, who, at the end of his run at the bottom of the gully, was caught by surprise by a rock outcrop and rolled, flipping forward, landing on his board, without impacting the snow. Casey said that, as the third skier, the run was going over rolling hills entering multiple gullies with steepness of 25-40*. Casey remembers when he entered the gullies, he noticed there were fractures across the snow. Nick was the fourth skier. Casey heard on the radio Rob telling Nick, “Go to the right, there is a better powder there”. While Nick was making turns the avalanche broke, Nick disappeared under the snow, and Rob was pushed over the cliff and went under the snow. Casey said, “The avalanche went three, four feet by us. I even pulled the rip cord of my air back pack. After the avalanche stopped, Brandon and Ryan started climbing the avalanche debris. We didn’t have a radio to get in touch with the base. I started searching the area where I was, trying to walk on the layer that the avalanche slid off. It was impossible; it was shear firm snow. It took forever before they droped somebody to started the search and rescue. It felt close to an hour before the bodies of the victims were recovered”.
We were still in Seattle after our son passed away, when Donna Catotti called from Haines. Donna Catotti is our friend who used to live in Bear Valley and had adopted two boys from Bulgaria. We used to have Donna and her husband Rob Goldberg’s art work in our gallery in Bear Valley for years. Every Christmas they would send to us a post card with photos of them and the growing boys, and photos of their trips to Bulgaria. Before Nick went to Alaska we exchanged emails; Donna and Rob were saying that Alaska Heliskiing was the better company in Haines. Donna and Rob didn’t mention about any ongoing disputes for years in Haines with the heliski companies being recklessly operating and flying out of bounds. “It was just a matter of time before something tragic would happen”, we learned later on from residents of Haines, who had been sending complaints to Haines Borough and had been writing letters to Chilkat Valley News. Donna and Rob had invited our son to dinner, they were looking forward to practicing their Bulgarian with him; asking us if “Nick still speaks fluent Bulgarian”.
On the phone call in Seattle Donna expressed her deep condolences and asked if we knew anything about the accident. Alex told Donna that, according to Dr Nobel from Haines Medical Clinic, the accident happened in a remote place and Nick was under the snow for 15 minutes. According to Brandon Corbett, the avalanche happened so fast, Nick couldn’t reach out for the rip cord of his air back pack. Donna said that this is the first accident in Alaska, that Alaska Heliisking is the best company and that their guide Rob Liberman, who was killed in the avalanche with Nick, was Alaska Heliskiing’s best guide.
Donna said that in the evening they would have a Memorial for Rob and Nick in Haines. She asked us if we wanted her to say something about Nick. We talked about how we and Nick, having been living for our whole lives in the mountains and skiing the backcountry, we knew the inherent risk.
Anchorage Daily News and Chilkat Valley News were the two first newspapers addressing the accident.
Slide danger was ranked ‘considerable’
By Tom Morphet
A heli-ski guide and a client died after being caught in an avalanche Tuesday morning during a heli-ski tour near ChilkatLake.
AlaskaState Trooper Josh Bentz said Robert Liberman, 35, of Telluride, Colo., was pronounced dead at 12:30 p.m. at the Haines clinic. Nickolay Dodov, 26, of Truckee, Calif., died Wednesday afternoon at Seattle’s HarborviewMedicalCenter.
Autopsies will be conducted on both victims, trooper Bentz said.
Dodov and Liberman had been buried in six to eight feet of snow and were unresponsive when other skiers dug them out 20 to 25 minutes after the avalanche, Bentz said. Troopers were notified at 11:11 a.m.
Six skiers, including guide Liberman, had started out on an Alaska Heliskiing tour around 10:30 a.m. and were at the south end of Takhin Ridge, on a slope that faced northeast, Bentz said.
They were making the first run of the day down a familiar heli-ski peak known as “Swany’s,” that some of the skiers on board had descended about a week before.
Liberman descended first, positioning himself downhill and to the left of the clients. Using a walkie-talkie system that linked members of the group, the guide radioed skiers to come down, one at a time.
Three skiers had descended when Dodov headed down the peak, skiing a little farther toward the right than had the previous ones, apparently triggering the slide. Skiers at the bottom of the slope were on a ridge and reported the avalanche passed within 20 feet and on both sides of where they were standing.
Liberman and Dodov both were wearing electronic beacons that helped locate them beneath the snow. Dodov was wearing an “Avalung” breathing device and was found with its mouthpiece in his mouth. Dodov also was wearing a rip-cord-triggered air bag. The bag – designed to keep skiers atop avalanches – had not been deployed and its rip cord was still zippered into a pocket on Dodov’s suit, Bentz said.
Client Dwight Bailey, 35, of Avery, Calif., was at the group’s starting point, about 500 feet down from the top of the mountain, and the last group member still waiting to ski, when the avalanche occurred.
He told Bentz the crown of the avalanche was four to five feet high and that he thought guide Liberman had positioned himself in a safe spot.
The skiers had received a day of safety training, including on use of locator beacons and helicopters, Bailey told the trooper. “Everything was top notch,” Bailey said in an interview later with the CVN.
Bailey told the newspaper that members of the group didn’t make any avalanche tests on the peak, such as digging a snow pit, and he didn’t remember Liberman doing any tests. But he said he didn’t know it would have mattered, as such tests aren’t foolproof. “It wasn’t apparent to any of us that it was a danger.”
The group had been skiing Monday and the snow seemed firm enough that on Tuesday Bailey packed only his Avalung, and not the air bag. The other clients in the group carried both safety devices, he said.
“The stability was good, but different peaks, and different elevations and different exposures…,” he said.
Liberman had worked for Alaska Heliskiing for six years. In a narrative on the company’s website, he described himself as a former college ski racer.
Dodov’s trip here was his first, and he was accompanied by three close friends, including Bailey, a skiing buddy from eastern California.
Both Liberman and Dodov rated their skiing ability as “expert” in pre-tour paperwork filed with the company. Dodov wrote that he skis 100 days a year. Other clients in Dodov’s group Tuesday included Casey O’Steen, 35, of Murphy, Calif., Brandon Corbett, 34, also of Murphy, and Ryan Kirkpatrick, 28, of Salem, Ore.
Trooper Bentz said Alaska Heliskiing had three helicopters working in rotation and 40 skiers, including six guides, on the mountains at the time of the avalanche.
Erik Stevens, Haines avalanche forecaster for the AlaskaAvalancheInformationCenter, said he’d posted a warning of “considerable” avalanche danger in Haines Sunday, his most recent update.
Although the center’s scale of avalanche danger includes higher ratings including “high” and “extreme,” most human-caused avalanches occur at the “considerable” notch because the danger then is most difficult to discern, he said.
“No one goes out when it’s ‘extreme,’ and when it’s ‘high’ you know which slopes are going to slide. It’s easier to predict,” Stevens said.
Avalanche danger increases when a heavy snow falls on multiple weak layers of accumulation, as occurred late last week, he said. Stevens had ratcheted up the danger to “high” on Thursday and Friday, when several mountains shed during “natural” avalanches.
“The problem is that not every slope has reached the critical amount of snow that causes a natural slide to occur,” he said.
Recent cool weather in the mountains means that layers of accumulated snow hadn’t compressed and bound together, he said. Stevens said south winds last week would have tended to load snow onto the north sides of peaks.
Alaska Heliskiing co-owner Vicki Gardner declined to answer questions about the accident this week, but issued a statement. “We are all in a great state of mourning over the loss of our dear friend and our hearts and thoughts are with the family and friends of both victims… I would like to thank everyone in Haines for your expressions of compassion received yesterday and today.”
The company suspended operations Wednesday and was reportedly conducting its own accident investigation.
By CASEY GROVE
March 15, 2012
A second man has died after a Haines-area avalanche Tuesday that killed a heli-skiing guide, Alaska State Troopers said.
The “huge” avalanche buried two men from a group of six skiing Takhin Ridge about 11 a.m. Tuesday, said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters, relaying reports from a trooper in Haines. The ridge is south of Mile 33 of the Haines Highway, where helicopters whisk skiers to and from the backcountry.
Six to eight feet of snow covered the guide, 35-year-old skier Robert Liberman, and Nick Dodov, a 26-year-old client said to be riding a snowboard, Peters said. Everyone in the group was wearing avalanche beacons, and a second group of skiers in the nearby vicinity rushed to help uncover the two men, troopers said.
Liberman, a Telluride, Colo., resident and frequent visitor to Haines, was found dead. Dodov, from Truckee, Calif., was flown to Seattle for treatment and died there Wednesday, troopers said.
Liberman was guiding the group for Alaska Heliskiing.
Coming back from Seattle we found Natalia’s girlfriends from BearValley waiting at the Sacramento airport and they drove us to our little cabin filled with our friends. Later in the evening we received a phone call from the owner of AH, Sean Brownell. He said “This is the most difficult phone call in my life that I’ve ever had to make. As a father myself, I can’t imagine what you are going though.” He explained to us, “It was an accident; the avalanche happened in a remote place; Nick triggered the avalanche, the avalanche was undetectable; Nick and Rob were buried deep under the snow”. He also said that “it was an easy run which they skied six days ago, and the snow conditions were stable.” He invited us to go to Haines and he would take us to the place. Alex thanked Sean for calling us and said that we are very sorry for the loss of their guide.
On the following day we had to make difficult phone calls, calling our family, relatives and friends back in Bulgaria and around the World.
After this we left for Truckee. We didn’t want to leave Kalei, Nick’s fiancé, by herself. Driving to Truckee we got stuck in a winter storm, it took us more than six hours to get there. Making our way to Truckee and seeing the heavy snow coming down, sad and full of heavy thoughts, but at the same time looking at the snow… we were saying “here comes one of Nick’s jokes, it didn’t snow for the whole season and now is dumping”. Arriving almost at midnight, Nick’s house was full of all his friends waiting for us. The next morning all Nick’s friends from Tahoe took Alex to ride the powder.
We spent the next two weeks with Kalei, Sally and Nick’s friends in Truckee. Kalei’s brother came to visit with his wife from Hawaii. Jared also came to visit. We celebrated all together Kalei’s birthday.
We skied Squaw; thanks to SquawValley Resort management for transferring Nick’s season pass to Alex.
In Truckee for the first time we spoke to Brandon, Ike and Casey, three of the four survivors from the avalanche accident. The first details from the avalanche we heard from Brandon: “The avalanche happened in the area where we already skied before. Nick was the fourth skier coming down the mountain, he triggered the avalanche. They all saw Nick tumbling down the mountain and getting buried under the snow. The avalanche broke wide, Rob Liberman was positioned left of the skier, he got pushed by the avalanche over the cliff and then disappeared under the snow.” Brandon said, “Lucky for them they were on higher ground and the avalanche went by only four feet away.” He said, “After the avalanche stopped, he had a hard time to climb the snow debris. He said that he and Ike, who came down from the top of the hill, and two heli guides that were dropped on the scene from a helicopter, were the ones digging up Rob and Nick. Brandon also said that Nick and Rob were found at least seven, eight feet under the snow. He said it took them approximately 15-20 minutes to recover the bodies and Nick was found with his AvaLung in his mouth. Nick couldn’t open his air back pack, because the rip cord was zipped up. When we asked why Nick’s rip cord was zipped up, Brandon said that the company made them secure the cord while they were in the helicopter for safety, and the company is not responsible for checking the rip cord before each run. He also said, because they were in a remote area, it took awhile to take Nick to the Haines Medical Clinic. Brandon was in a very unstable state while he was talking, breaking, crying and after every other sentence he was saying that AH is the best company and Rob is the best guide. He also said that after this they were taken back to their place where they were questioned by the State Trooper Josh Bentz and members of AH provided hamburgers and made the survivors to sign papers. Brandon said that he has GoPro footage from the day of the accident. He also said that he is in contact with Ben Clark, who was making a film about AH and he has some footage of Nick.
While still in Truckee a couple of days after the accident, Sally received a phone call from Ike that Trooper Josh Bentz wanted us to call him to close the case. We never did it.
After hearing the story from Brandon, reading Chilkat Valley News article, clearly seeing the controversy with Anchorage Daily News article and having a state trooper in a hurry to close the case, some suspicions started to rise.
Coming back home for Nick’s Celebration of Life our mail box was full of Donna Catotti’s letters. We were telling ourselves how nice of Donna to do this. Along with the letters there were some photos of Vicki Gardner and Sean Brownell, the owners of AH, showing them crying, with explanation on the back of the photos that they are crying for Nick and Rob. Donna’s words about Vicki Gardner, “She was having a hard time feeling responsible. I was trying to help her feel better.”
In the morning, before Nick’s Celebration, all our friends and Nick’s friends came to ski with us. The Bear Valley Mountain Resort generously had given vouchers to everyone. It was a blue bird powder day.
Nick’s Celebration was held at Ironstone Vineyard, thanks to all of Nick’s friends who organized it.The beautiful spring flowers at the entry of the vineyard hall brought a welcoming and cheerful atmosphere.
Hundreds of people gathered to celebrate Nick’s life; among them were many of Nick’s friends from Truckee, South Tahoe, CalaverasCounty, Santa Cruz, southern California, friends flying over from East Coast, Oregon, and England. Bear Valley Residents, Bear Valley home owners, our friends from Bear Valley Real Estate, all the Local Contractors, Post Office, General Store, MAS, The Snowmobile Center, The Cross Country Center, the Bear Valley Mountain Resort, the Sheriff Department, members of Arnold Fire Department, Nick’s teachers, Nick’s schoolmate’s parents, some Bulgarian friends, our windsurf friends from San Francisco Bay and Rio Vista, Angels Camp, Murphys and Sonora friends.
We all cheered Nick’s photos and Go Pro videos, and shared stories of Nick’s life. Everyone was with a big smile on their faces, full of love hearts and tears of joy, saying we should live our lives to the fullest the way Nick had lived his.
Our friends, family, ski, snowboard and mountaineering communities in Bulgaria have had a Celebration of Nick’s Life in a beautiful way too.
Nick was born free on February 15/1986 in Sofia, Bulgaria. He lived all his life free and he left this world free.
Every winter on Nick’s Birthday would always snow a lot. We were very young when we had Nick, Natalia was 17 and Alex was 22. Our life back in Bulgaria was spent between camping by the Black Sea every summer and skiing the mountains in the winter. At the beach Nick, being two and a half years old and butt naked was making friends with the whole campground.
At three and a half we put Nick on a pair of
skis. By the age of six and half he was skiing by himself the whole mountains.
At the age of eight he converted to snowboarding and ever since he dedicated his life to snowboarding.
Three years ago after surgery to repair a torn ACL Nick, being in pain and grumpy said “what am I going to do in my life if I can’t snowboard”.
Nick’s snowboard racing career started on a hard plate binding board going around the gates. Then came snowboard cross, free style, slope style,
jibbing on every rail and obstacle that Nick could imagine. He would apply the art of snowboarding everywhere.
Later on he brought his free style moves to the backcountry and the open mountain, slashing the fresh powder and jumping from every cliff flying as high as he could get with his favorite trick “method grab”.
Nick was a member of the Bulgarian National Junior team and in 1999 he competed in a Junior World cup in Telluride, Co. After we moved to the USA, he was competing in Tahoe Snowboard Series, The U.S. National Championship and qualified for U.S. Open.
Nick loved skateboarding and windsurfing.
During the two summers living by the ocean in Santa Barbara, Nick met two boys from Brazil who inspired him to learn how to surf. Nick loved surfing and the ocean as much as he loved snowboarding and the mountains.
Nick was an artist in many ways. He loved
drawing and painting on a canvas, seeing the world in bright colors, always
happy with a big smile.
Nick graduated from high school and went to college for two years.
After this he said “Now is my window to explore the mountains”. Nick was good with numbers and mathematics and was planning to go back to school to study architectural design.
Nick touched many people and made many friends. He was a loving person, helping everyone. Nick with his good heart would have been a good father. Nick had a passion and love for snowboarding and life itself.
Nick was our son, our best friend, our best team mate, and our teacher.