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.
CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS
Heli-ski guide, client killed in avalanche
Slide danger was ranked ‘considerable’
March 15, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 11 | View PDF
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.
ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS
Second heli-skier dies from ‘huge’ Haines-area avalanche
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.