In Defense of Taking Risks

Which is more dangerous, dropping in or driving here on snowy roads? Turkey Chute, Grand Teton National Park.

Which is more dangerous, dropping in or driving here on snowy roads? Turkey Chute, Grand Teton National Park.

One September day some moons ago, 26-year-old me sat mid-route on the Whitney Gilman Ridge on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, making my first multi-pitch lead climb. Now, Whitney Gilman is only rated 5.7, maybe 5.8 the way we climbed it, but it’s exposed as hell — the crux puts a big soaring expanse of air beneath your harness — and even today it impresses me to look upon it. And sitting many hundreds of feet above the Indian summer afternoon, taking it all in, about to lead the last pitch, I felt like life couldn’t get more full.

“Hey, Glenn,” I said to my partner. “If anything ever happens to me out here, make sure my mom knows I died doing something I loved.” He nodded gravely, a solemn promise made.

Today, with many years under my belt and the loss of too many friends in falls, avalanches, and accidents, I cringe at the memory. It sounds like one of the tritest, most self-absorbed, and most post-adolescently melodramatic comments I could make. What a tool.

Of course I would have died doing something I loved. That was self-evident. My parents knew I loved climbing, skiing, mountain biking. But as I consider it now, I realize that I didn’t actually intend the comment as an explanation, as solace for a grieving parent to help them better understand their son. No, I meant it as a justification for a selfish act and a mistake made, as if screwing up doing something fun made it okay that I screwed up.

I didn’t die, obviously. Over the years, though, I’ve come far too close to it, sometimes through my own oversight, sometimes through the misjudgment of others, and sometimes from simply doing what we do, which is push the margins. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if I die in any other manner aside from expiring peacefully from natural causes at a very old age, hopefully in the loving embrace of my wife, it’s a tragedy. If I buy the farm thanks to some unexpected wind slab or stack it into a tree, it’s just going to plain suck, and the mechanism of my death should in no way soften the blow. Please, whatever you do, don’t say, “At least he died doing what he loved…”

But that’s the risk. That’s the risk, and dammit, it’s worth it. A life filled with adventure tastes sweeter than one viewed from the couch. And as science tells us, sitting on the couch isn’t exactly the safest place to be, either.

The New York Times has just published a story entitled “Extreme Grief,” which purports to examine the hazards of adventurous sports like skiing, snowboarding, and backcountry skiing in particular. In fact, it is reporting at its worst, a random collection of anecdotes in support of a spurious assumption, with seemingly no real understanding of the true issues at hand. It tells the story of Rob Liberman, a heli-skiing guide in Haines, Alaska, who along with client Nickolay Dodov died in an avalanche almost exactly a year ago. Liberman’s Dodov’s parents have petitioned California’s senators, along with other congressional representatives (why California when the slide happened in Alaska isn’t explained), for “an independent investigation, improved safety conditions and standardized regulations for helicopter skiing in Alaska.” It also relies heavily on an interview with Ben Clark, a filmmaker who’s made a documentary about the accident called The Alaskan Way.

The deaths of Liberman and Dodov are tragic. And a parent’s grief plumbs depths I hope I never know. Of course they want an investigation. Of course they want tighter standards. Of course Liberman’s father would say, “I’m sorry I ever showed him a pair of skis.”

But the story itself is a opportunistic grab for headlines, a woeful clamber onto the bandwagon of all things avalanche, that misses the point of adventure by a wide margin. And in asking the wrong questions in the wrong way, it takes an important topic, how we as adventurous people should approach and manage risk, and reduces it to, well, marketing:

Headlines of skiers buried by avalanches and the deaths of the 25-year-old snowmobiler Caleb Moore in January and the 29-year-old freestyle skier Sarah Burke last year have overshadowed growing concerns of the increased risk-taking and lack of regulation in extreme winter sports and their impact on families. Clark’s film, and another documentary, “The Crash Reel,” by Lucy Walker, which is scheduled for HBO later this year, may help change this perspective.

Whose concerns, exactly, other than newspaper writers? And what does a crash in a halfpipe or a commercial snowmobile contest have to do with avalanches or decision making in the backcountry? In typical mainstream media fashion, the Times has lumped together a handful of deaths and injuries that all happened to take place in the snow and called them cut from the same cloth. What kind of regulations would have saved Sarah Burke or Kevin Pearce from death or injury — rules against jumping in the halfpipe?

The problem with this story is that by casting vague concerns and institutional handwringing toward a disparate group of incidents, with no real understanding of the fundamental equation of risk, sport, and adventure, it suggests that pursuits like backcountry skiing simply aren’t worth the danger. It’s an unpacked snowball thrown in a random direction, but it calls into question the very essence of an adventurous life. That’s cowardly. And coming from a publication as big as the New York Times, it’s dangerous.

Look, it’s important to analyze risk and to study accidents forensically. As I’ve written before, if I die in an avalanche, the odds are that I made a mistake, and by all means, tear it apart, get to the heart of it, and learn from what I did wrong in hopes that others don’t repeat the mistake. Whatever happened that led to Liberman and Dodov dying, the facts should be made public — the decision making, the snowpack, the heli operation protocol. That’s how we learn. But a reactionary, emotional response that seeks to tighten pursuits that are by their very nature liberating, well, that needs its energies redirected elsewhere.

So, what of risk? Is death an acceptable cost of adventures? Hell, no. Brendan Leonard and I happened to be talking about risk yesterday, before the Times piece came out, and he said, “When I go out there, number one is to come back alive, number two is to have fun, and number three is to make the summit.” Seriously, death from recreation should not be considered okay, an option, or consequence. It’s a possibility, yes. And probably a greater possibility skiing in the backcountry than playing beach volleyball. But to accept it as a price of physical freedom is the beginning of an erosion in personal responsibility and the first mistake in a chain of decisions or assumptions that can lead to real problems.

Very rarely any more do I hear people talking about subjective vs. objective dangers. When I was first learning to climb, I devoured The Freedom of the Hills, and I took its lessons about the different kinds of hazards as gospel. I understood from reading Accidents in North American Mountaineering that most tragedies came from simple human error — not the random shuffle of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but from a string of decisions that led to someone putting themselves in front of a loaded gun. If a boulder that’s been lodged in a cliff for 500,000 years falls on its own and lands on your head, that’s just plain bad luck. If you ski a leeward slope after a windstorm and end up with an ice mask, it’s no one’s fault but yours.

The more you study hazard through the lens of subjective/objective, the more you realize how few objective dangers there are — and that most of the real problems come from a lack of humility. Clark, the documentarian, said he was so moved by the grief of Liberman’s mother and the imagined effect on his family were he to die that “he has given up extreme skiing and rock climbing” in favor of hiking and running. That’s one way of dealing with risk, and because all of this is such a personal equation, I couldn’t begin to criticize him. I, however, have adopted a different approach. Now that I have a wife and kids and a greater sense of the permanence of mortality, I’m a lot more judicious about how I behave. I adapt my speed to conditions, or to my party. I choose my backcountry companions extremely carefully, because peer dynamics can be the biggest factor in causing errors of judgment. I ride differently if I’m alone, or far from help. I’ve never been much for getting air on bikes or skis, but now I generally avoid it — mostly because I suck and the odds are greater of hurting myself. But if I had Sarah Burke’s skills, I would have done exactly what she did.

I don’t know if this is maturity or prudence or simply experience. All of the above, maybe. The big difference between the me on Whitney Gilman and the me today is that I’ve learned that risk can be managed. Not all of it, or it wouldn’t be an adventure. But it’s also not as black and white as the Times or others suggest, where you’re either likely to die doing something you love or you simply don’t do that thing you love. That big grey area in the middle is where you find adventure, where you find risk, and where, to me, the best of life begins.

Photo by Steve Casimiro

{ 62 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Steve

    Well said, Steve. As a frequent ponderer of risk in the outdoors, I think you did an excellent job of capturing the complexity of the subject. And I totally agree, I hate that saying “died doing what he loved.” In that case, I’d die having a tickle fight with my kids, and I certainly wouldn’t want them to have to live with that for the rest of their lives.

  • Tina

    While I agree that the “doing something he/she loved” comment gets overused and shouldn’t make up for doing something stupid, to a certain extent that’s why we are out there taking the risks that we do– at the end of the day, we love it. Seeking adventure digs deep into the dark hidden places of our psyche and reaches something that can’t be replaced by “safe” activities. And what is “safe” by our modern standards? Many of the things that we consider adventurous today would have been commonplace a century ago for people that required the land to survive (hunters, trappers, ranchers, miners). As you point out in your caption, is it less safe to drive on our roads than it is to backcountry ski? What about how the modern diet, stress, and pollution decrease life expectancy?

    I that having a conversation with yourself about what is acceptable risk, and in turn having those conversations with significant others/friends/family that may be affected by your decisions is important. As you point out, the gray area is very broad. At the end of the day, however, I would rather take the risks of pursuing my outdoor activities than try to live a “safer” lifestyle, because for me… where’s the fun and joy in that?

  • Laidlaw

    Steve, I started reading this post, then went to the article, and came back here to argue with you. Then I read the rest of the post, and it turns out we’re completely on the same page. haha What a terrible, terrible example of journalism from the NYT. It is absolutely incredible to me that a paper that can publish something as well-researched and written as The Tunnel Creek story can churn out drivel like this on essentially similar topics.
    And regarding Brendan’s advice- that’s a Semi-Rad t-shirt just waiting to be printed.
    –Mark

  • Brendan

    I love this quote from one of the most courageous persons to set foot on this planet.
    “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
    Helen Keller

  • Rick Armstrong

    Steve,
    I like your response and I thought I should post this seeing how I was close friends to Alex Lowe, Doug Coombs. Shane McConkey, Sarah Burke, Jarad Spackman, Jim Jack and unfortunately many others killed in outdoor pursuits. My life has been greatly affected by the loss of people close to me while “doing what they loved” and I don’t like it at all. But, I have an issue with the NYTimes article highlighting the recent incidents and not taking into account and researching the real statistical data of these pursuits. While, I am sure they are more dangerous than sleeping in your bed, unless it is over a sinkhole http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/01/us/florida-sinkhole/index.html and more dangerous than riding in a cab , unless it gets hit by another car. http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/03/us/new-york-crash-baby/index.html . I think that anyone who pursues the kind of adventure that Heli-Skiing, climbing, skiing/snowboarding half-pipe, paragliding etc. etc. should understand that these actions are not risk free. If they were, they would not grant the same feelings of accomplishment and adventure that they do.
    The problem with introducing greater regulation and restrictions is that you start to take away freedom and life piece by piece and then what are we going to do sit in our house and look out and wish we were allowed to do the things we can do now. Who are they really protecting us from? Ourselves? or others? I don’t think any of the regulations and rules they have accused the Heli- operation for mis-handling would have changed the outcome. Had the incident been caused directly by human error versus an act of nature, maybe there should be a legitimate case to change things. The fact of it is that we are never going to be able to fully predict avalanches or nature. The families of these people are surely and rightfully very deeply saddened and upset. They want a deeper explanation and want to blame somebody for the events that took their child. I too have lost a child and my first reaction was to blame the Doctors and then to blame myself. I get it. But, I was wrong to do so. Because it is nature and it can’t be stopped. It should be respected, admired and enjoyed.

    There are a few things that are certain. One, nothing we do is going to be 100% safe and two, we are all going to die. Hopefully, nothing takes you out sooner than expected, but, it might.
    I believe the best example of why “living for today” can be justified. Is the story of one of my first ski heroes, Steve McKinney. I met him when I was 16. he had hanglided off the North Face of Everest, he had free climbed many scary routes, he was known to drive fast, he had six world speed skiing records, he had been in a horrendous helicopter crash. He had done all of this, only to be killed while sleeping in his car, on the side of a road, by a wayward driver. – Here is a stat for you. 14.2 people per 100,000 will be killed in an automobile accident. (source http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/tables/09s1063.pdf ) So looking at these statistics would make one say that if you have a family you shouldn’t drive.
    I am not saying that sports have not gone too far, they have, they have evolved at a very rapid pace in the last twenty years. But, there are plenty of people who live in fear of what might happen. Those people, like all of us, will someday pass on to the happy hunting ground.

  • Tadamhicks

    You’re right, there are very few objective hazards out there. I toned my “activities” (trad climbing, alpine mountaineering, bc skiing, WW kayaking, etc…) when it became extremely stressful to manage the decisions appropriately to not die.

    What’s nice about running is that most of the decisions I make on an outing won’t result in death…and those that will are well within my power to control. But, hanging out 1K’-2K’ off the deck on a 12K’ wall in RMNP in lightning season introduces so many elements that, while fun when you succeed, is harrowing at the moment.

    What happened is that I didn’t like being overwhelmed anymore…that feeling of being unable to control IT ALL…that there aren’t enough brain cells in my head to really cover every single one of my bases. And making erroneous choices doesn’t result in simply a twisted ankle or having to call my wife to come get me because I didn’t eat enough on a long run, but in a terrifying death instead.

    So, now I hike and run and swim, and I’m even wary of resort skiing…and maybe more wary of road biking.

    I think I can muster some sport climbing if my kids get into pulling plastic, but my days of lauging in the face of death on high are long gone, and that doesn’t make me sad one bit.

  • Ted Reckas

    Well said Steve. I agree with most of your points. Risk is risk. Just because there was a negative outcome for the risk takers doesn’t mean there was negligence. I’ve been back country snowboarding for 14 years and went to guide school at Alaska Heliskiing, the operator that was portrayed negatively in the article. They’re top-notch, super experienced, professional, knowledgeable, safety-minded guides. If regulations were ever enacted on heliskiing, they’re the experts who would be brought in to draft and oversee them — their guide school actually is a de facto way of doing that. They’re educating people and establishing best practices — no legislation needed.

  • Bill Becher

    What I find more disturbing than a lame NYTstory is a push to regulate backcountry skiing. Skiing and climbing and other adventure sport have done well self regulating through organizations like AMGA. We really don’t need a Us Department of Off width placements and climbing skins.

  • Carson

    It’s discouraging that the Times could produce something as nuanced as their “Snow Fall” piece on the Tunnel Creek avalanche, then turn around and run a superficial POS like this one. Oh well.

  • J

    Well said. Everything involves risk but when it’s something that veers from the mainstream view of the norm it gets more demonized and picked apart. The statistical average for skiing deaths, that’s all skiing, is 2.5 people per million participants annually. I couldn’t find the death statistic for hunting but the statistic for accidental shootings is 72.9 people per million annually, certainly more than 2.5 of them are fatal. Hunting is considered by the public at large as a mainstream part of American society, and therefore not subject to the living dangerously and foolish activity genre of American discussion. Personally, I’ll take the outdoor action without a firearm.

  • Kim Kircher

    Yes. Thanks for this. I, too, admonish those that say, “he died doing what he loved.” As a professional ski patroller, I’ve actually had to bite my tongue to not use those words. Because in the face of a tragedy involving a sport, it’s about the only thing that comes to mind. But it’s wrong. Death is tragic. No matter what, no matter when. Every death leaves behind a wake of sadness and loss. In the era when everyone feels a need to comment on every news story (which I’m doing here, I realize) it’s just too easy to write those words.

    Taking calculated risks is essential to a full life–whether those risks are on snow, on rock or on a stage. We find out who we truly are by sidling up next to the edge and carefully peering into the abyss. We learn about our true self–we tap into the flow, we get a hit of dopamine, we expand our sense of what’s possible. But the key to calculating risk is building judgment. We can learn judgment from watching other’s mistakes. If you were to meet your demise in an avalanche Steve, you’d hope others could gain the judgment you didn’t have by learning from your mistake.

    The question is, then, how can we change the conversation to talk more about building judgment? How do we learn it without killing ourselves in the process? Because, I for one, want to keep taking risks. I just don’t want to die doing it.

  • Andrew Hennigh

    Thanks Steve! Personal responsibility should be nothing but personal and therefore can’t and shouldn’t be regulated.

  • Stephen Koch

    Nice post Steve. I agree with you. I wrote a post a few years ago about Risk and Alpinism as a new father. It’s here if anyone’s interested. http://bit.ly/WUdwX

    Judgement comes with experience. Experience develops over time. Having a good mentor helps. Most everyone I know who climbs or snowboards or skis has a story or several about brushes with death or getting away with one. Continue taking the risks you feel are appropriate. Stop when they no longer feel appropriate. If you die while participating in a sport with inherent risk, you are dead just the same. Sure people who loved and cared for you are going to be sad and some will even be angry. They may say your being there was a mistake. I disagree. There are no mistakes. Cause and effect. And to say someone didn’t have good judgement because they died in an avalanche is arrogance, which is usually masking fear. The price (effect) gets paid, one way or another, when we participate in potentially dangerous activities.

    I don’t ever refer to my avalanche experience (nearly killed by one on Mount Owen in the Tetons – story here – http://bit.ly/12vobKR) as an accident or a mistake. It wasn’t either. I was in the way of an avalanche that would have come down the mountain whether or not I was there. Nature’s vague indifference towards man is what is so fucking attractive. I learned from the choices I made that led to me being in the avalanche. I was blinded by my ego and ignored obvious warning signs that were literally underfoot…warming temps, melting snow…Anyway, we all take risks. Some of us get caught. We all die in the end.

  • Guide623

    As a relative to Christian Cabanilla, who was fatality killed in Haines on March 2nd, 2013, and a professional heli ski guide in Alaska. I can understand that both sides of this topic. The NYT piece was a sensational snippet that tried to link a number of different issues and events in this past year. When they got wind of Christian’s death this past week, I think that it opened the door to showcase Clark’s film which links this incident with the one from last year. First off, I think that we should investigate who Ben Clark is, and his connection to the heli-ski world. Is it a coincidence that he was filming a documentary about Alaska Heliskiing’s “Guide school” and then spin the year to showcase Liberman’s and Dodov death? 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.
    Being a professional guide worthy of working in the big mountains of Alaska takes thousands of hours in the mountains working side by side with Lead/Senior guides in the field and a myriad of avalache forecasting and education courses. By law and insurance regulations, guide services must create a standard of operation procedures and mountain protocols to insure the safety of the guides and guests of the operation. And although these protocols may take away from the “Extreme” nature of heli-skiing, they are set to make each customer and staff safer with their decision making ability. Which is the dynamic component of our industry; Decision-making. When any tragedy occurs, its easy for a family member or legislator to question the scenario and the guides decisions. But when you set protocols to help eliminate the need to make the questionable decisions, it makes it easier for the company to stand by the decision making process.
    Clark’s documentary was to showcase the Guide School and how 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. Any company that lays claim to this standard, isn’t a company, its an organization. An organization that exists not to make money but create these protocols that are necessary in running a “safe” work environment.
    In the end, each guide or guest who decides to try heli-skiing in Alaska is totally aware of the hazards and risks associated with the sport. “Objective” Hazards that are inherent of being in REAL mountains with crevasses, rockfall, cornice failures and unstable snow. “Subjective” hazards includes individual’s decision making, equipment choices and weather patterns.
    The brother of my wife was killed (and a good friend injured) by an objective hazard in the mountains, a fallen cornice. The chances of being affected by these hazards are about as common as getting involved in a car accident. And the guide who was leading the charge was as experienced as they come in the industry. And in the end, if all protocols in the incident were followed from the beginning of the morning to the end of the rescue, then I can tell and assure my mother-in-law that her son died doing what he loved. Otherwise, I hope that in the face of this tragedy, these protocols are given a hard, close look and changed to avoid the subjective hazards in the companies history.

  • Carolyn Hines

    Right on: “opportunistic grab for headlines, a woeful clamber onto the bandwagon of all things avalanche.” So well stated.

  • Adam Hevenor

    The NY Times piece was terrible, and not accurate.

    Rob was the most humble and accomplished skiers I have ever known personally. Ben still skis in fact we even hatched plans to go on a ski tour this winter. Disappointed to see Rob’s parents taking action in the courts which is a lost cause.

    Some pictures of Rob I collected – http://adamhevenor.com/galleries/rob/

  • Aurel

    Very well stated and written. A valid article against an ever increasing misunderstanding of adventure and potential risks.

  • Mike Geraci

    Risk is relative. It is a calculation we each make based on personal experience and perspective. There are known variables we can manage: We can buy the best safety gear, practice, practice, practice, understand snow science and current conditions, know the weather…but ultimately, after all the study, training, education, gear, and experience, it comes down to you standing at the top of the peak asking yourself how confident you are that nothing will go wrong and you will be eating dinner with your family at the end of the day.

    That is risk. And it is different for everybody.

  • mtnrunner2

    There is no contradiction between dying doing what you love, and the pain of loss for others. They are both real and legitimate.

    “The more you realize how few objective dangers there are” — yeah. And we have the power to put ourselves there, or not. My personal experiences are very tame, but I’ve definitely stepped beyond that invisible line I should have drawn for myself, sometimes unknowingly, other times in spite of that faint voice I should have listened to. You have to focus, you have to think, and you have to learn.

    And… could I possibly read even one NYT article that does not talk about regulating some area of life where everyone still has some free choice left? Ugh. We are adults here.

  • GS

    My father was a radiation oncologist, which meant he spent his days treating a spectrum of cancers, often in hard to see places of patients who hadn’t taken great care of their health. Since nuclear medicine happens underground, he didn’t get to see natural light all day long. His job was a stark living, and it took its toll on his morale. I remember asking him how he could go do it day after day, and he told me “it allowed me to raise a family without being away all the time, and gives me the ability to go on trips and do things I love like ski with all of you.”

    And that is what really made him come alive. He was a westerner living in the east, so those trips to the Rockies were like seeing my real father in his natural habitat. He died in the mountains, and the phrase about ‘doing what he loves’ is cold comfort for the loss his death brought my family and me. It rings fake, hollow and cliche; something to fill the awkward silence that follows the bringing subject up in conversation.

    But try as I will, I cannot imagine if he’d instead suffered terminal cancer or diease. It would just be too cruel, both cosmically and in that he would be all too cognizant of what was happening to him every step of the way.

    With that in mind, I do find it at least, um, relevant, that he died doing what really brought him to life. This is what it is, and does not rationalize taking elevated risks. We all have our own risk equation. My father had his, and nobody in my family has ever expressed wishing he chose differently.

  • jeff

    Anyone who has followed the NYT lately knows that the concept of “personal responsibility” is no longer something they tolerate. Blaming others and seeing government as a solution to all our problems, including how we live our lives, appears to be their mantra.

  • Corin

    As a Mom of an extreme adventure lover, I appreciate your article. I do think it is difficult for many to understand the lifestyle. Perhaps that is because the have not experienced it themselves or seen how the joy of living a life of adventure keeps a son feeling alive and balanced. Although I do worry , I understand he continues to educate himself on the dangers and has learned to manage risk. I wish for nothing more than for him to live a long, happy, safe and adventuresome life in the outdoors.

  • Kristine Harder

    Just a correction — From what I’ve read in the Chilkat Valley News, it is the Dodov family that has enacted the legal action.

  • The Dude

    At some point along the line between the industrial revolution and today, humans in the first world adopted the belief that safety, comfort, and health are somehow rights. Mother nature, human nature and other unkowns offer a large amount of evidence to the contrary.

  • spencedoggie

    In 2008 I barely lived through a bone marrow transplant that put my bone cancer into temporary remission. My wife was alerted several times to come to my beside as it was unlikely that I’d make it. Five years later I am still running whitewater, and getting out in the world. In the 1990′s I lost more than one close friend to the river gods. Two of the deaths could have been prevented by choosing to portage, two of them were more of the “freak” nature. A hazard that hundreds of people passed over and never noticed and then bam!
    My truth is that death in the field with my booties on and my spirit soaring is how I would rather go. It would be easier for me and my family if I went that way rather than nursing a sick and dying body and watching my spirit get beat to shreds.
    That said, as a kayaker with many years of experience, I have seen too many overly cavalier young boaters running whitewater that they lack the skills and experience to do safely. Watching gopro videos on youtube and having a strong flexible body are not substitutes for real experience and sound judgement. Living a long time and enjoying the outdoors for many years beats having your name on a sticker on the back of someone’s toyota with the words, he did what he loved.

  • Adam Rice

    Thank You! Life is not fully lived if you live in fear of what could possibly happen. This life was given to us to enjoy and to explore. The need for adventure is built deep within each of us, but we don’t have to put our lives on the line to have a full life. Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life have been taking the risk of getting to know another person. We desperately need people in our lives that truly care about us and who we can truly rely on. Who in your life needs you to take a risk and get to know them?

  • Christa

    One could say that those incapable of responsibly assessing the risk of subjective and objective hazards shouldn’t be in engaged in such activities. So if an article like this makes them reconsider and give up such sports, perhaps it is for the best. I think that those who do understand risk management in adventure sports would be undettered by such an article.

  • Marilee Gordon

    On Mar 7, 2013, at 3:53 PM, Marilee Gordon wrote:

    As a mother and grandmother who skis and has raised back country enthusiasts, I have, of course, worried about everyone’s safe return at the end of a ski trip. The Times article ramped me up in the worry department as I was reviewing all the lives that have ended here in our community. In fact I forwarded the NYT article to several family members just in case they missed it. They sent me back this blog which has made me think more carefully as the writing so far has been articulate and thoughtful.
    We always seem to personally know many victims and this makes these deaths all the more poignant and tragic.
    However, after all the years of this worry, the most dangerous place I have found myself and one of my daughters was in mid town manhattan at 8:46 on September 11th. We were unscathed physically, like most people, changed forever by the 3000 deaths down the street.
    This perspective does not make these tragic recent losses easier to handle, but gives me some kind of relative risk scale and how much we can or cannot stay safe and sound while living, wotking and enjoying our short time on this planet.

    Sent from my iPhone

  • Joel McCune

    This is a very well done piece, possibly the most concise and well written I have ever read on the topic. Please do not try to regulate our sports. Whatever happened to personal accountability? We are all responsible for our actions and to those whom our actions affect. Take the example of liberal tort in New Zeland. If I am guiding you and tell you jumping off this 50 foot cliff into three feet of water is a stupid idea, and you still decide to do it…that makes you a dead idiot. My responsibility as a guide would only be to inform and warn you of the danger. If you want to kill yourself, it is your decision. You are accountable for your actions. Ultimately, it is your life. Do with it what you like…even if it means sitting on the couch eating potato chips and dying from a heart attack long before those of us out there taking, “risks.”

    Just last week my wife and I were in Patagonia paddling the Futaleufu. Many of the other customers who were rafting with my wife asked her how she handled me taking such big risks. She explained that, for my skill level, I am pretty conservative. While down there, I walked two rapids just because they did not feel right. I saw the line and was pretty sure I had the line. It just did not feel right. I also ran quite a few other class V rapids while down there. It is all about taking responsibility for actions and making intelligent decisions.

  • Dante Petri

    To echo what many others here have said: nice post. I enjoyed reading this as a follow-up to the views expressed in the Times story.
    My only divergence is that I think you might have been a tad too harsh on the Times. The thing is, this story made me really mad; and at first, I was mad at the Times too, but (and bias to be noted here, I worked as a reporter for years) it was a “kill the messenger” kind of mad.
    The Times doesn’t say anything in here explicitly expressing the views of the Times or the author. This is a story about subjects, and the views expressed herein are theirs, and theirs only. While I and a lot of others don’t agree with their views about the death of the loved ones in their lives, it doesn’t mean the Times did a bad thing by reporting it. If anything, this is the kind of story I want to send to the people closest to me and say: “if something happens out there to me, please, do not do this.”
    To further the point, the Times as an institution probably deserves some credit for following the explosive growth of backcountry skiing the last few years, and the consequences, both positive and negative. As an example of the former, I would point to the piece last week on Jeremy Jones, which I was absolutely bang-up. By all accounts, I think the vast majority of “main stream” media would call Jones an insane and crazy snowboarder, skiing giant mountains and doing all kinds of “crazy” stuff with his snow-mo-board. That would have been the easy route.
    Instead, I felt like most readers would take away that he was a rational and entirely sane individual not satisfied with the status quo, and that’s what lead him to go beyond the accepted boundaries. While few of us will ever perform to his level, that motivation probably describes the underlying drive for the reason most of us do what we do, and I thought even a couch-bound reader with no desire to ever replicate would have taken that away from that particular story.
    But I digress, the point is, the Times as a whole is probably doing a pretty good job here given what we normally see on these topics. Perhaps one might argue they should have counter-balanced it? My response, not really, we get plenty of that talking head garbage every night on the news, and little comes of it. It’s OK to tell a story, and let the reader draw their own conclusions too, especially when placed in the context of some more holistic reporting. At the very least, the Times deserves some credit for putting out a piece that was thought provoking, and inspired well-written pieces like your own.
    -Best

    • steve casimiro Post author

      Dante, thanks for making good points. Yes, the Times is an institution, but that institution is filled with a hierarchy of people: Extreme Grief was assigned by an editor, edited by an editor, and copy edited by at least another editor. And some editor, probably not the writer, stuck that headline on it. So, the story doesn’t exist thanks to the efforts of just one person. (Also, as an aside, the NPR affiliate in Haines interviewed me yesterday about all this and mentioned that the reporter worked on Extreme Grief for “months” — to which I could only think, “Really?”) It was considered, as all things are at the Times, by a group of people. And a group of people who represent and add to one of the most important voices in the world. I take my writing, reporting, and coverage every bit as seriously here at AJ as I would if I were working with the Times, but let’s face it, the paper has far bigger reach and far more people contributing to the consideration of each piece. Criticizing “the Times” as opposed to singling out the writer seems appropriate. God knows people attack “Adventure Journal” if they don’t like something we publish, even if it’s an independent opinion piece.

      Also, we do regularly bring attention to the Times when it gets things right, and have even noted how refreshing it is to see mainstream media (mostly) cover the outdoor culture accurately. We included the Jeremy Jones profile in our In The News section last week; indeed, the Times has done so much good coverage of the outdoors that some days it’s been hard not to cite the paper twice in one day in our news roundup. And like many, we lavished praised on the Snow Fall story and presentation. But along with praise for doing well should come criticism for blowing it. And in this case, it blew it.

  • steven

    what’s to say…I’ve been doing most of these things for 25 or so years, learning in the pre cell phone era, its hard to forget the pain of rehab or the terror of the rat in a cage moments when there’s no clear way out… but to think daily life a great deal safer that’s a stretch, I traveling often over an hour to my job often carrying heavy items over trenches filled with rebar and concrete on temporary staging in what ever weather you have for the day doing honest work…logging, trucking, farming extreme sports? the trip that leg on the table holding your feet up was filled with peril. it all risk verse reward whether it be for comfort of the body or mind.

  • Colin Carver

    This is a well written piece on a topic that has enveloped my personal life recently. On February 2nd of this year, my brother was killed in an avalanche near Silverton, CO. Several weeks later a friend (who is very unfamiliar with backcountry skiing) asked whether the event had change my perspective on risk-taking. She asked, “do you think your brother had accepted the risks he was taking?”. My response fell in line with this article:

    “You asked me if me and my family accept the risks we take in the backcountry and the answer is no, not at all. However, that does not mean they are not there. We are not ignorant of the risk, and we know them quite well, but we do not accept them. That is the thing that keeps people safe in the backcountry. My brother had all the proper avalanche gear because he recognized the risk. He also had a binding repair kit, compass, food, headlamp, extra layers, sunscreen, and tools to analyze the snowpack. He had not only recognized the risk of an avalanche, but also of equipment malfunction, getting lost, a storm blowing in, becoming lost, etc. None of these things were expected to happen, but recognizing risk is not the same as accepting them. Accepting risk is skiing a slope that will probably slide. Recognizing risk is skiing a slope that has been determined to be stable, in a controlled manner, with experienced partners, and being prepared for unpredictable or unforeseen factors that may exist. My brother would sometimes say, ‘your life is not a ski movie, There is no film crew at the bottom, no glory in risk. If a slope slides, it better be small, or you in trouble.’ We BC skiers often adopt the mountaineers’ motto: getting up is optional, getting done is not.”

  • Thea Schoettgen

    Mr. Casimiro, I am a friend and neighbor of the Dodov Family. Our sons attended the same one room school in a small ski town. Nickolay Dodov perished in an avalanche as a client of Alaska Heliskiing. Rob Lieberman was Guiding the group. Rob also perished in the same avalanche and my condolences go out to his parents. But no matter how uncomfortable this makes everyone feel, Rob had THC in his system when he was guiding that day. Are you comfortable with having a guide who is high? Did you know that the person who oversees the permitting of the Heli-ski companies is a clerk in the offices of the Haines Borough? Would you agree a little more regulating could go a long ways? I would also like to point out that it is the Dodov Family who are pursuing an investigation & more oversight via their Senator not the Family of Rob Lieberman. You are missed everyday Nickolay.

  • MB

    You missed the mark on this one.

    As a friend to the Dodov family, I can assure you that they can understand the process of risk taking. Nick’s parents are avid backcountry skiers and adventurers. They raised Nick with the same values.

    What the Dodovs are petitioning for is the creation of standards and protocols for the heli-ski industry. A currently unregulated industry, Alaska Heli Skiing did not follow their own safety protocols, falsified reports, and ignored the avalanche danger for the day.

    Guide623 – I am sorry for your loss. You are 100% correct in your description of the type of company Alaska Heli-skiing is. The Dodov’s are merely trying to gain support for setting industry standards that will prevent another tragedy. Of course, there will always be unforeseen circumstances and it cannot prevent all accidents, but let’s hold guide companies accountable. Particularly when they don’t follow their own safety plan. In the words of Theo Meiners, “Make every trip a round trip.”

    Nothing will bring their son back. But Alex and Natalia haven’t given up skiing and they aren’t asking anyone else to. In fact, I believe they are encouraging people to get on the snow as much as possible. That’s how they honor Nick’s memory – not by giving up their passion, but by following it.

  • Dean Karnazes

    Nicely put, Steve. I remember reading criticism of Alex Lowe when he died by people who were saying that he was taking unnecessary risks and this was selfish to his family. Would they say the same thing about a coal miner? Alex made his living climbing mountains, that was his job and the way that he provided for his family. Yes, there were risks in his chosen vocation. But many jobs come with risks (including the risk of becoming morbidly obese from sitting behind a desk all day).

  • Natalia and Alex Dodov

    We are just coming back from a beautiful powder day. We are the ones that always try to make the first chair every day. We have a lifetime experience in the backcountry skiing. We raised our son Nickolay Dodov in the mountains skiing and snowboarding. We never regretted that we gave him a pair of skis and a snowboard. We were the ones that encouraged him the most to explore the backcountry further, higher and to ride the deep powder. We always talked about safety and if the consequences are too high come back home to ride another day. We were more like the best friends calling each other in the evenings to share our riding experience and our love for the beauty of the mountains. Tomorrow our home Ski Resort Bear Valley, in Northern California is dedicating a slopestyle event in loving memory of our son Nickolay Dodov. Our son was a skilled snowboarder with racing career and more than ten years of backcountry experience. We believe that if our son was on his own, he would have come back home. He paid top dollar and placed his life in the hands of so called professional heli ski guides, never to return.
    We would like to share with you our letter to the following senators

    Alaska
    Congressman Don Young,
    US Senator Mark Begich,
    US Senator Lisa Murkovski

    California
    Congressman Tom McClintock
    US Senator Barbara Boxer
    US Senator Diane Feinstein

    to make better understanding of what happen on March 13, 2012 and what follow.

    DODOV LETTER TO U.S. SENATORS AND CONGESSMEN

    January 22, 2013

    Dear Senator,

    Our names are Alex and Natalia Dodov. We are from Bear Valley, California. Our son, Nickolay Dodov, was killed, along with guide Rob Liberman, in an avalanche on March 13, 2012 while snowboarding near Haines, Alaska. He was a snowboard client of the commercial guiding service Alaska Heliskiing LLC. (AH)

    We are asking for your assistance and intervention. We know that our son Nick’s death could have been prevented had there been stricter guidelines imposed. We have spent endless hours investigating the circumstances of our son’s death: we have dealt with the city government, the state government and the Heli Ski US Association to no avail. So far we have had no indication of further investigation into the death of our son considering the obvious gross negligence of Alaska Heliskiing (AH) nor an interest on the regulatory agencies part to improve policy and procedures that would protect the safety of future heli-ski clients and heli-guides alike.

    We are appealing to you.

    In light of all that we have discovered, we request that Alaska Heliskiing be investigated and held accountable for the death of Nickolay Dodov.

    We request that an independent and qualified party be brought into this investigation.

    We request that, due to an obvious conflict of interest, the permit issuing authority be taken from Haines Borough and assigned to an appropriate governing agency.

    We request improved safety infrastructure: standardize heli-skiing regulations in the USA, require drug screening policy for heli ski companies in the USA, require all the guides and clients of the USA heli companies to wear the latest safety equipment, establish avalanche research and education center in Haines, establish search and rescue in Haines, and upgrade Haines medical facility with advanced life support equipment.

    The following is a summary of our investigation:

    · Winter season 2011/2012 had a record snowfall with high rated avalanche danger for Alaska. There was 3-5 feet of new accumulated snow the day prior to the avalanche incident. Wind storm the night prior to the avalanche had changed the snow pack. According to eyewitness’s statement, five days of storm meant “no economy that week” for Guide Company Alaska Helisking LLC. (AH). On March 13, 2012, the company ignored the dangerous conditions, and an urge to make money pushed the guides and the clients to go ski.

    · On the morning of the avalanche incident, the Haines Avalanche InformationCenter recorded an avalanche warning rating of : Considerable; Dangerous avalanche conditions. Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making are essential. Snow condition when natural avalanches are possible; Human triggered avalanche likely. Haines Avalanche InformationCenter reports “This very heavy new load fell atop a snowpack with at least three distinct, widespread weak layers, as well as its own “upside-down” storm-snow weaknesses. The top foot or so is loose and makes for great skiing, but poorly bonded and very reactive.”

    · Guide Company (AH) was aware of the unstable and dangerous snow condition (based on film footage from the morning meeting of AH on March 13, before the avalanche incident). Two avalanche forecasts were given (with and without wind deposit snow) by leading guide Rob Liberman to the heli guides. Liberman was aware of surface hoar growth the day before. He said if wind was to deposit snow on that layer, it would be a reactive layer, (If surface hoar layer is buried is potential avalanche danger). According to an eyewitness after the morning meetings (including March 13), the guide members of AH routinely went to the shack in the premises of AH base where they smoked marihuana.

    · Our son Nickolay Dodov’s group was not informed about the dangerous snow conditions. “We are taking you to the bunny hill” indicating an attitude of casualness as client Dwell Bailey didn’t even take his 2nd safety device along, (air bag pack) , Bailey said “It wasn’t apparent to any of us /the clients/ that it was a danger”, was his statement. On the run prior to the avalanche incident, a snow pack evaluation was done. It showed dangerous conditions, and so the group was taken on an alternative route. Instead of calling the day off because of the dangerous conditions, Liberman told the group that the company was already paying for the helicopter, and persuaded them “lets go find better snow”. Guide Rob Liberman took them to a run called “Swanny”. The clients were concerned that the snow conditions looked suspicious. Liberman didn’t check the snow and assured them, “Don’t be concerned. It’s just an alpine bowl and the snow should be fine”; as documented on Go-Pro footage. (An alpine bowl with rolling hills and multiple gullies with steepness 25-40* with unstable new accumulated snow and wind slab that could break in long running fractures if they are over a weak layer is potential avalanches danger). This was the run on which the avalanche occurred.

    · AH rents inflatable airbag backpacks that keep skiers atop avalanches and could save a life. For safety in the helicopter, AH makes clients wearing the inflatable air backpacks to zip closed the deployment cord. There is a safety concern that the airbag might accidentally inflate in the helicopter possibly causing a crash. Rob Liberman wasn’t wearing any safety devises. (i.e. breathing device such as AvaLung and inflatable air backpack). Nor did he check the readiness of the client’s inflatable air backpacks once outside the helicopter before the run. Our son was wearing both devises; he was found under the snow with his air backpack deployment cord zipped up, inaccessible.

    · Nickolay Dodov was directed by Rob Liberman, “go to the right, there is better powder there”. This triggered 800 feet wide avalanche, with depth of the crown 16 inches to 6 feet. Search and rescue was slow and inadequate. AH operating permit states; To locate victim as soon as possible use all heliski groups already in the field. Sixteen people were at the scene of the avalanche; (5 clients and a guide on the top on “Swanny” Ridge, 5 clients and a guide in approaching helicopter when the avalanche released, and four survivors). Film footage is recording a guide named Nick Barlow waiting on some slope. His skis are off and it appears he is the guide with another group. The film records the audio words coming over his radio from the helicopter approaching the scene, the words come over the radio from Gabe, “Rob, Rob do you copy? I need you to get on Robs’s frequency right now…and get a count ASAP. I want you guys to hold tight…there’s hangfire. I’m going to put myself on-slope I’m going in”. The first guide was dropped on the scene approximately 25-30 minutes after the avalanche released, according to eyewitness statement. The group of the survivors didn’t have a radio to communicate to the base, as they should have according to the safety regulations. When a guide takes a group solo he has to have a client with a radio trained to take action in case the guide is buried in an avalanche. Survivor eyewitness Brandon Corbet, had his Go Pro camera on. He revealed that he had erased from the actual footage the search and rescue but kept only 36 still images. He revealed that only three of the surviving clients and two guides were involved in the search and rescue. He revealed the actual time line from the time the victims were buried until their bodies were recovered was 47 minutes. After 47 minutes the place was swamped with other guides. (A person located in the first 15 minutes has an approximately 90 percent chance of survival. The probability of survival drops off rapidly after that time. After 90 minutes, the probability of survival is approximately 25 percent).

    · Rob Liberman was flown straight to Haines Medical Clinic. Transportation of the unconscious Nickolay Dodov to a hospital was untimely: Nickolay was first taken to the base. According to eyewitness when Nick was brought to the base he was not responsive and that is when they stopped giving him CPR. Nickolay was dead. An ambulance arrived 37 minutes later. The ambulance was at the base for 28 min. Then Nick was driven 40 minutes to Haines Medical Clinic. It takes only 9 minutes by air from the avalanche site to Haines Medical Clinic. The total time from the time Nick was buried under the snow until his arrived in the Haines Medical Clinic was 2 hours and 32 minutes. According to eyewitness statement AH didn’t have adequate number of helicopters for the numbers of clients they had at the time to respond timely and sufficient to search and rescue operation. AH operating permit states; If necessary, the victim will be transported directly to Haines Medical Clinic or Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau for treatment.

    · Somewhere on the way to the clinic, or in the clinic Nick’s heart was revived. Nickolay Dodov arrived in Haines Medical Clinic 1.02pm on March 13, 2012. The Haines Medical Clinic revealed that they provide only 2 hours of life support. Nickolay was kept at the Clinic for over 6 hours.

    · Nickolay Dodov was transported to a hospital in Seattle, WA, where he arrived 1.30am on March 14, and where he was declared dead. According to the doctors from Trauma Center in Seattle his actual death occurred in Alaska. Nickolay was transported out of the state of Alaska, to prevent a state investigation

    · The Medical Report from Haines Medical Clinic, from the time of accident to his arrival to the hospital in Seattle, is unaccounted for and it was not included in Trooper Bentz’s incident report.

    · AH knew that the avalanche danger was high, did not tell its clients about the dangerous conditions and instead persuaded them not to be concerned about conditions. The clients were not adequately warned or informed of the inherent dangers the day of March 13. The clients did not receive proper instruction on use of safety equipment. The trip was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The guide used bad judgment. The rescue was overly lengthy and complicated and lead to the death of the client. Permit requirements and compliance to policies, procedures, and protocols in the tour company’s Operations Plan were broken contributing to the death of Nickolay Dodov.

    · AH threatened the web site of Haines Avalanche InformationCenter. The avalanche reports from February 20 to March 14 were removed from its website. AH had the avalanche survivors sign papers that they would not discuss events of that day, while providing hamburgers. AH induced the filming crew that was filming at the time to cooperate for the “positive outcome of this accident” by “sticking to the original story line and NOT using anything related to this incident”, because “I want to stay in business so that is what is on the line for all of us”. The filming crew was warned if they don’t cooperate they have to deal with AH lawyer, “who is like a bulldog”.

    · Guide Rob Liberman’s autopsy report revealed high levels of marijuana type THC in his system / 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. 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.

    · In an accidental death involving the presence of THC, city and state authorities should have conducted an investigation. Unfortunately this did not happen.

    · Rob Liberman was a paid employee of AH. If the company’s employee is criminally negligent, then the company should be held liable for their employee’s actions.

    · Instead of an investigation, Alaska State Trooper Bentz concluded the incident “non-criminal”. State Trooper Bentz had the results of Liberman’s toxicology report, yet he withheld it from us and our lawyer. Trooper Bentz didn’t request all employees involved in the accident/rescue of AH Company be tested for THC and other illegal substances. Not investigating and letting AH continue operating until the end of season 2012 Trooper Bentz put other lives at risk. According to eyewitnesses’ statements after two deaths AH continued to operate with reckless behavior. At least one time AH was rotating seven client groups with one helicopter. We have filed a complaint with the Alaska Bureau of Investigation against state Trooper Bentz regarding the handling of the incident report with controversial and false information. We requested that Alaska State Troopers to reopen the case. We were told by Lt Rodney Dial that they would not reopen an investigation into the heli-ski accident that killed two people.

    · AH did not file a detailed report of Rob Liberman’s death to the Workman’s Compensation Board. Instead, a $750 fine was paid by AH to the Board.

    · By permit, AH is required to submit a detailed accident report to Haines Borough within 72 hours of the incident. Such a report was not submitted. 7 ½ months later AH filed a false accident report with the National Avalanche Center in Colorado.

    · AH has no current land use permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and has not had one since 2008. By definition of DNR regulations, AH is criminally trespassing on State Land. The incident happened on StateLand managed by DNR. [1] AH not having a DNR permit has not been inspected and regulated for storing diesel, spill plan and prevention methods. Therefore, AH stored diesel fuel too close to the river.

    · AH has no current land use permit from the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and has not had one since 2005. If they had attempted to obtain a permit, the BLM would thoroughly screen AH. By definition, BLM is responsible to require and inspect operation and safety plans, perform extensive environmental analysis, perform monitoring, perform evaluations and on-the-ground compliance for any and all Special Recreation Permits. [2]

    · AH’s operation permit (issued by Haines Borough) was 5 years outdated. AH’s 2012 operating permit (stamped and signed by Haines Borough) states: BLM responsibility of administration of Alaska Heliskiing, LLC helicopter skiing operations include: inspectional of facilities and operation for compliance with the tour permit terms so that public health and safety are protected, and satisfactory public service is provided; Cooperation with Alaska Heliskiing, LLC personnel in avalanche safety with regard to the helicopter skiing program; a close working relationship with the Haines Borough and BLM is desirable. Because BLM had not issued AH permit since 2005, these administration responsibilities were not followed.

    · Based on film footage the owner of AH resisted giving GPS data requested by Haines Borough, due to out of bounds use. Instead of holding AH accountable for their criminal trespassing, the Haines Borough supports AH and lets them continue with their operation.

    · According to the code of Haines Borough, AK; the Police Chief, Tourism Director and Harbor Master must review all commercial tour permit applications, including heli-skiing permits.

    · AH misrepresented its safety standards and activities, inducing decedent to use its services. AH claimed on it’s website to be a member of Alaska Helicopter Skiing Association, that sets strict safety standards, and the guides meet or exceed the Association requirements. In fact, AHSA does not exist, according to numerous industry operators. These claims were later retracted and removed from the AH website.[3]

    · We submitted an “Assembly Action Request” with Haines Borough on 8/17/12. This request for investigation has never been on the agenda for public hearing. Instead it has been held with the Borough attorney. Our request was for a review and investigation from Haines Borough, as they are the ones who administer the original, outdated Heliski operating permit.[4]

    · We have eyewitness statement of criminal activity by AH: illegal dumping of fuel/jet waste by AH; hiring of illegal workers by AH; Federal Aviation Association infractions by AH. None of these is relevant to our case, yet shows the negligence of AH company.

    · We submitted details from the accident to the Heli Ski National Association for review and judgment. We requested the current operating protocols (safety, search & rescue standards) that are required for all the US heli ski companies. We could not locate any standards on the HSUS website. We also asked where HSUS stands regarding drug usage of guides. HSUS declined to participate.

    Thank you for your time and consideration

    Alex and Natalia Dodov

    [1] Email From: david.kelley@alaska.gov To: nataliadodova@hotmail.com Subject: Alaska Hekliskiing Date: Mon, Chilkat Valley News, Dec, 06, 2012 “Heli-ski safety claim in question”

    Chilkat Valley News, Sept 13, 2012 “Mayor, Assembly not informed of request”.

    Email From: david.kelley@alaska.gov To: nataliadodova@hotmail.com Subject: Alaska Hekliskiing Date: Mon, 5 Nov 2012 21:04:12 +0000

    Email From Jeffrey kowalcsyk (jkowalcz@blm.gov) 10/29/12 to: nataliadodova@hotmail.com

    Chilkat Valley News, May 10, 2012 “Autopsy finds THC in guides blood” 5 Nov 2012 21:04:12 +0000

    [1] Email From Jeffrey kowalcsyk (jkowalcz@blm.gov) 10/29/12 to: nataliadodova@hotmail.com

  • Jamie Jones.

    The guide is from NY city. Go look at all the people dying in avalanches in the USA, almost everyone is from the eastern United States. Why is that, because they have never gotten the basics of being in the mountains.

  • Bruce Litus

    Steve, well written response to a complicated issue. As with anything we do in life, there is risk. Sometimes we have the option of accepting it, but most times we don’t. Thankfully the majority of risk most people are exposed to are low occurring every day. But these “low risk” exposures can be deadly. Driving to work and being involved in an accident, shoveling snow and having an heart attack and so on. No less heart breaking to the families. How much control do we really have over accepting these types of risk? We have more control in making the decision to assume the risks associated with extreme endeavors. We can choose not to do it. We do not need more regulation. Legislating risk is akin to censorship. Are we not intelligent enough to make our own decisions? Do we need others to dictate how we map out our life’s journey? The Mountaineers appropriately summed it up “The Freedom of the Hills”. What we need to do is to make better use of all the resources available to minimize the risk potential and maximize the success potential. We also need to objectively review our own abilities as well. And always have a backup plan!

  • Marilyn Davis

    Yes these activities are dangerous and can be life threatening but there are also ways to factor out a lot of risk. When a company is promoting and profiting from these sports we believe they have a duty to minimize the risk as much as possible.

    Many warning signs were ignored by the the heli-ski company that fateful day. Clients were persuaded by a professional guide to stay out when they requested to end the day of skiing/boarding, which unnecessarily put many lives at risk. Would you be at peace knowing your loved one died due to recklessness? Don’t overlook the incentive of these companies – they are in business to make money. This was not a private back-country group of friends on an outing unassisted by professionals. Nick paid for professional guides to take him into an extreme environment – they did not hold up their end of the bargain.

    I commend Guide623 for the statement regarding decision making,” Which is the dynamic component of our industry; Decision-making”. Guides should be clear minded, alert and aware of there responsibility to the other guides and client members. Autopsy results finding THC in the guides bloodstream is unacceptable.

    We the Davis and Dodovs do not live our lives sitting on the couch eating potato chips, and are not likely to die of obesity. We live active healthy lives, just want to help with awareness that Alaska has very slack safety standards while advertising to be the best in the world. The potential clients have the right to know that the rules change when you cross the boarder into the wild wild west.
    Do your research, shop wisely, be an informed and educated consumer. Clients – perhaps request a drug screen for your guide before you sign the release agreement.

  • Paul Behrer

    No doubt it is painful to lose a loved one.

    Second guessing done by people who have no experience from which to judge a heli skiing guide’s decisions, that’s probably reflexive if you’ve lost a loved one, but it’s not a legitimate ground for approaching legislative or regulatory fixes to problems that haven’t yet been established.

    Surmise and fear regarding the circumstances of the loss are normal. But it would be abnormal and imprudent to allow such drives to fabricate problems and then to legislate or regulate some kind of fix for these emotionally-imagined problems.

    Having an “active lifestyle” is not really approximating the enjoyment of adventure and risk that one experiences in the circumstances Casimiro wrote about.

    Most humans don’t aspire to high levels of adventure. Most people do not actively pursue climbing with big exposure, or skiing steep backcountry lines that don’t get resort-style avy management, or running Class V whitewater.

    Personal risk management is personal!

    People who don’t aspire to big adventure and people who lack experience with big adventure really are not in a position to judge the safety or risk management decisions made by those who have such aspirations and actively pursue them.

    There are better ways to grieve than actively pursuing the process of blaming others.

  • afski

    It sounds like Nick Dodov did not have his airbag release handle unzipped and accessible. That is a mistake that an experienced skier should not make, tantamount to not having your transceiver turned on or letting its batteries run out. Does sound like Haines needs to deal with some issues, and better regulation may be a good idea. Most avalanches occur following heavy snowfall or wind deposits atop weak layers, but sometimes they are due to unforeseen, slope specific conditions. Here the guides chose a moderate slope that did not seem to present a danger. That does not mean that the skiers could ignore basic avalanche safety gear. Adrenaline and endorphins at times result in poor decision making.

  • KMS

    Thank you Alex and Natalia for including your findings from the investigations, as they provide a much better understanding of the situation (albeit a bit biased) and do raise some VERY interesting questions. I am very sorry for your loss and cannot imagine the pain you are going through. Your passion for ensuring that others do not have to share this pain/experience is honorable. While the report does show some negligence it is not apparent to me that regulation is what was lacking. It may be that unfortunately your son chose a company (for whatever reason) that had poor ethics. If the comapny did not have all the appropriate permits, or the permits they had were obtained under false information, then they could not actually have been properly regulated. I encourage everyone else tempted to comment to read the Dodov’s response before you do.

    Just my two cents: Sometimes regulations are necessary, however oftentimes over-regulation is counter productive and encourages rogue or illegal activities.

  • David Falt

    I think its wort the risk!
    What risk level is acceptable?

    I came a cross the article in the link below recently and its a topic that I have debated with my self many times. There are no easy answers and no answer will fit an other individual. It all boils down to personal preferences and individual decisions.

    http://www.adventure-journal.com/2013/03/in-defense-of-taking-risks/

    My defense for taking risk when out in the mountains skiing or climbing is simple. I take risk when I’m at peace with what I do. The decision making process around the risk level at a certain point of time during an outing is a complex process and in my experience the best decisions are made when I start out having made up my mind about what kind of risk I’m willing to take before going on an outing.

    The risk levels in risky sports are a moving target. Nothing is static and the topic needs constant review but I think while I’m on a risky venture its too late to be having second thoughts. I think deep inside us we know what we are on to and if we are at peace with what we are up to.

    Things change in life. Our values change over time. And our motives for why we take risk change. This is why I think alpinism is a complex sport. In alpinism a goal involving risk is so personal its virtually impossible to be on the same page as a climbing partner.

    It can be very hard to find the justification personally to go out and pursue this specific goal and even harder to talk some one in to join in a bid to go for some thing involving taking risk. And even if your partner needs no convincing it can still be very difficult to execute on the common goal. What is driving me to desire the goal might be very different from the reasons driving my partner. Yet the perfect balance some times is there and things get done.

    This makes up for a complex mix of emotions and rationals for sharing a risky experience. When I go through the thought process of what kind of risk I’m prepared to take for a given goal I look at the objective I want to go climb and then I try to figure out what is driving me and how I value it compared to the known factors in my life.

    Its an equation. Its about valuing what the experience will give me compared to the price I might have to pay for going forward and expose myself and my loved once for the sake of some thing that ultimately means nothing to no one else than me. Its a self obsessed process.

    I find that close to home on smaller objectives I find it harder to justify taking risk. This is a strange perception. In relative terms an undertakings close to home should be easier to take risk on as they are in an environment where there is relatively fewer unknown factors to me. I can monitor weather and conditions better so fundamentally I posses more data that should enable me to take better decisions. Still Its not working that way for me. I can’t answer why I feel like this and what is behind that sort of thinking. Its just the way us works for me.

    I need distance and solitude to find the peace I need to focus on what I have set out to do. Disturbance in the form of phone calls and emails have a negative effect on me when I’m on a mission to try and accomplish some thing I desire. I think the answer to this is simple. If I stay in close contact to loved once the potential downside to the decisions I have taken and the rational I have projected to myself in order to expose myself becomes much more fragile. Being close to what you are about to lose is a harsh reminder of the steep price not only I will pay but more so what loved once left out of the process will have to pay. Therefore I think its a natural instinct to seek isolation in order to focus on what I want to do.

    I think we as humans instinctively strive to have as few regrets as possible and we all know we are at some point going to depart mother earth and thats why I think we want to be at peace with what we do and know why we are taking risk. At the end of the day I think we all have things we are prepared to die for. If its a mountain we want to climb or a cause we want to defend is indifferent, its just a question of choice.

    I’m not sure you follow me but this is my honest thoughts on the topic.

    As a side note:

    Dreams die hard some one said. Obsessions I think are impossible to kill. Its some thing inside us that just drives us to go out and try no matter what the consequences are.

    The bonus of risk is to be in places and see things few other ever get to see or experience. Its a part of the equation making risk worth taking.

  • Natalia and Alex Dodov

    We have exchanged emails with the President of US Helisking Association Paul Butler from November 2012, requesting information regarding safety standards. He respectfully declined to participate.
    We have been in contact with heliskiing operators in Canada, New Zealand and Europe, as well as heliskiing guides in US, in order to learn what the world wide standards are for the heliskiing industry.
    We openly invite comments and suggestions from experienced and qualified guides to join in this discussion

    PROPOSAL OF STANDARDIZED SAFETY RULES FOR THE HELISKIING INDUSTRY IN THE US
    All heliski permits should be issued and administered by an independent 3rd party. This party should be unified with the top experts in the field to set the industry standards & protocols. The most respected and experienced guides input should be included for
    this standardization process.

    Liability release forms must have a clear understanding to hold the heliskiing operator responsible in case of gross negligence and criminal negligence, as well as clients must have a clear understanding of the inherent risks.

    All the Commercial heliskiing operations in the US must introduce their Heli-Ski clients to the existing weather pattern, snow pack and how it relates to the surrounding mountains. Clients must be advised regarding the possible dangers.
    All Commercial heliskiing operators in the US must collect, observe and discuss weather, snow reports and avalanche conditions from all sources available each day.
    All Heli-Ski clients must be involved in the discussions of: weather, snow reports and avalanche conditions. Heli-Ski Clients will be part of the discussions and in the decision making of each day before they sign the daily release forms.
    Every Heli-Ski client should be required to have at minimum a Level I Avalanche course completed and Wilderness First Aid Class

    All the guides and the Heli-Ski clients must wear & use the latest safety equipment; Air backpack and breathing device AvaLung.
    All guides must check the readiness of each Heli-Ski client’s safety devices before leaving the operations base and before each run.
    Snow observation i.e. a test pit and ski cutting must be required on every exposure. The Heli-Ski clients must be informed of the result before they are allowed to ski the run.
    Two guides must be required for each group of Heli-Ski clients for all Commercial heliskiing operations in the US. One of the guides must ski the chosen terrain before all of the clients. One guide must wait at the top and ski down after the last Heli-Ski client completes his or her’s run.
    When an avalanche occurs every guide and Heli-Ski client available must participate in the search and rescue mission.
    Search and Rescue Centers must be establish in a central location where heliskiing operations are present. Each Heli-Ski Operation must contribute to it and participate in case of emergency.
    All Commercial Heliskiing operations in the US must have adequate numbers of helicopters to respond in a timely manner when an emergency or a search and rescue occurs.

    Every injured Heli-Ski Client or a Guide must be transported to the nearest hospital. All Commercial Heliskiing Guides must participate in on-going training. All Commercial Heliskiing Guides must practice Avalanche Safety, Search and Rescue procedures and protocol & First Aid drills throughout the Heli-Ski season. Every new Heli-Ski Guide must apprentice and train for a minimum of two years before he or she is allowed to guide & lead clients.

    All Commercial Heliskiing Guides must carry a memo log, and complete all snow observation results each day. Radio communication must be available to all clients, guides and the base of the Heliskiing Operation. Radio communication must be recorded and GPS data available in case of accident.

    ZERO tolerance of drugs and alcohol. All Commercial Heliskiing Operators in the US must have a drug screening policy for their employees.
    A standardized code of conduct should be adopted by Heli-Ski Operators in regards to the Heli-Ski Client, i.e. consumption of drugs or alcohol while clients of a Heli-Ski Operator.
    Safety plans, Search and Rescue protocols must be standardized for all of the Commercial Heliskiing Operators in US and must be monitored and enforced by a Federal Authority
    Safety plans, search and rescue protocols must be submitted to the US Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
    All Commercial Heli-Ski operators must be responsible for the information on their websites and printed materials. All information must be true, accurate and up to date.

  • Peter Hawks

    Our family lost our son, Ryan Hawks, to unwarranted tragedy 2 years ago during an extreme skiing competition at Kirkwood, Calif. He executed a maneuver he knew how to do but put it down in the wrong place. He was 25. His words would have been, “It is was it is, Dad; I knew the risks.’ Our family was devestated but our response is positive. Ryan had a great impact on nearly everyone who knew him. We elected to extend the impact of his life and honor his spirit by starting a foundation: http://www.flyinryanhawks.com, whose purpose is to share the 14 Principles for Living which Ryan crafted for himself several years before he died. We now have a Flyin Ryan family numbering about 6,000. We have also awarded 24 adventure scholarships which are driven by 3 criteria: passion, financial need, and core values. Our purpose is to level the financial playing field for aspiring adventurers who are passionate, have financial need and are well composed. Athleticism is not a factor; it is a byproduct of the former. We believe that an adventurous spirit is fundamental to a life well lived.

    Peace, love and deep powder,
    Peter Hawks

  • Kaj Bune

    Excellent article. Thanks.

    Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with the idea of living a long life. Some years ago I decided to apply what I call The 100 Year Plan to, well, my life and see if I can make make it happen. It arose out of witnessing death in the mountains and coming close to it myself. I felt I needed a set of filters, through which I can put my choices. Ski this slope? Paddle this crossing in these conditions? Eat this burger? Go for the summit today? It’s really just a reminder to stop and consider things carefully before stepping out into potentially risky situations. And from experience it has become clear that I need the reminder. I think we all do.

    Looking forward to seeing you in 2059.

  • Amanda Burnham-Marusich

    Thank you for a thought-provoking piece. I’ve thought about risk management a fair bit from a philosophical point of view and also a practical point of view — my addiction is whitewater kayaking. I would like to contribute three thoughts to the discussion.

    First, I agree with many of the previous folks: Deciding what is an acceptable level of risk is a personal decision for each of us. One (of the many) things I love about whitewater kayaking is that you have to be honest with yourself and you have to be humble. If today is not a class 5 kind of day for me, then I don’t run class 5 that day. Maybe tomorrow, but not today. But there is also an unfortunate, tragic, horrible truth in this world: when I do carefully choose to paddle a hard rapid, it does not mean that nothing will go wrong. All it means is that if something does go wrong, I know (and my friends and family know) that *I* made that choice — no one else is to blame. Making that choice is part of the powerful wonderfulness that comes with this kind of adventure. You have to know your skills, your mindset, your strength, and trust your assessment of the situation. NO ONE ELSE is inside your mind/body/heart — thus no one else can make these choices for you — not your friends on the water with you, not a hired guide, and not your family and friends back home at the house.

    This brings me to point #2 (which no one has yet discussed). I believe that guide services are appropriate for learning the beginning or even intermediate skillsets of certain sports like whitewater kayaking, mountaineering, rock climbing, skiing, etc. But commercial guide services are not appropriate for high-level participation in these sports. This is because even if a guide tells you that some situation is “relatively” safe, you still have to take the responsibility to make the final choice of “go or not go”. If you haven’t actually built up your skills, your mental game, your physical strength, and your experience, then you are not in the best position to decide whether it’s a good idea (or not) for you to enter the scene (run the drop, ski the line, etc). The best way to participate in these sports at the expert level is with your mind/body full with experiences from many days spent at the lower ability levels and with a community of friends that you have built experience with over the course of all those lower ability days. When I paddle class 5 water, I paddle it with my closest friends. I would never ask them to tell me if a rapid is “doable” or not — I make that call. For that exact reason, I would never paddle that level of water as a commercial client — I would never let a guide tell me if a drop is “doable” or not. I recognize that this is a very black and white viewpoint and one that may not be popular.

    Last point: If you love someone enough, you will let them be free to live their life in a way that is satisfying and wonderful and necessary for them. Loving someone is a package deal — you don’t get to pick and choose what pieces of who they are that they get to keep and which they have to give up. My husband paddles harder water than I do. I trust his judgment on the river, and he trusts mine.

  • Ginna

    As a 40-something female ski professional in BC, with over 20 years under my belt, I respectfully disagree with your conclusions. While the NYT article was typically hysterical, your dismissal of the risks I think causes significant harm.

    Just today the BC Coroner’s Office released a review of avalanche deaths in the province, and shockingly discovered that avalanche victims are overwhelmingly (over 90%) male, and young. (Almost half are snowmobilers, who apparently believe they can outrun any avalanche.)

    I see over and over again young men who should know better ignoring fairly basic safety protocol and egging each other on, dismissing any and all risks. Your commenters suggest that all these boys need are mentors, but where are they exactly? At sites like these, they see video of people walking away unscathed from 300′ falls, as if this is the norm. They see ski movies with backcountry professionals skiing crazy sick lines, with no backstory of the risk management that goes in to the making of such films. Am I exaggerating?

    Just this past weekend, I saw two young colleagues whose serious concussions would have been prevented by the most basic park behaviour.

    One young man had an accident and hit his head. I called patrol on him, because in the five minutes I talked to him his memory deteriorated significantly. He was brought down the mountain in an ambulance. I have no idea what caused his accident, and neither does he, and we’ll never know because he was skiing in the park alone.

    The next colleague got his third serious concussion this year in the park, just this past weekend. He hit a jump only to discover someone hanging out in the landing. My basic question: “Why the hell did you not have a spotter?” But I’m just the old woman in the corner harshing their buzz.

    A final example, again recent: Four young men, who all had some backcountry experience and avalanche training, took off on a day tour. Later they admitted that they should have turned back quickly, that everything they knew suggested the risk was too high, but no one wanted to be the wimp. They all survived, luckily, but it took nearly 16 hours to rescue them, and one had a badly broken femur.

    So again: Where are these supposed mentors? Why aren’t publications like this, older men, experienced professionals not hammering basic risk management into these kids?

    Yes, it’s good to push yourself and take risks. I’ve certainly done so myself. But when these kids are routinely ignoring basic, easy safety steps, something has gone very wrong.

  • Mike McFarlane

    Very interesting to read so many knowledgeable and passionate views on such a difficult subject, one that is often unapproachable by those outside the ‘extreme sports’ area. We all need to be educated and make our own calls.

    I’ve always hated the phrase “died doing what he/she loved” too. Why focus on death? To me, it is not how you die, but how you live that is important. And for me, that is a principle I apply to all my life, not just my time on the trails or in the mountains.

  • ShredHood

    Well written and well reasoned. A life without risks may or may not be safer than the life we choose when we jump in skis first. But it would be nowhere near as sweet.

  • Dan

    With respect, Steve, I have to disagree with some of your points in an otherwise thought-provoking essay. If death is a possibility, then it very well may become a cost. In one breath, you extol the importance of risk. In the next, you refuse to accept the full spectrum of possible consequences of that risk. Forget the arguments about acceptable risk. To my eyes, your main objectives are ones I can get onboard with. In my reading, you’re asking that risk not be legislated away, and you’re asking people to be careful. Can’t we do that without cheapening the decisions of anybody who happens to find joy in pursuits more dangerous than yours? I’ve written a post http://thegoodnihilist.com/2013/03/16/a-story-of-honor/ in memory of a young man who just this week died in my community, and a few of your thoughts feature high up in the commentary. Even if I disagree with some of the particulars, I thank you for contributing good reporting and writing on this subject.

  • Ted Steiner

    Hello Steve;

    Looks like I’m late in reading your excellent post. I also wanted to make a quick comment, mainly directed toward some of the discussion in your article’s excellent comment comment thread. Thanks to all that have contributed. My thoughts are with those that have lost loved friends and family members in untimely deaths. It’s the worst type of loss.

    Just to reiterate, and this is from a winter backcountry perspective, that to manage wild snow risks and negotiate associated hazards, is critically dependent on:
    1. One’s ability to objectively evaluate potential hazards and existing field conditions.
    2. Limiting your vulnerability to identified hazards and being able to manage conditions.

    To do this effectively requires targeted education, well-seasoned field experience, established protocols, and objectively-based decisions.

    This is a task exposed to a plethora of human factors (negative biases). Particularly, Complacency… I need to remind myself of that on a daily basis :).

    Thanks again for the great post and allowing me the opportunity to comment.

  • Markus Rosbach

    “It’s not the years in your life, its the life in your years”
    Abraham Lincoln

    The spiritual element of risk-taking is to give oneself or one’s weaknesses to GOD and rely on him totally, having the complete confidence that our destiny is carved in HIS/ ITS decision, thereby gaining total calm and proper judgment and intuition to do the right thing at the right moment. Many times we are clouded by irrational fears or the need to be special, both of which are obstacles on the way to personal freedom and fulfillment.

    Once the total spectrum of that spiritual connection has been opened, we will walk like the Zen master in total confidence over the abyss or fight an opponent blindfolded. Unknowingly that is the connection we are all seeking and one way to approach that 100% and undivided concentration is through the clear and imminent danger. Once the breakthrough happens, the sudden “connection”, we go into some sort of enlightenment or at the least let some endorphins flow.

    Hence for many, one of the ways to realize that connection is through risk-taking. Obviously it should not be foolish, and sometimes it does not have to be in nature necessarily, but it is an essential element of human nature which made us who we are and will fulfill our never-ending quest for limitlessness. I have had the gracious opportunity of doing service in a poor country and adventure programs at the same time.

    All the best, Mark

    http://www.innersports.org
    http://www.amurthaiti.org

  • David D

    Rick,
    I agree. It’s cliche to refer back to automobile accidents, but it says something about perceived risk. There are many ways to live life to the fullest, like slaying a mandolin or being involved in movement. And even riding your bike to work in New York City. I remember this Doc who commuted from SoHo to Mid-Town everyday by bike. Is that stupid? Not when he reaches 70 with a healthy heart. It is about heart, isn’t it. The NYT stuck in its bubble looks at the world like a music critic, armchair sportsmen who want to find the next Boutique Hostel to include in their travel section. But I tell you what, NYT why don’t you read the writings of Michael Ybarra, WSJ, and find out what heart is made of. Find your bliss, says “Brospeh” Camblell, and he spent some time thinking about what heart means in the context of humanity today. That’s the real question. Why?

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