AK Heli Guide Dies From Injuries

Bend-native Aaron Karitis does not survive injuries sustained from avalanche in Haines on Saturday

AK heli ski guide Aaron Karitis is in critical condition from injuries sustained in an avalanche on Saturday. PHOTO: Courtesy of Aaron Karitis' Facebook page.

AK heli ski guide Aaron Karitis is in critical condition from injuries sustained in an avalanche on Saturday. PHOTO: Courtesy of Aaron Karitis’ Facebook page.

BREAKING NEWS, UPDATED: March 18, 6:10 pm, pst): Heli-ski guide Aaron Karitis has succumbed to the injuries he sustained during an avalanche near Haines, Alaska, on Saturday morning. A spokesperson from the Providence Alaska Medical center confirmed that Karitis had been pronounced dead on Tuesday evening.

Karitis, 31, a guide for Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), was skiing the backcountry with a group of four clients on Saturday morning. The helicopter dropped the group off at the top of a run called Tele 2.5 around 11 a.m. According to Beth Ipsen, Alaska State Troopers spokesperson, Karitis checked conditions on the slope, deemed it safe to ski, and gave his group instructions on how to approach and ski the terrain ahead. Moments later, an avalanche ripped out and carried Karitis at least 800 feet down the mountain into the Kicking Horse Horse Valley drainage. Karitis’ clients were above the fracture line and remained safe.

“He had given them [his clients] directions on how to ski that area after checking the conditions,” says Ipsen.

Ipsen says another helicopter was in the air, en route to drop another group off at the same aspect, when the avalanche occurred. The first emergency call was radioed in at 11:02 a.m. and a rescue was organized immediately. Within 20 minutes, rescuers had used avalanche transceivers to locate and dig out Karitis, who was found seven feet under the debris and was unresponsive. According to witnesses, Karitis was not wearing an airbag or a helmet. Rescuers performed CPR on Karitis in the field and in the helicopter as he was being transported to the local medical clinic in Haines. Later on Saturday, Karitis was medevaced from Haines to Anchorage, where he remains in critical condition.

Karitis on the cover of POWDER's October 2008 issue. PHOTO: Brian Becker

Karitis on the cover of POWDER’s October 2008 issue. PHOTO: Brian Becker

Photographer Will Wissman, who has been shooting skiing around Haines for 11 years, skied with Karitis last year in a similar zone and is intimately familiar with the mountains where SEABA flies.

“I know right where he was and that’s exactly where you’d want to be in this situation,” Wissman said Monday. “Given the snowpack, it was the most mellow terrain possible.”

With sporadic snowfall this season in Alaska, with long periods of high pressure and cold nights, guides in Alaska have been limited with terrain options. But according to Wissman, one of the most dependable zones is called Tele Bowl, which contains several skiable lines including Tele 2.5, the site of the avalanche. Wissman referred to this area as a “workout zone,” where guides can access good skiing for their clients in relatively safe and conservative terrain. “It is easily the most manageable terrain they have up there,” Wissman said. “There are quite a few different aspects, meaning you can access the south, east and west aspects in the same general area. So if you don’t like the west aspect, for instance, you can get somewhere else very easily. But this is really, really far from being aggressive terrain.”

Wissman said Karitis exhibited an incredibly high level of professionalism and knowledge about guiding and skiing. He also noted that in the past year Karitis obtained his Canadian Level II avalanche safety certification, which is more rigorous and demanding than the U.S. equivalent. “He was trying to further his education,” he said. “He is a legit guide, and someone I really respect.”

Originally from Bend, Oregon, Karitis had been working in the heli ski industry for a decade. He was on the cover of POWDER in October 2008 and recently started his own guiding company, Pulseline Adventure. He started working for SEABA two years ago. According to his bio on Pulseline’s website, Karitis logged nearly 300 days of heli ski guiding and is internationally certified. His bio cites an “excellent safety record.”

“He’s an amazing, knowledgeable guy,” said Jesse Weeks, a SEABA guide who works with Karitis and met him in South America in 2008, on Monday. “He’s the man. He’s always been on it.”

In March 2013, another SEABA guide died while he was taking clients to a zone of federal land that was closed to heli skiing. The incident led to an investigation and SEABA plead guilty to trespassing in late December.

Story reported on by Julie Brown, Matt Hansen, and John Stifter.

Add a comment

  • Daniel Karitis

    I love you Aaron.

  • Matt Gilbert

    I’ve known Aaron since he was a kid, and man, does he love to ski. A true gentle soul matched with drive to be one of the best skiers on the mountain, sharing his love of the sport with anybody. The world needs more people like this man. Hang in there, Aaron. We want you back on the snow with us soon!

  • jose

    Sorry to hear this. You are with the mountain.

  • Darcy Lawrence

    This just hits so close to home and breaks my heart! I didn’t know Aaron but he sounds like someone you’d be lucky to have in your life. My thoughts are with his family and friends. RIP in paradise bro!

  • Scott

    RIP Haas

  • Matt Gilbert

    And just like that, you are gone. Doing what you loved at the best of your ability. You were so dazzling. My heart goes out to all the family and great friends you left behind. Rest in peace, Aaron. I hope paradise is full of big mountains, deep snow, and big surf that you so loved.

  • http://alexnatalianickdodv.wordpress.com Natalia Dodova

    Our deep condolences to Karitis family and friends
    Alex and Natalia Dodov

    —————————————

    CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS

    Volume XLIV Number 11 Thursday, March 20, 2014

    Editorial

    by Tom Morphet

    Four heli-skiing deaths in Haines since 2012 are an
    unacceptable toll.
    They’re also a black eye for our town, an unnecessary
    public expense and a hindrance to the efforts of well-meaning people
    to make a home for the industry here.
    To protect the lives of guides and clients, government must step in
    and establish reasonable safety regulations, just as it does in other
    hazardous industries such as construction, mining, logging and
    commercial fishing.
    Here’s a proposed regulation: On commercial trips,
    require guides or others leading groups to wear deployable air bags.
    Used properly, the bags have proved to be highly effective at
    keeping skiers atop snow during avalanches.
    You can’t go near the Port Chilkoot Dock these days if you’re not
    wearing a hardhat. Down at the harbor, commercial gillnetters are
    required to carry a survival suit for every deckhand.
    But basic, lifesaving safety gear is not required in the heli-ski industry,
    where workers and clients routinely encounter risk of injury or
    death from avalanches.
    Three of the four heli-skiers who died in Haines were
    guides.
    The State of Alaska takes steps to protect other workers in avalanche
    zones. Ten years ago, state prosecutors convicted Whitewater
    Engineering of Bellingham, Wash. of criminally negligen homicide
    after one of the company’s workers operating a backhoe was killed in
    a 1999 avalanche near Cordova.
    In that case, the state’s occupational safety office alleged that basic,
    required safety procedures were not followed and the
    company exhibited gross negligence after being warned of high avalanche
    danger. A judge agreed and Whitewater was fined $150,000, and
    ordered to pay restitution to the dead man’s family.
    Is the state concerned about avalanche risk for some
    workers, but not others?
    Local heli-ski companies have previously madstatements about
    self-imposed safety improvements, but Saturday’s
    death testifies that changes aren’t coming fast enough. For weeks,
    operators have been aware of an elevated avalanche hazard created by this
    year’s uncommon snow conditions.
    In addition to deaths since 2012, there also have been heli-ski
    injuries and close calls involving survival after
    live burials. Harrowing footage of one such burial here was circulating on
    the Internet this week.
    Self-policing by this industry does not appear to be
    a credible or timely route to minimizing risk. The government has
    the authority to improve safety now and the power to make those
    improvements stick.
    If state or federal land managers aren’t interested
    in saving lives, the Haines Borough could require use of air bags as
    part of its heli-ski tour permit process.
    For commercial guides going ahead of clients down
    mountains, donning an air bag should be as automatic as
    strapping on a seat belt before driving a car.

    – Tom Morphet

    • Tres Jones

      Very well put. It sounds like he was a great guy, and I feel very sad for everyone involved. But what in the world is a heli guide doing without a helmet and airbag? All the education in the world doesn’t trump basic safety precautions.

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