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.
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.