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Parents of snowboarder killed by avalanche sue Alaska heli-skiing company

Kyle Hopkins

Parents of a snowboarder killed by a Haines-area avalanche are suing an Alaska heli-skiing company, claiming the business “sought profit above safety,” court records show.

The family of 26-year-old Nickolay Dodov, who died following the March 2012 slide, filed the lawsuit July 16 in U.S. District Court. A portion of any cash awarded in the wrongful-death case would be used to “promote snow sport safety” across the country, the family wrote.

The Takhin Ridge avalanche also killed guide Rob Liberman, 35, of Telluride, Colo.

The lawsuit raises new questions about the duties and oversight of companies that sell adventure skiing atop hard-to-reach Alaska mountains. Dodov’s parents created a nonprofit foundation following his death and have aggressively sought sanctions against the company.

In the lawsuit, the couple accuses Alaska Heliskiing of failing to provide more than one guide for the trip, failing to assess the danger of skiing in the area of the avalanche and failing to provide adequate radios, among other complaints.

An attorney for the heli-skiing company did not return phone calls or emails Wednesday. A guide declined to be interviewed, and the company’s owner could not immediately be reached.

Natalia and Alex Dodov allege the tour provider used misleading marketing that implied reduced risks and fostered a false sense of safety. The couple wrote five U.S. senators in 2013, urging Congress to investigate the tragedy.

The case has already caused roiling grief and hard feelings in Haines, with local officials tasked with piecing together who, if anyone, is responsible for the deaths. Last year the Dodovs urged the Haines Borough to deny renewal of Alaska Heliskiing’s ski tour permit.

Borough Clerk Julie Cozzi found that the company violated state law by failing to properly register to use the Haines State Forest for business purposes, according to a 15-page letter explaining the decision. But the violation and other problems did not warrant refusing a renewed tour permit, Cozzi concluded, according to a copy of the Feb. 1 letter posted on the Dodovs’ website.

“There is no evidence Alaska Heliskiing guides on March 13 ignored avalanche warning signs, the Snow Safety Director or weather reports. Clearly skiing was not called off after the first run but I am not able to evaluate whether conditions exhibited warning signs ignored by the Alaska Heliskiing guides,” Cozzi wrote.

The Dodovs first filed their lawsuit in February, in state court. The venue has since been moved to federal district court; the heli-skiing company is expected to respond to the complaint by Aug. 20.

The parents are asking for an unspecified amount of money, including cash to pay for burial and funeral expenses and to promote backcountry snow safety. The filings do not say what portion of the money awarded would be used for safety education.

The deaths made headlines across Alaska and across the country as the families of the dead skiers grieved and a documentary on Haines heli-skiing, “The Alaskan Way,” began screening at film festivals. The hourlong movie begins with radio chatter recorded moments after the avalanche, The New York Times reported.

“I think my son really needed to get those rushes in life,” ski guide Liberman’s father, Robert A. Liberman, told the paper. “They meant a lot to him, and he felt very good about it, but I would tell you I’m sorry I ever showed him a pair of skis.”