Skip to main Content

Woman who helped bring extreme skiing championships to Alaska dies in ATV accident

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 8, 2015

A Valdez woman who helped create the World Extreme Ski Championships, an event that paved the way for the X Games, brought Alaska worldwide fame for its remote, deep-powder skiing and helped launch the state's heli-ski industry, has died in an ATV accident.

Karen Davey Stewart, 62, was found unresponsive under her ATV on a snowmachine trail Monday evening in Valdez, city officials said Tuesday. She was taken to Providence Valdez Medical Center, where she was declared dead.

Stewart and her late husband John McCune were eager to showcase the skiing opportunities in the Chugach Mountains near Valdez when they helped organize the first World Extreme Ski Championships in 1991.

The championships predated the X Games by four years and lasted for a decade.

"The X Games was born from all this," said Dean Cummings, the 1995 WESC champion who operates a heli-ski business in Valdez.

Held on majestic, difficult-to-reach peaks in Thompson Pass, where snow is abundant but there are no ski resorts and no chairlifts, the championships helped make the mountains near Valdez a regular feature in ski magazines and in industry films like those made by Warren Miller.

The McCunes were among those who saw the potential of deep-powder skiing at Thompson Pass and saw the World Extreme Skiing Championships as a way to realize that potential, said Cummings, a former U.S. Ski Team moguls skier from New Mexico who abandoned the World Cup for extreme skiing after experiencing Valdez.

"There was a handful of people that wanted to highlight what they thought was the best skiing in the world, or what could be the best skiing in the world," he said. "What Karen and the others did was change the way people look at skiing, because skiing was dying and snowboarding was taking over.

"When the World Extreme Skiing Championships happened, every company jumped behind the athletes like myself. Instead of just the Mahre brothers and Alberto Tomba, all of a sudden there were all these new skiers the weekend warriors, the deep-powder skier, could relate to. Every company started designing for powder, making clothes for all-mountain, big-mountain skiing, and the number of skis being sold started blowing up."

Allie Hendrickson, a spokeswoman for the city of Valdez and a friend of Stewart's, said several people were among those who founded the WESC, but Karen and John McCune "were the catalysts."

"They did everything from marketing and advertising to taking care of the athletes to running the budget and the logistics," she said.

Their hospitality was boundless, Cummings said. They invited athletes, film makers, sponsors, writers and photographers to the championships and then made them feel welcomed.

"Karen and John were like, 'Here's our house, here's our four-wheeler, here's our truck, here's our smoked salmon. Help yourself.' They brought me over to share their house and share their goal," Cummings said.

"When you got done competing (in Valdez), it was like, wow, this is the place. The best skiing, the most snow of anywhere in the world. I said, 'I'm gonna start a guide service here,' and it wouldn't have happened without people like Karen and John."

Cummings said there were no heli-ski businesses in Alaska prior to the championships. "Now they're saying there's 16 in Alaska," he said, including three in Valdez that have been in business for 15 years.

Stewart moved to Valdez in 1988, worked for Alyeska Pipeline and was deeply involved in the community, Hendrickson said. She gave time to the annual Valdez Gold Rush Days, the United Way, the Junior Achievement program and a number of other things, Hendrickson said.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who is from Valdez, called Stewart's civic involvement "inspirational."

"Having just seen Karen a few weeks ago at a Valdez Gold Rush event, it was shocking news to learn of her passing," Walker told the Associated Press. "Karen was such an inspiration to all of us who had the privilege of knowing her, and her support for Valdez and her family was truly inspirational."

Hendrickson said the circumstances of Stewart's death are under investigation. Cummings said she was riding alone.

Services are pending, according to the Associated Press.

Stewart's death is the latest tragedy involving people associated with the World Extreme Skiing Championships.

John McCune was killed in a 1996 plane crash while sheep hunting (Karen married Brett Stewart in 2003, Hendrickson said). Sheryl Thompson, a former WESC president, was killed in the 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261. Doug Coombs, a two-time WESC and one of the most famous extreme skiers ever, died in 2006 in a fall in the French Alps.

Cummings said a peak in the Valdez area has been named after Thompson, "and it looks like we need to find a Karen and John peak," he said. "We'll probably call it McCune Mountain."