An Enviable Life

Memories of Alaska heli guide Aaron Karitis

    Photo: Sean Powell

Aaron Karitis was incapable of doing anything halfway. When the 31-year-old Bend, Oregon-native decided to do something, whether it was a golf game with friends, landscaping his backyard or starting his own business, he prepared, made a plan, and then tried for perfection. He took his guiding seriously. He went to Canada for his avalanche education, where his level-two certification required more rigorous study and testing than it would have in the U.S. In work and life, Aaron held himself to the highest standards.

That aspect of his personality is one reason that his death was so shocking. On Saturday, while guiding clients as a subcontractor for Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), Aaron was caught in an avalanche near the Kicking Horse Valley, west of Haines. He was buried under four feet of snow for 15 minutes. He died Monday night, after many of his friends and extended family had gathered around him at the Providence Alaska Medical Center, in Anchorage. He’s survived by his mother, Beverly, and sister, Ashley.

I met Aaron through the Mount Bachelor Ski Education Foundation, in our hometown of Bend, when we were in elementary school. Though Aaron was a talented ski racer, he never took it too seriously. He would sneak away from training to find jumps and fresh powder. Skiing was the foundation of our friendship. After college, we helped each other pursue careers in the ski industry. We took a trip to Japan together and scored the deepest turns of our lives. Whenever we were both in town, we made a point to ski together, like last month when we battled President’s Day Weekend crowds on a powder day. Aaron came over after skiing to meet my 4-month-old son. He gave him a handmade quilt.

Friends in Bend knew Aaron as “Big Haas.” A lean 6-foot-4, Aaron wasn’t built to ski, but his smooth style and perfect technique landed him in magazines and advertisements. A shot of him skiing at Mount Bachelor became the cover of Powder magazine in October 2008.

Aaron loved a good story. As he recounted a day on the hill or a wild night out, he’d vigorously rub his hands together, clap, lean back in his chair laughing, and then slowly lean forward, chuckling and shaking his head. He was a listener. When he asked how you were, he really wanted to know. He used social media but preferred one-on-one chats—especially on his back porch over a Mirror Pond Pale Ale poured into one of the frosty pint glasses he kept in the freezer.

With so much of his time spent on the road for work and play, Aaron appreciated home: the routine of office work, ski, gym, yoga, and dinner at his mom’s house or a nightcap with a friend. Aaron didn’t cancel plans. He was never late. If he said he’d call you after skiing, he called. If he said he’d pick you up at 8 a.m., he’d pull his red Jeep (his first and only car) into the driveway at 7:57.

Though guiding well-heeled clients from big cities is inherently social, Aaron was guarded. It took a lot to break down the walls, but once you made it into his inner circle, you were there for life. Aaron valued loyalty, honesty, and respect. As one friend said, he asked a lot from his friends, but he gave a lot in return. He expected the best from you because that’s what he gave of himself. Beyond his tough and stubborn exterior, Aaron was sentimental and generous with his love and affection. Even when he wasn’t around, Aaron had a knack for reminding his friends that they were still on his mind. Whether it was a thank you note after a short visit, a Christmas present he saved for the entire year, or a postcard from an exotic locale, he made his friends feel special.

Aaron first discovered Alaska a decade ago, when he interned at Valdez-based H2O Guides while attending the University of Utah. Under Dean and Karen Cummings, he worked his way up from office manager to lead guide and director of operations. Aaron built his client base, skiing with many of the same return guests season after season. Last year, he founded his own international adventure guiding operation, Pulseline Adventures, to keep him busy outside of the March-to-May Alaska heli season. In his first year, he organized trips to Japan, British Columbia, and Alaska and took surfers to Nicaragua. When the avalanche swept him away on Saturday, he was living an enviable life that he’d worked hard to create.

After being dropped off with his clients at the top of a run called Tele 2.5, Aaron dug a snow pit and ski cut the slope. He told his clients that they’d ski one at a time as soon as he stopped at a midpoint on the run. (Early reports that Aaron had deemed the slope unsafe to ski were inaccurate.) As he skied toward his safe zone, the slope released above him and swept him approximately 700 feet downhill. He wasn’t wearing a helmet or one of the avalanche air bags that have become popular in recent years. According to another guide, his injuries were mostly the result of asphyxiation. It was the second time in two years that a SEABA guide has died in the field.

Although both accidents can probably be attributed to bad luck, heli-ski guides do take on risks unique to their profession. Alaska’s terrain is far too big to use explosives to control for avalanches. Meanwhile, the economics of the trade mean that most groups have only a single guide. Keeping a seat on the helicopter for a second tail guide costs an outfitter roughly $1,500 per day in wages and lost revenue, and each airship can be responsible for servicing up to four groups at a time. That means that each heli guide is alone in the backcountry with his or her group and a two-way radio. Guides are right there to dig out clients but when a guide gets buried, clients are rarely up to the task of performing a rescue, and the calvary usually arrives by helicopter for the beacon search to begin. That’s what happened in this case. Other guides arrived by helicopter to help, but it was too late.

Despite the inherent danger of heli ski guiding, the job is one of the most coveted anywhere in the adventure industry, and Aaron wouldn’t have traded it for anything. A week before the slide, he posted a map of Alaska to Instagram along with a photo of the Lombardi trophy and wrote, “Alaska... Simply put, the Super Bowl of our sport. Not many places change lives… this place is one of them.”

Aaron seized every day and encouraged those around him to do the same. To waste time or miss out on an opportunity was simply unacceptable. His skiing philosophy was always quality over quantity. He’d traverse a slope farther than anyone for those few extra fresh turns. It’s kind of an ironic metaphor for his life—short, but of the highest quality.

Aaron told one friend that death taught him something at a young age. He said, recalling an old Mae West quote, that you only live once but if you do it right, once is enough.

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