Co-founder of Alaska extreme ski race dies in ATV accident

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Updated: September 9, 2015 12:12:29 PM

One of the founders of the World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska, has died in an all-terrain vehicle accident, city officials said Tuesday.

One of the founders of the World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska, has died in an all-terrain vehicle accident, city officials said Tuesday.

Karen Davey Stewart, 62, was found unresponsive under her ATV Monday evening on a trail, City of Valdez spokeswoman Allie Hendrickson said in a statement. Responders began cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and she was taken to a Valdez hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Stewart helped pioneer helicopter skiing in Alaska. She and others, including her late husband John McCune, worked to parlay that into the first backcountry skiing championships, attracting thrill-seekers like Dean Cummings to Valdez.

He was a U.S. Ski team member from New Mexico, but he never experienced anything like the rush of the Alaska event.

”When we arrived, it was more incredible than even going to a World Cup race,” he said by telephone from Valdez, where he now owns a heli-ski business. ”Having people like John and Karen meeting you at the airport, inviting you into their homes and all of a sudden, you realize you’re going to be part of something big, part of something that was going to blow up.”

The popular championships that brought thousands of competitors, spectators and filmmakers like Warren Miller to the backcountry of the Chugach Mountains were held from 1991 through 2001.

Along the way, it helped make the town famous for something other than what was then the world’s worst oil spill when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in 1989, spilling 11 million gallons (41.6 million liters) of crude.

But even as the sport became bigger, it was people like the McCunes who kept the small-town flavor of the race alive, opening up their home to anyone.

John McCune died in a plane crash while sheep hunting in 1996. She married Brett Stewart in 2003.

Even though the race eventually ran its course as other extreme events, like the X Games, became more popular, Stewart left her mark.

Hendrickson said Stewart helped shape ”what the ski industry looks like today.” Cummings added that organizers like the McCunes ”created a whole industry for Alaska,” everything from equipment to clothing to opening up the backcountry.

Stewart was born on Dec. 29, 1952 in Le Grange, Illinois, and she moved to Valdez in 1988. She worked at Alyeska Pipeline Services Co. at the Valdez terminal. She was also involved in many civic organizations.

”Having just seen Karen a few weeks ago at a Valdez Gold Rush event, it was shocking news to learn of her passing. 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,” Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said.

Services were pending, and police were continuing to investigate the accident.

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