LISTEN: An Alaska ski legend is accused of murder. This writer went inside ‘The final descent of Dean Cummings’

A man with a green T shirt faces the camera for a mugshot in front of lines showing his height.
Dean Cummings mugshot (Sandoval County)

Dean Cummings was a champion big mountain skier and a pioneer in the Alaska heli-skiing industry with his now-defunct, Valdez-based company H2O Guides.

But Cummings is now charged with murder in the shooting death of a New Mexico man. And after years of Cummings’ bizarre, sometimes abusive behavior, paranoid delusions and drift away from skiing, those who were close to him are mourning the mountain legend they once knew as well as his alleged victim.

The complicated story is captured in the Outside Magazine story “The Final Descent of Dean Cummings” by Devon O’Neil.

O’Neil said he spent months reporting the story not to make a spectacle of Cummings’ downfall, but to tell a mental health story that might be helpful for others.


Read a full transcript of the story with minor edits for clarity:

Devon O’Neil: H2O Guides had absolutely the best permit for heli-skiing in the world. Dean thought people were trying to undermine his credibility at times, and maybe try and swoop in and, as he put it to a lot of people, steal the permit. The word that kept coming up in interviews was paranoid. He thought people were trying to get what he had, and were out to get him. And when you start thinking about that kind of stuff, you know, he was scrutinizing every person, every move that was made, and it definitely became worse over the years.

Casey Grove: Ultimately, how did this start to affect the business?

DO: Initially, it started to affect the business in small, maybe not-really-noticeable ways. Dean had always been, as a lot of guides put it to me, a tough guy to work for. He ran his business the way he wanted to, and a lot of the guides quit or were fired by Dean. I mean, they called their guide meetings — which they had two times a day — they call them ‘guide beatings,’ you know. They were just like, ‘We used to take it on the chin.’ Yet it was such a great coveted job: I mean, you’re heli-skiing for free in the best place in the world, and you’re getting paid for it.

I was able to get some of the documents, letters the Forest Service was sending him saying, ‘Hey, you’re not in compliance on this, we need an updated operating plan.’ Eventually, those things started piling up. It went from placing him on probation to ultimately suspending his permit, and then rescinding his permit.

And it’s unclear whether the Forest Service’s correspondence was even reaching Dean at that point. He was on the road, bouncing between states in the Lower 48. So it’s unclear how much he knew about all this caving in that was happening with H20 Guides, but at that point, he really wasn’t in a position to continue running that business — and the end result showed that.

CG: Did he also just lose his passion for skiing itself?

DO: This is something that came up in a number of interviews with people who were really close to Dean. It showed up in different ways, but Dean had always, throughout his life, been the first one to want to go skiing. I mean, he skied every day if he could. It was absolutely the most important thing in his life, a kind of a guiding force. It became his career, it became why people knew about Dean Cummings. He was one of the best skiiers in the world.

He would go down to like a trade show or something in Colorado, in the early season, and just not ski. And people really close to Dean took that as a warning sign, like, ‘What is going on?’ you know. He showed no interest in skiing, he turned people down to go skiing.

CG: Again, not to put any blame on anybody, but I think part of what’s important about telling the story is kind of answering this question of how did Dean’s descent go on for so long? And why wasn’t there a more forceful intervention?

DO: It’s a great question. And it’s one that a lot of people I think, in the wake of last February’s shooting, ask themselves and ask friends, acquaintances, other people who knew and loved Dean.

And yet it was happening to different people in different places. It was little things. When someone is in their 50s, especially Dean Cummings, a grown man, he’s lived his life the way he wanted to, the way he designed, for a long time. And it’s really hard to intrude on that.

There’s no blueprint to say ‘Okay, the moment this person does this, that triggers this response and this action.’ Ultimately, it came down to the fact that Dean resisted help. Dean resisted medication, he resisted a psychological evaluation for years and there’s only so much that one’s loved one can do.

CG: And he’s now accused of murder. And it sounds like the shooting might have happened while he was in the throes of psychosis. So, was there a process by which he could have had his firearms taken away because of some of the things going on? And why didn’t that happen?

DO: The big answer there is yes. This federal statute that I talked about in the story, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) prohibited Dean from possessing a gun because he had a long-term domestic violence protective order in place against him. And he had been deemed a credible threat to his intimate partner’s safety. So in this case, you know, there was knowledge that Dean was in possession of weapons, had violated his protective order on multiple occasions, and that information right there was enough to justify an arrest.

It would have required potentially multiple agencies. But it’s a law that almost never gets enforced. Dean was at a point where he was really fearful of this syndicate that he believed was out to get him, that was trying to poison him and kill him. And anybody who he felt was working with that syndicate could potentially become a target. There was a lot of people scared of Dean at that time, including people who loved him more than anything.

CG: You were mentioning a federal code. Are there issues maybe with Alaska law, too, that allowed Dean to sort of slip through the cracks with at least with having guns?

DO: Alaska is one of just a handful of states in the United States where a judge is not allowed to prohibit firearm possession. Having a domestic violence protective order against someone in almost every other state, if it doesn’t automatically prohibit someone from being allowed to possess a weapon, the judge is at least allowed to use discretion. And Alaska is one of a short list of states where the judge literally does not have that power.

a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him Read more about Caseyhere

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