February 20th, 2012
11:51 AM ET

Avalanche killed experienced backcountry skiers

Three skiers killed in a Washington state avalanche on Sunday were highly experienced at backcountry skiing, according to media reports, and one was the head judge of the Freeskiing World Tour, a competitive circuit for extreme skiers in the United States, Canada and South America.

The three, ski tour judge Jim Jack, Chris Rudolph and John Brenan, were among a group of a dozen or so skiers who were attempting to ski down a slope near the Stevens Pass ski area in the Cascade Mountains, about an 80-mile drive from Seattle. Among the group were staffers of both ESPN and Powder magazine, who identified the victims and gave accounts of the incident.

Powder magazine senior editor John Stifter said the avalanche was triggered by Jack, who was the seventh skier to head down the slope, which is outside the borders of the resort and its groomed ski runs. Jack triggered a “slab avalanche,” according to Stifter.

The U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center says dry slab avalanches are the most deadly form of avalanches.

"The slab avalanche is more like a large surface plate that comes off the mountainside and crumbles into blocks as it falls. The boundaries of this plate of snow begin as fracture lines or cracks visible on the snow surface. Unfortunately they may not be visible seconds before the slide," David Sauer writes in an article archived by Avalanche-Center.org.

“Fractures can propagate through the snow at speeds of 50-200 mph. Victims … rarely have a chance to escape,” the Forest Service's Avalanche Awareness website says.

On Sunday, the chunks of that snow slab sped down the mountain, swallowing up Jack and other skiers, including those who’d skied off the slope about 300 feet below the top and into what they thought was a safe area in the trees.

Rudolph, Brenan and professional skier Elyse Saugstad were in that group, according to the accounts of Stifler and ESPN freeskiing editor Megan Michelson.

Saugstad told the Seattle Times she heard another member of the party shout "Avalanche!"

"The next thing I knew I was taking more than a 2,000-foot ride down an avalanche, tumbling and turning and tossing the entire way," the Times quoted her as saying.

The avalanche carried Jack, Rudolph, Brenan and Saugstad 2,000 feet to 3,000 feet down the slope. Saugstad was able to deploy an airbag she wore for safety in these circumstances and it kept her head and arms above the snow.

"It kept her atop the avalanche and basically saved her life," John Gifford, general manager of the Stevens Pass ski area, told CNN affiliate KIRO-TV.

See how the airbag works

The other three were unable to be revived after they were pulled from the snow pile, which was about 20 feet deep at the bottom of the slide, according to local news reports.

"The debris pile at the bottom was massive," Michelson said in the ESPN report.

"I believe my partial burial and survival was on account of the inflation of my ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack," Saugstad said in a statement on her website.

She also said her "condolences and sympathies are with the families and victims of the avalanche incident."

All, Saugstad said, were experienced in backcountry skiing.

Jack had been involved in the World Freeskiing Tour since its inception more than two decades ago, according to an ESPN report from November, first as a competitor before he became a judge. In the report, he said he turned to judging about 10 years ago after “I shattered my face while competing at Kirkwood,” one of the U.S. stops on the tour.

In the same ESPN interview, he said the tour emphasized safety.

“We do not want to find ourselves rewarding or encouraging dangerous or uncalculated decisions in skiing,” Jack was quoted as saying.

The avalanche danger in the Cascades was listed as considerable to high on Sunday, according to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, after the area got more than two feet of snow in the previous 24 hours. But among the skiers in the group, “the consensus was that they could manage the hazard if they followed proper protocol,” according to the Powder report, citing Stifter.

On a page on about.me, Rudolph calls himself the "director of marketing, culture and stoke" at Stevens Pass. Rudolph was called “a seasoned backcountry skier and pro-wrangler for high-profile video shoots," according to a Ski Area Management Magazine article quoted on about.me.

Doug Schnitzspahn, editor-in-chief of Elevation Outdoors magazine, told CNN that a kind of group-think takes over in these situations, with skiers wanting to be there with their peers.

"You think, 'All these people are either professional skiers or they knew what they're doing, they are out here,'" he said. "You're trained to make certain decisions, but it's not always humanly possible. If I had been there, I would have skied that line with those guys. That's what shakes me up."

The Freeskiing World Tour planned a memorial for Jack on Monday afternoon at the Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in Utah, according to the tour’s Facebook page.

“All friends, family, and public welcome to celebrate the life of our brother, and amazing freeskiing spirt,” the posting said.

Posters mourned Jack.

“So sad! Jim, you made a difference in a lot of skiers' lives!!!” wrote one.

“This is unreal. Jim Jack, you will be so missed,” wrote another.

The tragedy was the second to hit the skiing community this year.

Exactly a month before the three skiers died in the avalanche, freestyle skier Sarah Burke died from injuries suffered in a training accident in Utah.

"More terrible news. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the victims," said a posting on Powder magazine's Facebook page.

soundoff (248 Responses)
  1. mightyfudge

    "Mommy? Where's daddy?"

    "Daddy died doing what he loved. He died while skiing."

    "He loved skiing more than me?"

    February 21, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Iluv2raceit

      Completely agree with mightyfudge – these adrenaline junkies (skydivers, skiers, bungie jumpers, mountain climbers, race car drivers, etc) all take a chance every time they do what they love. Unfortunately, they are so selfish 'doing what they love' that they forget that there are more important things in their lives like THEIR FAMILY! Now, for all those single people that don't have immediately family, go have fun and kill yourselves without a worry in the world – we won't miss you ether!

      February 21, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Norighttomurderanyone

      Thank YOU for that. The arrogance that people have about nature and its forces and power. Always looking for that higher high or greater thrill. Whether fulfilling ego levels or simply having fun – it does not matter when someone does not use pure common sense about life and place more emphasis on a good time and happiness – than choosing a simpler lifestyle that does not involve unecessary and sometimes deadly risks. Drugs, DWI, balcony and bungy cord jumping, planking. Personally, you won't find me more than ankle deep in ocean water because of the defiance it takes for one to get into such a huge volume of water for "fun"!?!?!? – I dont get it. I always wonder what thought run through the minds of these type of folks once they know this is the last time they will do ANYTHING else – fun or not.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Geoffrey Hamilton

      Statistically we are more likely to die on the drive up the slopes, but this country doesn't understand math, or reasoning / logic.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • macbaldy

      Powder junkies are hooked for life. But, pro skiers, backcountry skiers, are a self-selecting demographic with more training than lay people know. That puts the responsibilities for their decisions squarely on them so that third-party second-guessers aren't important to them. Those lifetime off-piste skiers who are now senior citizens bear memories of friends lost in the mountains. Yet many many more skiers of all kinds and ages lose many many more friends on the roads and highways to and from the mountains.

      February 21, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jamie

      Something similar happened to a good friend of mine who lost her husband to an avalanche while heli-skiing 20 years ago. She wrote about it in a recently published book that is a a very good read. Check out Avalanche: Lessons of Love on Amazon.com. Also the website is avalanchelessonsof love.com. It has a facebook page too.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryan

      This is the most ridiculous comment I've seen on this article. And the fact that people agree with you is even more disturbing. Not ALL adrenaline junkies are wreckless.

      I can't remember the last time I heard of a skydiver that died doing everything by the book. If you jump, pull your chute at 5,000 feet, you have plenty of time to pull your reserve. This still allows for 60 seconds of free fall from a traditional 13,500 foot jump. People die when try to break speed barriers, pulling there chutes at 1,000 feet and not having enough time to pull a reserve.

      People die driving to work everyday... if people have kids should they not drive to work? Is this irresponsible as well? What about the millions of family members stuffing down fast food every day and dying at 50. They are equally as irresponsible. Based on statistics, most likely one of the people that agreed is unhealthily overweight. It has gotten THAT BAD.

      We all choose risks, but don't right off certain risks as irresponsible or wreckless until you actually know what you are talking about.

      Granted avalanches are VERY hard to predict and avoid. As the video illustrates, proper preparedness can HEAVILY reduce the chance of death.

      So on some level I agree that SOME "adrenaline junkies" can be wreckless as family members. Just please remember that MOST do not fit into that category. I have skydived, cave died, mountaineered, and driven to work. I take as much risk out if as I can for the sake of my family.

      DON'T GENERALIZE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO NOT KNOW.

      February 22, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  2. AvalancheWidow

    It's been almost two years since I lost my husband in an avalanche while he was snowmobiling. In that time, I've met a lot of folks who were widowed for a lot of reasons. Cause matters not. Effect? The same whether it was an out of-the-blue bad ticker, a prolonged agonizing cancer battle, or an errant snowflake shifting suddenly.

    Preventable or not, my heart goes out to the families left behind.

    February 21, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Glue-All

      The only difference with these type of tragedies is that sometimes they are caused by someones arrogance or as a joke or for other silly reason. Meaning, some folks are killed and not by their own doing – but by the neglect or arrogance of someone else who considered something by their terms to be worth the risk – even at the expense of others. Getting killed in a car accident is not the same as being killed by an avalance – PARTICULARLY if one chooses to be in a dangerous area. If you want to risk your life, then be a paramedic or police officer or someone who is willing to give or risk their life for someone else who didnt want to die. Dying for reasons of vanity reasons seems senseless when people are already dying or being killed by freak unheard of accidents everyday. There is a huge difference between a car accident and death-by-avalanche. They might as well put up a sign at the ski resort that says "SKI HERE IF YOU FEEL SUICIDAL" – Russian Roulette on ice!

      February 21, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skwirrl

      An unreal number of cowards in this thread! I'll never do anything because it could, possibly result in danger to my person. Make sure you tape those windows up tight so no germs can get in... And don't fly because even if you somehow land safely you've taken an entire years worth of life ending radiation during the flight!

      February 21, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dan Bednarik

    You take certain risks, then sometimes you die – stupid is as stupid does.

    February 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. mikey_t

    I'm sorry, but avalanches don't kill people. Mountains kill people.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Nate

    lack of exercise and a bad diet will also kill you, some people enjoy cutting it close outside others inside on the couch.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. m.goulette

    Indeed, let us ban backcountry skiing in order to avoid tragedies like this in the future. Perhaps we ought never ride in automobiles either, for the best way to avoid a car accident is never get in a car. Maybe you should not write the book which could define your generation because novelists tend to drink too much, move to Florida and french kiss shotguns. How is it we as a species have managed to visit the moon yet are seemingly unable to make life non-lethal? Birth is not a miracle and death is not a tragedy. Everything has a beginning, middle and end. When you spend your consciousness fretting about the end, you ruin the middle. The trick to a life well lived is recognizing that you are in the middle portion and focus your energy on maxumizing the experience of being alive. You deserve to die. So do I and every other person on the blue marble. Here's how i know this; if you were born, you deserve death... it's a package deal. Forget about the WHY, HOW and WHEN of the end of life and try to be grateful for everything which precedes it.

    February 21, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sam I. Am

      I don't know about "deserve" but I guess the price of admission is the same as what you say... "death." Interesting post, thanks!

      February 22, 2012 at 6:50 am | Report abuse |
  7. CC

    Extreme sports = doing stupidly dangerous things until it catches up with you. It doesn't matter *how* experienced you are, if you continue doing stupidly dangerous things long enough sooner or later you'll lose-big time.

    February 21, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Isabel Smith

    Wow! What a tough crowd. I expected comments of sympathy, but all of these comments brought up how to live life. I was watching an extreme skiing movie on Hulu the other night and my heart was pounding. Its was like these people were running off buildings into mid-air. What an expensive set up: helicopters, small airplanes, cabins, equipment, photographers, promoters and all the advertising one would expect. It looked like a career to me. Not one I would choose but it really said something about just how much a human being can relate to the surface of the earth in dangerous ways. But to their families: moms, dads, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives and children.... Sudden death is just a shock to the system, and so my condolences and wishes for peace to the survivors. Who are we to judge?

    February 21, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Skwirrl

    Considerable to high is a 3-4 on a scale of 1-5

    1 – low – almost no chance of slides
    2 – moderate – the steepest windloaded slopes might slide
    3 – considerable – slopes above a certain degree and above tree line have a real chance of man triggered avalanches and slight chance of naturally triggered avy
    4 – High – Man triggered avalanches are possible above and below tree line on slopes above 30 degrees and likely on certain on windloaded slopes above treeline steeper than so and so degrees...
    5 – Severe – Just don't go out. Big avalanches are possible without any disruption.

    Does anybody notice how considerable is mentioned up there? That's my wording but very similar to how a real avalanche warning is written. There are caveats to every level of warning suggesting where it is safer or more dangerous. Pros make judgment calls to ski/ride in considerable conditions daily as part of their job getting video parts. I'd wager whatever these gentlemen was on fit the constraints of category 3 and not 4. And it just happened to be their day. RIP gentlemen.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. James

    I cant believe some of these posts! Its obvious many othese these people(posters) havent done anything that makes them feel free and alive in a long long time, and thats sad. Accidents happen, it is unfortunate, but i can gaurauntee that each ofthose that passed away lived 10 times the life as those posting bs messages about snow safety and selfish risks.

    February 22, 2012 at 8:02 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. oliver

    If you listened to this group of wimpy cowards you would not get out of bed; don't surf, don't windsurf, don't white water kayak don't even play golf.. maybe you will get hit by lightening.

    February 22, 2012 at 9:12 am | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Ski Coach in CO

    CNN: Please research the statistics on Air Bag use in Europe. The numbers are not as good as portrayed in your article. Denver Post has 3 in 100 surviving with Backpack Air Bags. Bottom Line: Skiing in the back country is very dangerous. Failure to heed avalanche forecast warnings can be hazardous and/or deadly to your health. My condolences to the families involved.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. dublt

    There are some really ignorant comments on here. How many people lose their lives in car accidents on their way to work. These people were out doing what they did with regularity, they were professionals and they have families. Have some respect. You can get hit by a bus tomorrow crossing the street to get a diet coke or you can go live your life and do what you love. Be a hero not an ignoramus.

    February 24, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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