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)

    Looks like a Go-Job for Sno-Job

    YO JOE!

    February 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Steve

    Being an experienced skier and able to do sweet turns is totally irrelivant! Why not just say they were good looking and ate healthy! Again irrelivant. What is relivant is that they chose to ski out of bounds and rolled the dice with their lives. Having peeps and shovels on their backs is almost useless. These tools again used by experienced skiers have almost NO impact on survivability of an avalanche. They're just useful for finding the corpse afterwards.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pillowbiter

      I guess they knew nothing about snow and avalanches...but, boy! could they ski..

      February 20, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • You Say What

      What is relevent is that they lived life to its fullest. What seperates you from them is that you feel high and mighty in being alive dull... they are set free and smiling for the awsome thrills they experienced while actually living. Thanks for reminding me that some people are just boring and add nothing to mankind except boredom.

      February 20, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Medium Tedium

      Oh get off your high horse, You say what. Do you feel better about yourself after writing that comment? You're no better.

      February 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Motocroxx

      I'll bet, given the choice, they'd rather be alive than killed doing what they loved.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mary

      @ Pillowbiter, LOL like the name! he he

      February 20, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reggie

      Carrying and using airbags is a very smart thing to do, if you go off groomed slopes and into area not taken care of by avalanche control teams. They took the risk, many died, most did not. Many more will, most will be fine...C'est la vie/Asi es la vida..

      February 20, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • skier, aka devil worshipper

      look how many heli guides there are around the world. Look how many backcountry ski services there are around the world. Look how many actually die now with the equipment they wear. If you think the tools used these days for safety are not critical, then you should continue to sit at your desk, in front of your computer, and wish you weren't such a loser.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Medium Tedium

    Well, this sux.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Martin

    I don't care HOW experienced you are, if there is an avalanche warning out, don't go out, period.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • seattleguy

      I think that's the crux of the matter though. The only time it's really worth while skiing backcountry is when there's a pretty high chance of avalanches. But being out there with 2 feet of new pacific nw snow after no significant snow in while with above freezing temperatures was probably too big of a calculated risk. Hard to criticize people making the same unwise decisions that you used to make 15 years ago though.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  5. MotoJB

    RIP...that stinks. Wrong place, right time.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Burned the Armchair

      I have seen some crazy comments on here, but yours hit the target for me. I have been snowboarding for 5 years now and love it. I went to Mammoth, CA during one of the heavy falls they received hoping for some powder and got it. The areas we got to with powder were ungroomed and not particularly steep. I made it across, and saw many folks slogging along up to their waist to get across the soft stuff. The sensation was incredible. I now understand the draw.........but still could not imagine falling down somewhere bigger than a "boudaried" resort. Yes.....RIP.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. AndriconBoy

    I'll bet Obama somehow gets blamed for this, too.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Omni

    One of the worse ways to die. I've been snowboarding since late 1996 and I've been in a few. It's not just the snow, it's 400 pound blocks of ice that roll over you too. I got lucky so many times I can't count. My friend actully turned, jumped into the avalanche and started swimming up hill like he was in water. Don't know if it works all the time but it saved his life. I was on the top of the hill when it broke and I just kept bouncing and trying to get up to the trees. If Lou had went under, we would have lost him.

    February 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • AndriconBoy

      Wow. I have never smelled BS so fresh.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Steve

    Ya, they lived life to the fullest all right....ummm...ok...maybe NOT! They're dead at an incredibly early age. They died a horrific death to the fullest. Suffocating and being crunched to bits by an avalanche is hardly living life to the fullest. Give your head a shake "You Say What"

    February 20, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. fernace

    This is 1 of those sad incidents that happen when humans w/expertise take "calculated" risks! None of their experience told them skiing a high-risk-for-avalanche slope would be a bad idea! Professional surfers have alot of experience, but they would more than likely not survive the waves of a hurricane or tsunami! My condolences to the families of the 3 who died! This is a sad human error tragedy that didn't have to happen!!

    February 20, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bummer

    This is a bummer but surely they understood the risk, accepted it and died doing what they loved.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. alex

    seems that their Experience ended with failing the commen sense portion of the test. STAY ON THE CORRECT PATHS! Seems simple.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Me

      This type of skiing is back country, which by definition is not on the groomed slopes of the ski area. There are quite a few back country skiers in the area of Stevens Pass/Mission Ridge, but unfortunately this group did not take the conditions seriously before deciding to head up.

      February 20, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. couriersean

    To the friends and family, I am sorry for the inconsiderate people on here.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • care to share

      my thoughts exactly

      February 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • sharky

      What is also inconsiderate are the people that did die leaving their families behind. If they paid attention to conditions and warnings, they probably would still be alive now.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Superman

    YOU SAY WHAT...... Good to see someone out there can understand that there is more to life than eat work and sleep and that people do live life to its fullest regardless of what others say, freedom of speech only enforces these people to take these risks. I do every winter!!!! Im a winter enthusiast and climber(winter) and ill never stop. I for one can only hear people out here saying such duragatory things such as they had it coming or they asked foir it. 80% of amerucans are the same in mentality thats why there is such a division in american society ,,,, I WILL NEVER EVER QUIT MY WINTER TRIPS ITS PART OF LIFE FOR MANY AND ITS MY CHOICE AND I LOVE LIFE TO ITS FULLEST, AND THAT WILL NEVER CHANGE!!!! IF I WERE TO DIE ON A MOUNTAIN THAN I PASSED HAPPY ,SO HERES TO YOU ARM CHAIR ADVENTURISTS ::

    February 20, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. BinColo

    Condolences to the families and friends. For the rest of us however, avalanches don't "just happen". They happen when weak layers of snow collapse under layers of snow on top of them. The hazard for any particular slope can be assessed by digging a pit and looking at the weak layers. If there are weak layers then don't get on that slope...period....Skiers and snowboards make great little triggers for avalanches. You can however keep from being a trigger and a statistic through education. If you are too lazy to become educated then stay inside ski area boundaries.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Life

    Stay beautiful....you meant no harm Mother Nature. As for those skiers...the 3 of you would probably be the first to defend her....RIP

    February 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
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