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. Tater

    RIP My condolences to their family and loved ones.

    They took a calculated risk and paid the price. It's all about what you deem acceptable risk.
    Not sure I would have skiied that line on a HIGH avy day, but they tried and paid the ultimate price.

    To all you haters on here get back to your safe (boring) suburbian life and shut up your tap!

    February 20, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • VailRider420

      Exactly, anyone who doesn't live in the mountains or ride backcountry regularly has no weight behind their comments. I LIVE for the backcountry, unfortunately in the area I live in Colorado we're having one of the most dangerous, fragile, slabby avalanche seasons in decades. It's basically a no go, because everything is popping. I definitely wouldn't have gone out in high avy conditions, regardless of route planning and preparation, but they chose to take the risk and unfortunately it cost them their lives. The mountains are nothing mess with, they kill every year. RIP and thoughts are with the families.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Utard

      These guys will be missed. Skiing was their way of life, their passion. In addition, they were dedicated to promoting our sport. The haters out there condemning them have no idea about celebrating life and all it has to offer. These guys were experienced and highly trained, so if it could happen to them it could easily happen to anybody else. Yes, the conditions were sketchy, but it was just another day at the office for them. There is only one guarantee if life, and that is the guarantee of living with the regret of not having fully explored life and its boundaries. The limits of man can never known without people like this. FYI, I won't be replying to any hater responses to defend my position. I know your kind and you aren't worth a single second of my time on Earth.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      I have no problem with some risk, or the idea of back-country skiing. I just think that it's a little too risky when there are high avalanche warnings for the area–even for a very experienced skiier. That's one time where I think the level of risk should outweigh the thrill, especially in an area like the Cascades–when there are so many days with powder/wonderful conditions but without the avalanche risk. And especially when at least one of the skiers had a wife and kids. Sorry, doing this under such strong avalanche conditions is definitely letting the family take a backseat to the thrill of an extreme risk. I really don't see that as hating, just rationality. Do it another day when the risk isn't so high. Of course I'm taking a risk when I get behind the wheel of a car for example, but I wouldn't do it driving at 70 miles per hour during a blizzard–not with a wife and especially if I had children to raise. Sorry, someone who's going to place their life under such high risk has no business taking on the responsibility of parenthood if they're unwilling to actually commit to that responsibility by at least toning down the level of risk a bit. That's just purely selfish.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Superspygaru

    They were skiing out of bounds, it is called out of bounds for a reason no matter how great of a skier you are. If you take the risk and get owned completely your fault and cant feel sorry for them....feel sorry for the families members though that have deal with the end result of a very poor choice.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave seattle

      If you skied, you would know what you are saying is BS about "can't feel sorry for them." I used to live in Seattle and it is normal to go out of bounds when their is lots of fresh powder. The avalanche risk is high on most days during the Cascade winters.. They could never see a slab avalanche ( very rare ) with 24 inches of powder on top of the compacted slab. If you skied you would understand, but you choose to be a lazy couch referee, deciding who you should feel bad for.
      Get a life and try to live it!

      February 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michelle

      Skiers also die within bounds. Skiing in general is a risky sport. You can die as easily on a groomed trail as you can in the back country. Lots of folks can feel sorry when someone dies, regardless of how it happened. You sound like a miserable person.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • meme

      Dave, relax. All he's saying is these professionals took a risk, slight or otherwise, and it failed them. Don't feel sorry for them - they died doing what they LOVE. Best way to go imho.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • losethefear

      Life is full of risks, some real, some imagined. Been on the freeway lately? I refuse to live in fear because something MIGHT happen.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • NuttierThan You

      Dave Seattle – I typically refrain from posting on CNN but your reply is baloney. One can see a slab under 24" of snow. It is called digging a snow pit. Experienced backcountry skiers dig them all the time to understand the snow pack profile. As for powder well that is all relative – Cascade Cement is what we liked to called.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. whatever

    I wonder how many people say negative things about these guys (they took risks) sit everyday in front of their computer and tv and get more and more overweight like they are living a safe and health life.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ufreak

      I wonder how many hours YOU spend on your couch sitting and flapping your trap. The biggest self righteous sobs like you are just that, self righteous sobs. This is America, some people are free to go out on a dangerous run down the cascades to get themselves killed. On the same note, others are free to call them stupid risk takers. If you can't take the heat, dude get the fk out the kitchen.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • In Truth

      Amen!

      February 20, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Brian Foster

    My condolences to the skiers' families. They took a risk and went for it despite the warnings. If they had survived they would have been bragging endlessly about the danger they had endured. This is not very different from playing Russian Roulette.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. johnny

    This is my backyard. I spent Sat and Sun skiing this area. Jm Jack was a huge influence and will be missed by many. Rest in peace JJ.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jepp Versacci

    These so called "experts" all too often push the envelope. In this case they pushed once too often and it killed them. They believe they have omnipotent knowledge that will protect them. Many like them like playing on the edge and that is o.k. because they know the risks. To cite the old cliche' at least they died doing something they loved. Too bad it was sooner in their lives rather than later. RIP

    February 20, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave seattle

      They were "experts". But you are right, RIP. Professional car drivers know the risk., yet they do whaT they love. Life is risky; you can mitigate that risk but never eliminate it.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • jeff

      You're right Dave, you can mitigate it with judgement. These skiers failed to do that and some of them paid the ultimate price.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. emanonco

    Jim Jack was an amazing skier. He was a leader in the Freesking world to promote this wonderful sport. It is so very sad this has happened, this is something all of us in this sport know is one of the major risks. RIP Jim Jack.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. griever

    I have heli skied (bugaboos, bobby burns, etc.) and crossed over avalanche debris. Said then I wouldn't want to get caught in that concrete, which is almost what it is. What to me was more scarey were the copter pilots who flew as if they on a viet nam mission. LOL. Truly there is nothing like skiing untracked powder. One doesn't really think of the risk when you're looking down 3000feet of untracked snow and the high that you know is awaiting. Is it worth the risk? That's up to each individual and anyone who criticizes someone else for doing something they love is out of line and should STFU. IMO.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. gc

    And the following tip to help you out is from the current cover of "SKI" magazine:

    "Conquer Steeps – Here's A Hint: Ignore Your Instincts"

    Anyone got an extra Monster sticker?

    February 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Unit34AHunter

      Heheh. That was fun. Okay, so I wonder if that alligator is gonna bit me if I dangle my foot in the water next to this leg of lamb? Heheh.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  10. BigguyinTx

    Article said the lasy that survived had an air bag to deploy, but it didn't say the others did. Anyone know? If they did have one did they just not get the chance to deploy it? Just this morning I watched a Youtube video of some of these helo-skiiers, crazy stuff but I understand the risk taking. For some of us life is more enjoyable when we walk nearer the edge....RIP

    February 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Joel

    I wore a Avalanche airbag already in 2000 when back country snowmobiling but never had to deploy except for test fire. Now I just don't go there any more.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Hondo

    Skied for more than 40 years. Gave it up two years ago. Will turn 80 in a coupe of months. Have plenty of scars from skiing over the years but loved to ski for all the reasons you all know well.

    Mouring for the dead is a waste of time. Celabrate their lives it wil make all who are truely concerned appreciate them better. Never skied off trail like they did but found much joy and satisfaction in the on slope adventures of which there were many. Had they limited themselfes in that fashion they might have had 30 more years to find their fulfillment on slope. They made choices and died for one of them.

    My only concern with this back country extreme free style skiing is that it has inspired my 14 year old grandson, who idolises these people to want to emulate them and take inodinate risks. The glorification of this type of risk taking has ramification far beyond these deaths and should give practioners pause.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jim Mahar

    John Stifter of Powder Magazine is one of the most qualified people I know to understand snow conditions. If all of these men & woman made the decision to do the ski trip [run], then I trust their judgement. John himself has had family tradgedy, I know him & trust his judgement & unfortunately accidents can happen to those who challenge [even with caution] the edge. No one invited this outcome.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. rosemeow

    I wore an avalanche airbag to Mardi Gras, and it saved my life.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Unit34AHunter

    Don't screw around with mother nature. She doesn't suffer fools gladly.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
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