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. Ski Targhee

    Well, R.I.P., you guys.

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

      Stupid people you ski out of bounds deal with it.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • VailRider420

      No Aaron, skiing or snowboarding out of bounds isn't stupid, it's awesome. Whats not the brightest move is going out right after a huge snowstorm in high risk avy conditions. No amount of conservative route finding or preparedness will allow you to safely ride an overloaded, unstable snowpack.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jose Head

      Vailrider:

      I worked an avalanche rescue line once. 4 people dead in Breckenridge. Sorry about the loss of life, but you can't fix stupid.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • c s

      Sorry to hear about their deaths.

      Whenever you venture into the wilderness, death can happen is a few moments. No matter how much skill or experience that you have, you can be killed or injured. This is the price for living on the edge; sometimes you fall off of the edge.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Myto Senseworth

    Any sport has it's hazards. They died doing what they wanted. I was into the extreme sports when I was young too and my hat is off to them. At least they went out and lived life and did not hide in a room banging on a computer .......RIP

    February 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      I agree, been a life long skier ( I ski at Stevens alot, live in South Everett) this is a sad but very real reality for the majority of skiers to learn from, skiing off marked trails is extremly dangerous, especially in this state, with the constant freeze/thaw/freeze that happens during our ski seasons

      February 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guest1

      Well Said.... and have to agree...

      February 20, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jose Head

      I say the same thing everytime I hear about another death (or catastrophic injury) on a motorcycle...."At least they were doing what they loved"......Think I'll take up smoking two packs a day...

      February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • jeff

      You know, a lot of people say things like "Well, they died doing what they love. At least they didn't spend their lives sitting at a computer." There is a lot of room for compromise and good judgement in between the extremes that you draw with that idea. The people, myself included, who criticize their decision to ski yesterday don't all advocate sitting at a computer or reading books all through life. The lesson here is that while certain activities are dangerous, this danger can be mitigated with training, gear selection, information, and good judgement. These skiers all had the first one. One of them had the second figured out. We don't know if they had the third one, but I assume that they all knew the risk, given their experience level. They failed miserably at the last one. I admire them for their skills and love of backcountry skiing outside of the boundaries. Had they exercised better judgement and some restraint, they would all be alive today. The mountains and the snow will still be there another weekend, but the avalanche danger won't be as high. I skydive for fun, and when the winds are high or other unacceptable risk factor is present, I stay on the ground. The same concept can be applied to any extreme sport. It doesn't eliminate all of the risk, but it can eliminate most of the preventable loss of life. I think that these particular avalanche deaths were preventable.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Randy

    These skiers are very foolish they don't value their lives, its not that much thrill in the world that i am gonna risk my life to get that thrill, they think their lives is a game or something, the devil just sitting back laughing because he knows he got u when u make that mistake and lose it because if you don't have Jesus in your life you will lose it., my advice to the skiers don't play with the devil he is playing for keeps.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • VailRider420

      The Devil, really? Crazy religious people...

      February 20, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Juses

      Santy Claus would agree. Aren't you a little old for fairy stories?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • skier, aka devil worshipper

      Randy, take your religious jibber jabber and go hide in a corder some where so you don't get caught up with the devil's thrill ride. Loser.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • GSDirtboy

      You are mixing metaphors. Are you saying that if they believed in Jesus they wouldn't have died? As a Christian I find that very narrowminded. Your comments here are full of judgement. I do bellieve it was Christ that said, "Do not judge." You risk your life everyday by waking up. Tomorrow is promised to no one. Do you think these deaths are somehow "less" important than those of, say, Peter – who was killed because he was evangelizing? Dude, you need to get some perspective on life. These people were doing what they were called to. That they perished doing it doesn't warrant your critiscism. If you believe what you say you believe then it should draw your admiration.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. swatguy

    Professional skiers who skied in an out of bounds area....yep, these nitwits loved life and caused untold grief so they brag about breaking the rules...apparently dying is ok as long as you are doing something contrary to common sense.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Orange

      This area is actually accessed through a backcountry gate, it's considered out of bounds because ski patrol doesn't maintain it.... It's an area commonly used for the amount of snow and steeps it has. Keep acting like a couch living moron who's scared to go outside

      February 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Someone Who Skis

      Skiing "out of bounds" is not breaking the rules. Swimming in the ocean, rather than a pool with a life guard, is not breaking the rules. Walking in a forest, rather than on a track, is not breaking the rules. Skiing is about travelling on skis. We built ski resorts to make it easy to learn how to do this, not as the only place where it is permitted.

      February 21, 2012 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  5. Alaska

    They were in the out of bounds areas, kind of hard to grieve for stupidity.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      It's not stupid. Lots of people go out to the backcountry to ski and snowboard, hike, snowshoe, cross country ski, ride horses ect. You have to know the danger and try to stay away. People like you make me sick, just sit inside your house where you are safe you coward.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alaska

      Hey jimbo, sit inside my house where it is safe ? I ride a motorcycle without a helmet or leathers because I like the freedom and I am not scared to die, death don't scare me.... so f...off loser.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • skier, aka devil worshipper

      "I ride a motorcycle without a helmet or leathers"

      cool...

      February 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • GSDirtboy

      Alaska, if you were on your bike and a car hit you and you died should we all stand around and say, "What an idiot! Riding without a helmet! Can't grieve for stupidity!" These skiers knew of and mitigated the risks, just like you do when you get on your bike – except I'd bet they were much more professional about their work than you are with riding your bike. Don't be such a pompous a**, bro.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      Riding without a helmet is stupid compared to back country skiing. You can ride with a helmet without it really affecting your ride, where as back country skiing is hazardous but the whole point of the activity. Those new air bags appear to really make the difference though so this sport may become a lot safer.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • rachelfox27

      So when you die from "stupidity" no one will care. Good to know.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  6. rmj

    photo edit – backcountry skiing rarely involves chairlifts.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. TBone

    They died doing something that made them feel alive! I envy that. May their family and friends find peace.
    Something tells me this is how they would have wanted to go.
    Others opinions don't matter - you live your own life, on your own path-on your own terms!

    February 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
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    February 20, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jimbo

    This is sad and I wish the families and friends the best. People need to understand that these accidents can happen, even though they were proffesionals, the back country demands your respect and attention.

    People watch these Warren Miller films and other ski films with people cruising these huge bowls and getting mad powder lines. You have to understand that you will never be able to do this, the people in those films have 20+ staffers in helicopters and on the ground there to save them if they get swept away from one of these avalanches. Some of these people still don't survive as the case shown here today. If you want to go into the backcountry, get educated, learn the avalanche terrain and spots to avoid, learn the correct lines to take and understand that the lines you see people take on TV is not realistic. As the backcountry sports grow there will be more deaths and if you are one of the backcountry lovers like myself, be aware and don't make bad choices out there.

    February 20, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Someone Who Skis

      Jimbo, these were the people who are in those films. They had the knowledge and experience. Wilderness is beautiful, but even with all the experience in the world, it can kill you. But I will still chose to go there.

      February 21, 2012 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  10. James

    I'll stick to my WII skiing !

    February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Marsha

    Jim Jack was an amazing, sweet, energetic human being who always wore a smile and loved life. Those of us who knew these men are mourning so please resist second guessing their actions. It really isn't productive , thank you !!

    February 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • christine

      My condolences on the loss of your friends. Ignore the dimwits who know nothing except posting mean-spirited remarks at other people's expense, all from the comfort of their parents basement.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • pprty

      We knew Jim Jack too and agree what a great energetic & happy guy he was. So don't pay attention to some of the comments that put these guys down. Getting into a car could be considered stupid too.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. muhrvis

    Very tragic and I mourn for the families of the victims... Back country skiing in avalanche conditions is risky and experienced skiers are aware of the risk, so they were doing what they loved and I don't think there is any "lesson" in this.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Spoonman

    Out of bounds at this ski area does not mean it is illegal to ski there. It just means it is not managed by the ski area and you enter at your own risk and are responsible for your rescue should you need it.

    As there was high avalanche risk yesterday, these skiers knew what happened was a possibility. That being said, they were taking precautions and due to this, more people were not hurt.

    This is a not subtle reminder to any skier who skid out of bounds including the hundreds a day which do so at Stevens and even those which are experienced and have the proper equipment.

    RIP skiers. You'll be missed.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Judge

    RIP and vibes to the friends and families.
    Out of bounds does not mean restricted or no access, and skiers are in no limited to playing within the confines of a resort. These were all very, very experienced back country skiers and riders, who we're surely aware of both their surrounding and the risks that day. Even the most prepared, knowledgeable and capable are no match to the power of nature. There are no guarantees, ever.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      There are a ton of ignorant jerks on here thinking these guys just ducked some ropes at a resort, they don't have a clue.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Brian

    Why specify which skier (by name) triggered the avalanche and make it look like they're to blame? they mentioned him more than once in that regard and it's not right. He may have been the one that started down when the avalanche started but other skiers before him likely made it less stable and he happened to be the final straw. True, the way he skied on the slope may have played a factor in it but they were all experienced and there's nothing to indicate he didn't follow the "protocol" they had agreed upon to lessen the risk.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • skier, aka devil worshipper

      if you think it made him look like the guilty party than you don't know anything about skiing. This is a news story, and when the avalanche was triggered is an important detail. Don't get so buttthurt over this little detail. Three people died due to a horrible accident. The details are in the news story.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
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