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. Gillian A.

    While I am sorry that these people lost their lives, this is the risk they take when they ski in areas where they are not supposed to be. Years ago, when my husband and I honeymooned in Vail, several skiers got killed just this way. I guess people never learn.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      'Not supposed to be?" You make is sound like they were tresspassing or something, this wasn't a take the lift up and duck the rope incident. There are millions and millions of acres of public land in the mountains were anyone has the right to go.

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

      Gillan, notice the article says "backcountry" and not out of bounds. They were allowed to ski there. It just happened to be near the ski resort and not within the confines of groomed runs and ski patrol. Read up on it and you'll understand, don't condemn them without knowing the facts.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gillian A.

      If I was mistaken, I apologize. I do think that people take risks when they do these things, and they weigh those; this is a dangerous activity, but I am sure there are other dangerous activities (like ski diving, for instance). I very much appreciate Brian's approach to my comments, and as I said, if I am wrong I do apologize. Jimbo, on the other hand, takes an angry approach that is more likely to offend than educate. I have seen several of your posts, and if you want people to listen, stop getting so angry.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. KenC

    Let me guess, this is OBAMA's fault, right? Or...maybe it's the fault of "illegal immigrants".

    February 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pillowbiter

      thinking about it further..you have to go out of your way to have your dumb culo killed by an avalanche..is there not a recession and unemployment to go with it, to have folks frolycking in the snow?
      Having said that..how is this any sort of news for the average, non obamiux voter to give a rats ass about?

      February 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • TomGI

      ? You lost me

      February 20, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sumguy

      Really? I really pitty you.

      February 20, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. PinkFloyd43

    Going to start buying stock, if available, for the yellow life vests! Seems like a no brainer! Helmet when on a motorcycle, seatbelt in car, don't cheat on a wife that owns a gun.......I could go on................It's sad and my prayers and thoughts are for those who lost their lifes! Get the safety vest and use it! It should be a law, no kidding it should be so we don't have to try to rescue them and risks the folks that are trying to rescue them.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Roger

    Obviously, these people have little concern for themselves or how such consequences would affect their families.

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

      "obviously" – you don't know a thing about how these people lived their lives or interacted with their families and friends.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • sixplustwo

      Avalanche territory is a clue. You should think of your family first.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jennifer

    They died doing what they loved. Oh that all of could do that.

    They all knew it was dangerous and that was/is part of the thrill. You cannot get a thrill seeker to stop.

    On to ski another realm now. God bless to all.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • sixplustwo

      Rescued at tax payers expense. I don't like paying for stupidity.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. mikey_t

    "Backcountry" skiing. With avalanche warnings posted. Sweet.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. MentalGiant

    Oh well. There they go again. 3 down.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. snocat

    I think the use of the term backcountry is misleading to alot of people as this was really a case of sidecountry where there is access ( legal) from a ski area into the backcountry. The same type of area claimed a life in Telluride last week and he too was very experienced and a great guy.
    I have traveled both traditional backcountry and have used the gates to go "sidecountry" as well many times. What gives me the most pause for the sidecountry terrain is the fact that many times you just dont know who might be coming in above you or who is below as the terrain can make it hard to have a full visual of the entire couloir or area from top to bottom.
    The 3 who died in this acident were in what they thought was a safe zone and in a classic backcountry scenario probably were. However, with the volume and frequency you can get in a sidecountry area the danger always exist that someone else can trigger a slide above and apparently this is what happened.
    Much respect for the lives lived and RIP to the three lost..

    February 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • TomGI

      It's not "back meadow," it's back side of a mountain nearly vertical. Wear the Avalanche Airbag dummy.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Elliot

    Sad day, may they rest in peace.

    Question for CNN: Why have an article about the deaths of backcountry skiers and show a lift on the front page of your article? There are no lifts in backcountry skiing. You are giving ammo to all the idiots on here who think these people just took a lift up and went under some ropes.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • snocat

      They did take a lift. The did not duck a rope, they went through a gate ( legal access). They skied the chute down to Tunnel road according to many articles posted on the web today. Pretty much the definition of sidecountry skiing.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • sensationalies

      Oddly enough all of these skiers accessed this back country via a lift then a short hike.. so CNN is not entirely wrong. The funny part is reading all the comments in places like CNN from people who have never even skied before who are authorities on said subject. this is a sad day that yes could have been prevented by a little better judgement but they died doing something they love and there is something good in that.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • chuck

      I used to ski this area for years and this is back country that you access with a lift and climb a little to get to it. Once you go down you have to get a ride back to the ski area. It's a very dangerous area and I wouldn't go without my friends from the ski patrol who truly know the mountain.
      That being said I hope that no one from any of the families thinks they should sue as these people all went knowingly into this dangerous area.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • seattlite

      Where they skiing the back side of 7th Heaven?

      February 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  10. mil8778

    What a tragic story and I'm so sorry for their families.

    For those who like to get on and complain about HOW they lost their life: Calm down. What you are doing is called "moralizing".. i.e. something bad has happened and to feel better about yourself and your life you have to puff up your chest and declare your feelings about the matter and how YOU would have NEVER... etc... It's ok. We all do it to a certain extent. Just try and keep your hearts and prayers (if you are so inclined) with those who are bereaving and to recognize that one day you ARE going to die... it's ok. It will happen to all of us. One way or another, "legit" or not and that even if you die peacefully in your sleep a little troll will slip online and complain about the way you died as well because they themselves fear death. As we all do. Peace.

    February 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lynne G

      Well said! It's nice to see someone on here with some common sense and compassion!!

      February 20, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. TROLLOLOLO

    They deserved to die. No risk no pleasure. They like to play high risk sports and be high profile. Well, here is the consequence !!

    Regards,
    TROLOLOLOL

    February 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • TomGI

      "A troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

      (That pretty much sums up you)

      February 20, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bob B

    As a long time ER doc in Washington state (35 years) I have seen my share of "Darwin Award" winners: Lumberjacks who tape their triggers to their chain saws down so they chain is always engaged, fisherman who go out in 50 Knot winds with 25 foot seas in 50 degree water and capsize and die, etc. These skiers are no different. They weighed the risk/benefit but probably didn't think of their families, friends, and "followers" who now mourn them. No different than the IV drug abusers who know they risk death but want the "high" from going to the extreme of doses of drug of choice. In this case the drug of choice was a natural high from nature. Their actions are neither "right" nor wrong", just bad luck today.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gillian A.

      You said it better than I ever cold.

      February 20, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • TomGI

      Or "good luck" as in Elyse's case? "Chance favors the prepared mind"

      February 20, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. MRmedicinebox

    I don't think that back country skiing should be encouraged. Every year it seems someone from around Washington or BC gets it.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Fred Flintstone

    I've skied hundreds of miles in the back country. I survived a slab avalanche just by chance. In all the years of doing this, we always took every possible precaution. It's not always stupidity when someone dies ACCIDENTALLY. Bob B, as an ER doc, you should be ashamed of your harsh comment. If someone slips on the sidewalk, do you think they are the same as an IV drug user? Wow, you are a twisted soul.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sumguy

      Sorry Fred, these guys weren't walking on a sidewalk, they were risking there lives skiing in a very dangerous area in elevated avalanch risk conditions. You cant compare the two. I am an avid skiier but this was just a plain waste of lives.

      February 20, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. roye

    Sad but adrenaline junkies know they are flirting with disaster.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
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