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. TomGI

    The smart one lived. Same logic for motorcycle riders that refuse to wear a helmet, fall off, cracked skull, death. Elyse Saugstad was prepared for it. Her mom probably nagged her to always wear her "safety gear" so she lived.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Guest

    So many ignorant and disgusting people commenting on here as always. Your lives must be so ordinary, boring and unfulfilled. I pity you and your waste of time on this planet. You are worthless.

    I won't be reading your replies so be as pathetic as you'd like.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Winterer

      Arrogant for wanting to not be a pathetic keyboard cowboy in their moms basement like you?

      I guess the most dangerous decision you made today was whether to have that 10th Twinky or not.

      Chump

      February 20, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee

      There is a difference between "Closed" and out of bounds. out of bounds DOES NOT MEAN you are not supposed to be there. It means off of the property of the ski resort. You still are permitted to ski as long as you are qualified. I live 30 min from here – we got a lot of snow quick, avalanches hit on the main highway all the time. They happen – period. Back country skiing is risky but its a sport just like climbing mountains. No one involved was a moron.......you doofs..

      February 20, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • DidMyResearch

      You seem truly pathetic. Your attempts to justify extraordinarily risky behavior for cheap thrills are your business, but your characterization of people who have more sense than you do is both nutty and vicious.

      I've probably been a skier and snowboarder longer than you have (started boarding at 50...just applied for Medicare and went boarding the next day). I've boarded off piste only once or twice because of the high risks. I also caused an avalanche once while hiking the Arapaho Glacier area in Colorado (I stopped at the sign that said "Don't hike beyond this point, and the noise and vibration from my boots set off a small one), and witnessed a truly gigantic avalanche coming down off the Jungfrau in Switzerland.

      So it's not as if I'm some couch potato commenting on a subject I don't know.

      The area they went into was posted as extremely dangerous. And if you had ever seen any of the research videos about how slab avalanches occur, you would know that their behavior, ESPECIALLY in a large group, was extremely stupid and risky. They went onto a new snowfall atop an old snowfall that had been crusted because of warming. That is classic slab avalanche conditions. The more people who go down the hill, the more the cracks and loosening occur.

      If you really think you're the heroic sort who wants to do something dangerous, enlist. Defend your country. Or if your politics are more to the left, volunteer abroad for Medecins Sans Frontieres.

      In other words, do something useful with your desire for risk. Right now, your rampant attacks on the comments of people with more sense make you out to be not even a cheap thrill-seeker, but a cheap anonymous disparager on a message board. Make yourself useful, child. The world needs useful people.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • miss tang

      You won't be reading the replies because you run away like a scared little baby after a tantrum! BAHahahahahaha!

      February 20, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. sue

    Skiing out of bounds in avalance territory?

    Not smart.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee

      Every mountain range is avalanche territory....... You weigh the risk and do they best you can for the sport. Accidents still happen

      February 20, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      You realize that the entire back country is avalanche terrain right?

      February 20, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Coflyboy

    Contestants for Darwin awards.

    February 20, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      Yeah they are all on these boards most days.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Guest

    I feel sorry for the people who are too scared to life their lives.

    Too busy sitting at home terrified of the world and criticizing those who chase real experiences in their short time on Earth.

    ..... The ones who will ultimately end up sad and full of bitterness towards those that aren't so pathetic

    February 20, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • PoBoy2

      How is skiing an off-limits slope "chasing real problems?" They weren't chasing real problems, they were stupid!

      February 20, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee

      They werent off limits either.... they were off the ski boundary of the stevens resort. The entire cascades is off the stevens resort boundary. You still get to ski there idiot. I cannot believe the amount of people posting that clearly has never been skiing

      February 20, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
  6. kevin conway

    Idiots. They were out of bounds not brave. They didn't die "doing what they loved to do" They wanted to suffogate upside down? Just plain stupid. Extreme is stupid.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      and mediocrity is the worst anyone can aspire to.

      You aren't even at that point yet.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Les

      Every season in BC and Washington State, it's the same stories....OUT OF BOUNDS....if you live there you know it.

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

    Say, why didn't they use that life saving james bond bubble to save themselves? remember that scene when he saved not only his own life but that evil hot chick? easy as pie

    February 20, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • JB

      the girl that lived had a version of it.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. PoBoy2

    You pay your money you take your chance! There were signs posted warning of avalanche potential. These self-proclaimed professionals chose to ignore it. They lost, RIP!

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

      The back country is free. There are no signs. Clearly you have no idea what you are talking about.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. kevin conway

    Extreme..and dead.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Paul Cooper

    Funny thing about the people so quick to take a shot at these three victims for the sake of scoring snark. They are the same people who whine incessantly when they don't get their way, and whatever happens to them, it's never their fault.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • jamesbondguy

      Are you whining?

      February 20, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • kevin conway

      Paul is psychic. The skiers thought they were too.

      February 20, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
  11. DaRealist

    Trying to pay bills are my thrills and spills. don't need to ski a mountain..my bills are mounting and i gotta get to the bottom of those..what a waste of lives..spoiled is what they were.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mark McKee

    Isn't it odd? If they had died from shooting speedballs, no one would paint it as romantic. No one said that Sid Viscous and John Belushi died doing what they love. I think it is stupid. More people become paras & quads than any other sport, which is why Craig hospital in Denver is the top paralysis rehab hospital in the world. Adding further irony, able-bodied skiers from the Olympic team don't like to share practice space with paralympians. And finally, when we talk about abusing the welfare system, no one ever mentions the $100K helicopter rescues of idiots who ski into avalanches. It's complicated & comical. It's extreme puratanism, dude....

    February 20, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. WHAT?

    It's sad that this happened,Pro-skiers are aware of all the Dangers they can expect and they prepare for that.It don't always work out.Sorry.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Binky O

    Only one in the bunch was wearing one of those life preservers???

    Can anyone say Darwin Awards?

    February 20, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. magwister

    A lot of you are imbeciles in your 'thinking'. To the old dude who said he was 'experienced' because he had skied on the piste for many years (but had never done backcountry)...you are not. I'd much rather people 'lived' their lives and MAYBE die doing it, rather than stuffing their fat faces with more food and waiting for the heart attack, diabetes, stroke, etc, to hit them whilst sat on their couch. Also, quite often you are responsible for the cost of rescue if you leave the resort boundary...places like Baker have big signs stating this. Btw, going by some of your statements, I should have no sympathy for the old dears that die from falling down stairs...how irresponsible for being near something like that in their state with those dodgy legs.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
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