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. kevin conway

    Extreme= immature and stupid.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tele

      Just imagine if you were one of these man's wives and you read that comment. These guys were not trying to be 'extreme' as you so rudely stated it. They were merely enjoying the gifts that mother nature bestows on us...get off your couch and take your hand out of your pants you troll

      February 21, 2012 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
  2. Sumguy

    Ok, so there are two sides to this story. I love to ski, but as crazy as i'll get is in-bounds tree skiing.
    While imrespect the guts of people like this to "risk it all" formthe thrill of skiing in areas like this, the majority of us just can't reconcile the risk/reward. Those of us with families and loved ones that depend on us understand to engage in this kind of risky thrill seeking would be selfish at best. If your a single guy, no kids, no close relatives, have at it....otherwise think of the pain and loss you leave behind. RIP guys, at least you went out doing what you loved. Thats something.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • kevin conway

      No you went out suffocating upside down.

      February 20, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      And who wants to die doing what they love? I want to die doing what I hate...on the way to the dentist or a public speaking engagement. I'd rather finish my ski run and talk about it later at the bar.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
  3. Elizabeth

    I hope that some of their body parts could be donated. There are many people who do not ski, but struggle just to stay alive day by day. A story like this just points to the hypocrisy of a society that could call these people heroes and yet deny health care to millions of people that do not take risks.

    February 20, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • rbr

      that comment is not only insensitive but out of place. Nobody called them heroes. You take risks everyday you walk out your door. These people were professional skiers not crazy extreme skiers....A human life is a human life. No more , no more less. Someone is without a parent or son or husband. Grow a heart.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • physnchips

      Woah there. It's their personal choice to ski and take risks, not society's. I'm a pretty liberal person, and agree that we need to give care to everybody, but when we start saying that your hobby is too dangerous and you can't do it, that's ludicrous. Let's all go tell golfers not to golf because they may get struck by lightning... yeah right. Elizabeth, you've got a distorted, sick reality to post that comment.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • WildWest

      Read the book called "Deep Survival". The author explains why we accept the risks in life, even those that may end our life. Its a pretty cool book that breaks day to day and back country survival down to a psychological perspective. Really makes you think.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Conrad

      Excellent point Elizabeth. I personally have no sympathy whatsoever for those who choose to play hard and subject the rest of us to things like rescue operations, expenses and in this case, death JUST so a couple of morons can get off their couch and defy nature. I personally think they should be penalized for irresponsibaly going out to have fun while dragghingt the rest of us with them physically and emotionally.

      If you ski or do anything like that where there are no life guards or people to help you by default, you are an idiot and the law of natural selection will simpy claim you as a victim. To those who would think about this sort of thing I say, be resposible and DONT make other people come and resuce you becuase of your stupidity. If you do, you should PAY for it.

      Amazing ghow the first repsonders are in cahoots with the idiots endangering their lives. The first responders can't wait to gout and PLAY while rescuing somebody. WE need to intervene and legislate this back into balance.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:49 am | Report abuse |
  4. T-Man

    Wow we are so sad,we were all up enjoying the great snow.The danger was very high and no matter how ready you think you are,when that breaks loose there is no place to run.I thank god more people were not killed that day,it could have been much worse.I know this is hard and we hear it all the time but they all died doing what thay loved doing and in the most amazing place.RIP

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

    I'm not so sure about the part of them dying doing what they loved. I think that is to make us, the survivors, feel better. I was a fighter pilot and we said the same thing about our buds who crashed and died. Then, one day I got myself into a situation where I should have hit the ground. By sheer instinct and a good dose of luck I recovered the aircraft. In the moment I didn't think about how I'd be dying doing what I loved. I thought very clearly, "Sh*t! I've just killed myself!"

    February 20, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • WildWest

      Your 100% correct. It comforts us psychologically to tell ourselves that "they died doing what they love". All the warning signs were in place, these skilled skiers knew the potential there was for an avalanche, they accepted the risk and a few did not make it out of the back country. Happens every year, adrenaline junkies do it everyday, it doesnt have to skiing.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  6. steve

    rip

    February 20, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. vavoommm

    Perhaps I missed the answer in a comment : Was Saugstad the only one wearing that device that day or the only one able to deploy it?

    February 20, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • rbr

      think the only one wearing it. The others had beacons.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Scott

    sumguy, kevin conway, elizabeth You should all feel ashamed at what you just said.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  9. scontreau

    I'm sorry, it doesn't matter how skilled a skier you might be. If you go skiing in an area with the avalanche risk rated at considerable to high, then you take your life into your own hands. DON'T get on the media, explain how you survived, and expect sympathy. You're comrades died, yeah, you were lucky. Next time go hiking along the Iranian/Iraqi borders.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Someone Who Skis

      You may want to know what you are talking about prior to making a fool of yourself. Avalanche ratings are Low, Moderate, Considerable, High and Extreme. Considerable is the middle rating where "Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making essential". It is common for skiers, except those who only ski at "resorts", to learn how to travel in this terrain. It is obvious that this group made a mistake in route finding, or snowpack assessment. My heart goes out to the families, and to those who lost their friends.

      February 21, 2012 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
  10. joesense

    titanium balls

    February 21, 2012 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
  11. fireitup

    If these people were so skilled and experienced, why did they go skiing when they should have known the possibilities? An experienced pilot won't fly after he gets the weather report of hazardous weather. No thrill in that. That comment about comparing skiing to driving is simply inane. More people drive than ski with avalanche conditions. Perhaps you could compare it to those that drive into flooded areas, but those statistics would probably come out the same as those that perished on that mountain.

    Warnings are meant to be heeded, you go at your own risk.

    February 21, 2012 at 4:53 am | Report abuse |
    • WildWest

      No different than sky diving, bungie jumping, riding a roller coaster, rock climbing, etc. Adrenaline junkies accept the risk, they know the ultimate sacrice. They cheat the hang man all their lives, that is why they keep coming back. Until he catches up with you,.

      February 21, 2012 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
  12. straightawaykid

    I noticed this article did not say whether they were in a closed area, but two other articles I read stated it as "out of bounds". The resort's experts closed it due to avalanche danger, and skiers do not have the right to go there, just like I can't ride my dirt bike in Yosemite Natl. Park. I don't care how experienced they are, if the area is closed, they should not ski there. 3 out of 4 dead due to stupidity and/or arrogance. Charge the deceased's families with the costs of recovery and fines.

    February 21, 2012 at 5:12 am | Report abuse |
  13. Jmb

    We all take risks. We calculate them in our heads either in an instant or over time. What would be a grave risk to some, not so much to others. All the skiers on that backcountry descent made the same calculation. But for a few the outcome was in fact grave. It is sad for those close to the deceased. But it is not an event that calls for healthcare reform or even backcountry access rules reform. We don't change the rules every time a fatal car crash occurs.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  14. Natural Selection

    I used this tragedy as an opportunity to talk to my children about making wise choices...

    February 21, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  15. coldtexan

    I wish them well with their loses, but I hope the families get a bill for the futile efforts of all dedicated individuals involved to bring these idiots out alive. If you've got the expendable cash, guts, and supposed talent, to hit slopes from a helicopter – your family, that you've selfishly left behind, should pay for your recovery.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Someone Who Skis

      The Texans I have the joy of knowing are not callous, unthinking louts. They were reflect on the hurt the families are going through, and not post drivel.

      February 21, 2012 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
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