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. Aldo1968

    What exactly is the difference between professional skiers and crazy extreme skiers???

    February 21, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • denim

      Professionals get paid?

      February 21, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Two Shoes

    Experienced Skiers should no better than to ignore warning signs. This tragedy was preventable.

    February 21, 2012 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Someone Who Skis

      Warning signs?? I didn't know they put up warning signs in a wilderness area of the national forest. But maybe you have never left a city.

      February 21, 2012 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • kls817

      Someone who skis isn't someone who thinks. As the aricle said, there was a high avalanche warning. Also the one skier who was smart enough to use an airbag to save herself indicates that the other skiers weren't smart enough.
      Those skiers knowingly took great risks,and they unfortunately paid for them.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Aldo1968

    I guess "Someone Who Skis" has never been in a position to know what 'warning signs' are in a wilderness area of a National Forest....

    February 21, 2012 at 10:45 am | Report abuse |
  4. Longtimekskier

    The warning signs would be the avalanche advisory for the Cascades, the amount of snow that had fallen and the appearance of the snow when they entered it. I think that to most backcountry skiers an avalanche is something abstract. How many have ever been in one or seen one in person? I have witnessed a massive one in the 70s that was the result of control work and I was involved in the "rescue" of someone who hiked up a mountain to ski new snow before a ski resort had opened for the season. He kicked off an avalanche that partially buried his partner who had gone done ahead of him. He was completely buried and he wasn't suffocated – he was killed by the force of the snow itself. It took his partner was able to dig himself out and it took him almost an hour to get help. They were in a closed ski area on a weekend in late October. How long would it have taken him to get help in the backcountry? An avalanche beacon is only going to make it easier to recover the body. When you are in the back country, there is no ski patrol, no rescue personnel close at hand. And, a partner can only do CPR for so long. And, most important, CPR isn't to revive someone, it is to keep blood circulating.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      Thanks for posting this. I think the first sentence here is key. "Someone who skis" was obviously interpreting 'warning signs' to literally mean man-made signs with signposts. The fact that there are none of those of course doesn't mean that the environment itself isn't providing obvious warning signs that should be heeded by an experienced skier. This was a matter of group-think and risk seeking causing a group of experienced skiers to take a major risk and ignore the signs that an avalanche could occur.

      February 21, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. FormerMarineSgt

    Avalanche killed experienced skiers that ignored the posted High Avalanche risk warnings, broke through the fences to get out of the official ski resort area and went into unsafe, uncontrolled 'back country' hills to get the high of skiing where no one else is doing so.

    And by doing that they decided to risk thier own lives and those of anyone who had to come rescue them if something went wrong.

    While I send condolences to thier family and friends, I can't understand the idiocy of going out and doing this when the risk is so high.

    They foolishly risked thier lives and lost the gamble.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Nate

      "Broke through fences"

      Back country skiing is not illegal...

      February 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sara

      I totally agree with you. It's a shame they put their skiing before their families. From the pics I saw, at least one had a wife and small children. They should have been the priority – not the "thrill" of skiing in high avalanche conditions.

      February 21, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      Not sure that there were any 'fences' to break through–they likely would have simply hiked through trees/away from the area where the lifts drop people off. Back country skiing isn't illegal, but ignoring avalanche warnings seems pretty foolish; re-schedule the run for a different day!

      February 21, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • denim

      @Nate: not illegal in the legislative sense. Illegal in the natural law sense, and they paid for their error. 🙁

      February 21, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. GRS62

    Too bad the emphasis is on the fact that these were "professionals", with the ESPN name being thrown in to add credibility to what is really a bunch of people skiing where the risks are higher. Preventable? Of course. If you're a "pro" and want to ski without borders, then bring along other "pros" who can clear the area of potential avalanche risks by setting off charges. That's what the true pros do at resorts. If they chose not to then their professional credibility is in question.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      Or easier yet–reschedule the run to another day when strong avalanche warnings aren't being posted. This was just plain foolish and, as someone else said, placing the thrill of an obvious and life-threatening risk before the well-being of one's own family.

      February 21, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skwirrl

      No pro films a powder segment in an avalanche controlled resort.

      February 21, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Dutch

    Take a look what happened with the Dutch Prins "Johan Friso" in Austria.......

    February 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. chaos

    Much respect to them. Died because they were doing something they loved. RIP

    February 21, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • kls817

      My guess is that their loved ones don't share your sentiment.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      Totally agree kls18. Someone who is willing to take the extreme risk of back-country skiing under high avalanche conditions has no business whatsoever making the decision to have children who will depend on their parents. Having kids and not at least toning down that level of risk is extremely selfish/self-centered and irresponsible by any definition of the word. If you are not willing to take down the risk level a little, don't make the choice to have children. It's that simple. Having children then skiiing back-country under extremely high avalanche conditions is the equivalent of having kids, then periodically playing Russian Roulette with a gun to your head.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. SeattleBrew74

    Unbelievable some of the stuff I'm reading here. Questioning CNN's choice to label these skiers "Professionals"? It's so easy to just type the first thought that comes to your head without doing much thinking isn't it? If you make money skiing, than you are a professional skier, ergo, Jim Jack was a professional. Go pick up a POWDER magazine from a few decades ago, and chances are you'll see him tearing it up on the pages. Here's something to think about, these guys had gone down the exact same slope many times before in their lives, and if ANYONE on this planet was capable of making a calculated decision on whether or not the conditions were correct, it would be these guys. Sometimes Mother Nature calls the shots. It's just hard to read some of the things on here that are so ill informed, and those that are quick to pass judgement when they posess no sort of authority on the subject, while I mourn the loss of a friend. In hind-sight, yes, the made the wrong decision. But who are we to judge the moment the decision was made, when we have no real ability to do so?

    February 21, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      The part of it that seems extremely risky to me has to do with the strong avalanche warnings being posted all over the place. Surely there's another time it could be done, especially when one of the guys was a dad–a case of clearly placing extreme risk over the future of one's family/kids. Yes, skiing back country in an area with strong avalanche warnings IS an extreme risk (and a foolish one) whether or not you've been skiing for many years.

      February 21, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • SlowToJudge

      I'm with you, SeattleBrew – very well said. I would very much like to hear more information from the extremely experienced people who were survivors of this incident before I pass ANY judgement from the comfort of my computer. As a long-time backcountry skier and friend to two of the good men who lost their lives on Sunday, I find most of the comments on here offensive, judgmental, ignorant, and in extremely poor taste. People make mistakes and everyone takes risks every day – whether those risks are more conventional like driving to work, or less conventional and widely understood like backcountry skiing. Each risk is calculated and everyone's judgment, threshold, and situation is completely different. I also am a strong believer in finding lessons to take away from such tragic events, and I will be looking forward to the detailed reports of snow conditions, weather patterns, decisions made by the skiers, and other information that contributed to this terrible event, in hopes that I can use that information to help shape the way I safely ski backcountry in the future. You will certainly not find me casting blame, making judgment calls, or name calling those that lost their lives because I was not there. And neither were you. Please think before you write. These were good men, and I will miss them personally. RIP gentlemen.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      The difference between taking a risk driving to work is that this is something needed to do to put food on your table for yourself/your family, whereas the skiing incident apparently only involved personal pleasure/thrill seeking. To my mind, that makes it a pretty irrelevant comparison.

      Again, my issue is that (1) it occurred during an avalanche warning, and (2) I really do believe that you need to re-examine the level of risk that you're willing to take simply for the sake of pleasure. Someone who's single can take any risk he/she wants and that's their personal decision, but for any person with a sense of personal responsibility, that MUST change the moment you take the action of bringing children into this world. At that point everytime you take a risk just for the sake of fun/thrill seeking, you're not only messing with your own future but that of your own children. And for what?

      I'm wondering if skiing during high avalanche conditions is commonplace for backcountry skiers? That just seems like playing Russian Roulette...

      February 21, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Outsideallthetime

      “You know, the mountains are full of dangers, and they swallow you up. But mostly, they give.”
      Emily Coombs
      (wife of skiing legend Doug Coombs, who left this life doing what he loved)

      February 21, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. DBag

    Headline: "Person killed in car accident on Highway"

    DBag comment below article: "This tragedy was totally preventable. What kind of ignorant idiot ignores the warning signs that speeding steel can cause deadly accidents. This individual risked his life as well as others around him by getting out of bed and leaving his home. He should have done like the rest of us armchair dbags and got online and riduculed others from the privacy of their computer. Real life is dangerous. Don't participate".

    February 21, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      The analogy is a very poor one. A better one would be someone who is taking an extreme risk by driving at 70 miles an hour during a blizzard. I have no problem with the idea of back-country skiing, but these guys were doing it at a time when strong avalanche warnings were being posted all over the place. Sorry, but these are the Cascades, and there are plenty of times it can be done with beautiful conditions, lots of powder, but no strong avalanche risk. And at least one of these guys is a dad–this is just a clear case of placing extreme thrill seeking in an overly risky situation above one's own family.

      February 21, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • SlowToJudge

      AmazedinFL – Clearly, you are not a skier or you would know that there is *never* a time in skiing, backcountry or inbounds, when you are completely without risk. Ever. Life is temporary. We could all go at any time, and this for me is a great reminder to stop reading asinine comments from ignorant online trolls and LIVE my life while I'm still here.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      Yes, I am a skier/have been for many years and I do recognize that there's always a risk. But are you trying to tell me that the risk isn't much greater during a time of high-avalanche warning? That's a load of hooey to the point of not even appearing to be credible. Also, my opinion is that someone who becomes a parent needs to re-examine what is an acceptable level of risk to take. Sorry, backcountry skiing during severe avalanche conditions is rather like playing Russian Roulette with a gun to your head. Except in this case the gun is also pointed at your children's head since by bringing them into this world you assumed responsibility for rearing them until they are adults. Sorry, if you're not willing to do that and to lower the level of risk you're willing to take merely for the sake of pleasure at that point, in my opinion that's acting irresponsibly and not taking full ownership for being a parent. And I'm sorry if you consider disagreeing with you or having a strong opinion on what parental responsibility entails to be acting like a 'troll'. That frankly just tells me a lot about who you are.

      February 21, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. george1911

    they were out-of-bounds...they knew better...RIP

    February 21, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      OUt-of-bounds/backcountry skiing isn't so unreasonable for a professional skier. But I think that doing it in an area with strong avalanche warnings is extremely risky.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. SeattleBrew74

    AmazedinFL – I'm sure you're qualified to say so, so I'll take your word for it. After all, there is plenty of back country skiing to be done in Florida. Again, unless you were on the mountain, at that moment, with the history and experience of these terrific fellows, you have no right to say whether they should have or shouldn't have done what they did. And then draw the conclusion that a thrill was worth more than his children? A calloused and ignorant statement to be sure. It may APPEAR that way, but that does not make it undeniably so, and without being able to be certain, why make such a statement? Would you make that statement if you knew him? To a friend or family member?

    February 21, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Outsideallthetime

    It sounds as though some of you don't understand how backcountry skiing works. "In bounds" (within the resort permit area, sometimes called "on piste") one pays money and the runs are groomed and controlled by professionals to reduce avalanche risk. "Out of bounds" (aka backcountry, "off piste") one enters terrain where you are responsible for yourself and for mitigating the avalanche on your own. Accessing the back country from a resort usually involves passing a sign or fence advising skiers that they have passed the boundary from one area to the other.

    Statistically avalanche victims fall primarily into one of two categories. The first is untrained novices who blunder into dangerous situations through ignorance. The second is highly trained and experienced groups that have successfully managed avalanche hazards for so long that they become overly confident. As with any activity involving risk there is always a chance something will go bad. That's all that happened here.

    I've had days where I got to the top and decided the risk was too high for my comfort. It's an individual choice to go or not go. But I'd no more give up backcountry skiing than I would driving a car (which is statistically more dangerous).

    February 21, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      Totally agree here. My issue is that I truly believe that once you have children, until those children at least reach young adulthood, the level of risk you're willing to accept for pure enjoyment/the thrill of it (as opposed to a risk you need to take to put food on the table for your family) should go way down. Back-country skiing for the fun of it at a time where there are such strong avalanche warnings for the area in which you're skiing just seems like too great a risk for a parent to accept. I understand that there's always risk involved in back-country skiing, but doing it at such a time just seems like playing Russian Roulette with several barrels loaded. Why couldn't they have just waited until the conditions were a little less risky?

      February 21, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • TBagger

      1) I know almost zero facts about the situation 2) The CNN report is almost certainly biased 3) I have never skiid or seen snow before in my life 4) I have absolutley zero understanding of avalanches. Due to the above-mentioned facts, let me cast judgement and ridicule upon all those involved.......

      AmazedinFL, this obviously aimed at you. Thanks for your insight. Stay off the slopes and away from the mountains, you can even get injured walking to the lifts or trailhead. You're kids will never forgive you for having a passion for something other than them.

      Each of us have our own risk tolerance and can make our own decisions. Let this just be a tragedy and not a blame session.

      February 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. They did themselves in.

    "The avalanche danger in the Cascades was listed as considerable to high..." But they were "experienced". Intentionally going into an area listed as dangerous doesn't speak well of this vaunted "experience". And they paid the piper because of their bravado. Sad, but true.

    February 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Skwirrl

      Considerable to high is a 3-4 on a scale of 1-5

      1 – low – almost no chance of slides
      2 – moderate – the steepest windloaded slopes might slide
      3 – considerable – slopes above a certain degree and above tree line have a real chance of man triggered avalanches and slight chance of naturally triggered avy
      4 – High – Man triggered avalanches are possible above and below tree line on slopes above 30 degrees and likely on certain on windloaded slopes above treeline steeper than so and so degrees...
      5 – Severe – Just don't go out. Big avalanches are possible without any disruption.

      Now you notice how Considerable is mentioned up there? Pros make judgment calls to ski/ride in considerable conditions daily as part of their job getting video parts. I'd wager whatever these gentlemen was on fit the constraints of category 3 and not 4. And it just happened to be their day. RIP gentlemen.

      February 21, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. EB

    Sorry, no sympathy here. Predictably stupid actions equal predictably stupid results. Now, please bill the estates and survivors for the cost of search, rescue and recovery, we're tired of footing the bill for picking up these Team Red Bull wannabe's in the woods.

    February 21, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Outsideallthetime

      Actually out here in the Northwest SAR duty is typically done by volunteers and the majority, if not all, of the cost is covered by those volunteer organizations.
      Save your indignation for a more appropriate subject.

      February 21, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
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