Additional details have emerged from the deadly avalanche that occurred in the backcountry area of Steven’s Pass resort in Washington State. The information elicits further devastation upon the confirmation that the skiers lost in the tragedy were well-known and beloved members of our very own freeskiing community. Freeskiing World Tour head judge Jim Jack, Stevens Pass Director of Marketing Chris Rudolph and fellow skier John Brenan were killed in the avalanche that struck early Sunday afternoon.
The party of skiers had accessed a popular backcountry area known as Tunnel Creek, which is just a short hike through the surrounding wilderness accessed from the top of Seventh Heaven chairlift. In addition to the deceased, the group included ESPN Freeskiing Editor Megan Michelson, professional skier Elyse Saugstad, as well as Powder Senior Editor John Stifter and photographer Keith Carlsen.
ESPN ‘s Megan Michelson recounted that a number of the group’s members had been skiing the top section of the line before the slide was triggered. Elyse Saugstad, Chris Rudolph and John Brenan had all successfully ridden the line and were waiting downhill in the trees, which they perceived to be secure.
Powder’s Jim Stifter’s was waiting at the top to drop in, along with Michelson and three others. Stifter explained that soon after Jim Jack began his decent, he triggered a snow slab 30 feet wide that consumed him and spread across the slope into the tree line. The fast moving snow overtook Rudolph, Brenan and Saugstad, along with another skier who managed to grab hold of passing tree and resist the wave of snow.
The helpless skiers were carried nearly 3,000 feet before the snow finally settled. Saugstad was wearing an airbag-equipped backpack, which she was able to deploy. The device kept her head and hands above the snow — and is very likely to have been a key factor in her survival. Unfortunately the other three skiers were not as fortunate.
Saugstad released a statement later on Sunday evening. “First off, my thoughts, condolences and sympathies are with the families and victims of the avalanche incident today outside of Stevens Pass Ski Resort. All the people in the party were properly equipped and experienced backcountry travelers. I was caught by the avalanche and was not completely buried. I believe my partial burial and survival was on account of the inflation of my ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack. My thoughts and prayers are with those that lost their lives today.”
Upon witnessing their friends being overtaken by the avalanche, three of the five waiting skiers switched their avalanche beacons to “search” mode and descended the slope in rapid fashion to attempt rescue. As the remaining two skiers monitored the scene from above, the others quickly came across Saugstad and dug her out. Brenan and Rudolph were located buried less than 50 feet away. Stifter performed CPR for over 30 minutes on Rudolph, but to no avail. Jim Jack’s body traveled several hundred feet further down the mountainside, and was recovered by the members of the original group that had split off before the avalanche.
Heavy snowfall due to storms throughout the weekend has deposited a ton of new snow across the terrain of Steven’s Pass. The resort has recorded over 2 feet over the past 48 hours. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center put out a warning for the day calling for high alert in areas 5,000 feet and above — Steven’s Pass ranges from 4,061 feet of elevation at the base and 5,845 feet at the summit. The primary concern was the effect of the sun upon the recent snow. Combine new snowfall with warm weather and you get the dangerous conditions experienced Sunday.
The director of the Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center issued a statement calling this a very sad day. She went on to remind people that avalanche accidents are typically preventable and urges skiers and snowboarders to check the forecast before heading out in the backcountry.
There is no doubt that these individuals were all well equipped to handle such a situation. Each group member was an experienced backcountry skier and equipped with avalanche rescue gear. They were well aware of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center’s high warning level for the day and had been adhering proper safety protocol skiing the line in turns, one skier at a time. This tragedy is yet another testament to the fact that a natural disaster knows no background or creed.
Our hearts go out to the friends and family of those involved in this incident.