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Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - Page updated at 11:00 a.m.
Four dead in avalanches at Stevens and Snoqualmie passes
By Brian M. Rosenthal, Craig Welch, Mike Lindblom and Lark Turner
Seattle Times staff reporters
STEVENS PASS — Her buddy shouted "Avalanche!" but when things started sliding, it felt to professional skier Elyse Saugstad like just a tiny rush of loose snow beneath her skis.
In an instant the weight and pressure grew so immense that she rocketed down the slope, banging into trees and rolling upside down.
"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," Saugstad said Sunday.
She came to rest cemented in snow with her face exposed. The slide would kill three of her friends.
Three expert skiers, including the director of marketing services for the Stevens Pass ski resort and a widely known judge of competitive freeskiing events, died after being swept downslope and buried by the state's deadliest avalanche in years Sunday around noon.
Less than an hour earlier, a snowboarder died in an unrelated slide that swept him off a cliff near The Summit at Snoqualmie.
The skiers and the snowboarder had been in out-of-bounds areas bordering the resorts. High avalanche warnings had been issued for some areas Sunday.
The first avalanche struck about 11:30 a.m. at Alpental, one of four areas at The Summit at Snoqualmie resort. The King County Sheriff's Office said the snowboarder triggered the avalanche, which swept him about 500 feet over a cliff.
The snowboarder was a 41-year-old Seattle man whose name has not been released.
The second avalanche swept through a group of 15 skiers at Stevens Pass just after noon in an ungroomed, out-of-bounds area.
Families confirmed that among the dead are Chris Rudolph, 30, the marketing director for Stevens; and Jim Jack, 46, of Leavenworth, the freeskiing judge.
The name of the third victim had not been confirmed Sunday night.
Most people in the group were local Stevens Pass skiers who have traveled through the backcountry valley many times before, said Megan Michelson, freeskiing editor for ESPN, who was part of the outing.
She, Saugstad and the victims were part of a group of eight friends who had hiked over to Tunnel Creek from the Seventh Heaven chairlift in the southwest corner of the resort, said Nathan Amisson, who works at Stevens Pass and knew some in the group.
Other people in separate groups were also skiing nearby.
Fracture opens in snow
Saugstad said her group had been following backcountry protocol all morning — each skied with a buddy, and they crossed treacherous slopes one at a time.
During a run around noon, some of the group already had started skiing down, going one by one before meeting up near the trees. Saugstad had skied a few hundred feet when her ski partner shouted.
It wasn't clear where the slide started, but it appeared to come through the woods — an unusual but not unheard-of event, she said. It quickly pummeled them.
"The run funnels you into a creek, which is very narrow and tight, and we got ripped through the trees," Saugstad said.
Some skiers already had descended into the wooded area, but most were above in the open snow, Michelson said. One skier passed through, leading to a 3-foot fracture in the snow.
"It didn't look bad from our perspective," said Michelson, who was standing above the slope waiting for her turn to ski across. But then it grew into a massive snowslide that rushed down the mountain.
One man kept his head above the snow by clinging to a tree. Saugstad, who skis frequently in Europe, where inflatable emergency air bags are popular in the backcountry, opened hers. It allowed her to stay largely on the slide's surface.
The three who died ended up buried deep, one landing just a few feet from Saugstad, who couldn't move but survived because her head and hands were above the snow.
"There was a shock factor," she said. "I tried to remain calm, tried not to freak out. I finally thought to yell 'help' and it was just magically then that the first guy showed up."
Right after the slide, Michelson skied back and forth, using her snow beacon to detect the emergency beacons of other skiers, she said. Others in the group were digging and trying to save people.
Those not hit by the avalanche dug their friends out, but efforts to save them through CPR failed.
Michelson said Sunday night she felt shaken by the tragedy. But she had collected her thoughts well enough to report via ESPN.com and to describe the avalanche in detail later in a phone interview.
"We assume a risk"
"Obviously, it was a backcountry area. It was well-trafficked. Obviously, we assume a risk when you ski in the backcountry," she said, stressing that all the skiers were experienced and well-equipped. "It was a great loss."
The area at Stevens Pass is "out of bounds," meaning that it is not part of the resort. While it is not illegal to be there, those who choose to enter it do so at their own risk, said John Gifford, general manager of the resort.
It's a popular spot for backcountry skiing, but it's dangerous — one person died there in an avalanche last year, Gifford said.
Sunday's avalanche swept the skiers about 2,000 vertical feet, said Deputy Chris Bedker of the King County Sheriff's Office. The avalanche was some 200 yards wide and 20 feet deep, officials said.
"It's nature," said Katie Larson, spokeswoman for King County Sheriff's Office. "I don't want to make it seem trite, but sometimes nature is bigger than we are."
Rudolph lived in Leavenworth, Chelan County. He was an experienced skier who loved the mountains, said his father, Ross Rudolph, of Tahoe City, Calif.
"Chris was just the most wonderful son in the world, and we loved him so deeply," he said. "Our hearts are just broken."
Jack was head judge of the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour and of the International Freeskiers Association. His father, Norman Jack, said his son started skiing when he was 5 years old.
"He loved everyone, and everyone loved him," Jack said. "He had friends all over the world."
The ski resort remained open Sunday and planned to reopen Monday.
Carried over cliff
The earlier avalanche at Alpental, a drive of about 90 miles from Stevens Pass but just 20 or so miles as the crow flies, came as the snowboarder was with friends in an out-of-bounds area. The friends quickly called for help, but rescue workers were unable to find the snowboarder until an hour and a half later.
By the time they reached him, the snowboarder was unconscious and could not be revived.
An initial report said the snowboarder was underneath the cliff when he became buried in snow, but Snoqualmie Pass Fire and Rescue Chief Jay Wiseman later clarified that he was carried over the cliff by the avalanche.
The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center hadn't heard many reports of avalanches in the Cascades through the week, but with 18 inches of fresh snow, the danger grew through the holiday weekend, said avalanche meteorologist Garth Ferber.
By Sunday morning, however, danger was high on north- and northwest-facing slopes above 5,000 feet.
Staff reporter Amy Martinez contributed to this report.
Lark Turner: 206-464-2761 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com
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