Tragedy at Stevens Pass
Credit: Courtesy Chase Jarvis

It didn't end that way, but Sunday, February 19, 2012, started out as the kind of day Jim Jack lived for. Two feet of fresh snow had blanketed the Stevens Pass ski resort in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, the first real snowstorm in weeks. Jack spent the night in the Stevens Pass parking lot, sleeping in his 1973 Shelton Vacationeer, so he could beat the crowds to the slopes in the morning. He woke up early, and at 7am, grabbed his Salomon powder skis and headed toward the RV in which his childhood friend Matt Black was staying. Matt's girlfriend would be cooking breakfast on their propane stove, and he wanted something to eat before heading out to ski. Jack, a 46-year-old former professional skier and president of the International Freeskiers & Snowboarders Association, who now served as the head judge of the Freeskiing World Tour (he'd switched to being a judge after suffering a severe injury while on tour), had grown up nearby, and he was eager for a full day of powder skiing in his home mountains.

"Well, I'll be damned – I beat Jimmy Jack into the line this morning," Johnny Brenan shouted, standing at the front of the line at Big Chief, Stevens Pass' oldest lift, at 8:15 am, 45 minutes before the lifts were scheduled to open, when Jack arrived. "That never happens!" To an extent, he was right about that – Jack organized his entire life around skiing. Each summer he would lead groups of convicts on work-release programs into the forests of the Pacific Northwest for weeks at a time, thinning dead trees with chainsaws, just to earn enough money to take the winter off to ski. Skiing had taken him around the world; he had powder friends everywhere, from the French Alps to Argentina to Utah. He was the type of person whom everyone wanted to ski with – because he was always having so much fun. Keith Carlsen, a close friend, described him in this simple fashion in an article in Powder magazine: "Selfless. Pure love. Always giving." "He loved everyone, and everyone loved him," says his father, Norman Jack.

But Brenan, a 41-year-old building contractor and father of two young girls, was also being modest – his dedication to shredding powder matched Jack's turn for turn. Brenan lived in Leavenworth, an old logging town nearby that had found new life as a tourist-friendly, Bavarian-themed village, and where many dedicated local skiers live. He had worked the Stevens Pass ski patrol when he was younger, and even built some of its lodges and restaurants. Stevens Pass was a relatively small resort, spread out over two mountains, Big Chief and Cowboy Mountain. With more than 40 runs, bowls, glades, and faces, the pass's 1,800 vertical feet are largely suited to beginners and intermediates, although it "packs a lot of punch for its size," says John Gifford, who was then the resort's general manager, with plenty to keep the interest of pros like Jack and locals like Brenan. No one knew Stevens Pass any better than Brenan did: He was familiar with its every open glade, secret powder stash, and hidden chute, making him a much-sought-after skiing companion – but only if you could keep up.

A few minutes later, a team of ski patrollers careened through, covered in snow from boots to beards. They took the crowd's good-natured heckling in stride ("You guys are keepin' the lifts closed 'cause you want all the powder!"), and then boarded Big Chief for another round of avalanche-prevention work. They needed to dig avalanche pits, which are used to probe the runs for slide vulnerability; perform "slope cuts," controlled skiing to see if slides can be triggered at weak points in the snow layers; and even detonate dynamite to preemptively blast away potential avalanche sites.

The avalanche season in the western United States had proved treacherous so far, with fatal slides in Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and Washington. Fourteen skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers had died, including Jamie Pierre, a professional skier and world-record holder for the largest cliff drop, who was killed in November in an avalanche at Snowbird in Utah. The number of serious avalanches, and their fatalities, took people by surprise, says Bruce Tremper, director of the U.S. Forest Service's Utah Avalanche Center. "It was a completely different animal than what they were used to dealing with," he says.

Early January saw heavy rains in the Cascade Mountains, followed by two weeks of dry and cold weather. At Stevens Pass, this meant the formation of "facets," an unstable layer of ice crystals in the snowpack that occurs when the air temperature is lower than the ground temperature. Next came two weeks of "trickle in" snow – small accumulations over a longer period of time rather than foot-deep, rapid dumps. Trickle-in snowfall camouflages an unstable, or faceted, snowpack, explained Jack Soukup, a veteran Stevens Pass Ski Patroller, which meant that the conditions that drew Jim Jack and his friends to the mountains that day – huge snowfall sitting atop an unsteady base – concealed "a dangerous layer of snow like a booby trap."

There had been no major avalanche activity recently at Stevens Pass, and the control work done on the in-bounds areas that morning found little cause for significant concern. "For the most part, things seemed relatively solid, but far from ideal," says Chris Hunter, another longtime ski patroller at Stevens Pass. At 6 am that day, the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) rated Stevens Pass as "considerable" on its Avalanche Danger Scale (below two higher designations, "high" and "extreme"). Conditions showed the potential for dangerous slides, but the likelihood didn't seem overly high. At 9 am, when the patrollers finished their work, the slopes were deemed safe and declared open.

At Big Chief, the crowds cheered as the lift operators began loading skiers and snowboarders. Jim Jack, Matt Black, and Johnny Brenan were among the first to go up. "The conditions were epic; all of our friends were there ripping with us. It was perfect," Black says. But Stevens Pass is only a two-hour drive from Seattle, and by 11 am the runs were packed with Sunday trippers "tracking out" the slopes. Guys like Jack, Black, and Brenan were ready to make their way out-of-bounds.

At 9 am, Chris Rudolph was sitting in an office on the third floor of Stevens Pass' Tye Creek lodge, fidgeting his way through a marketing meeting. John Gifford, his boss of eight years, described the 30-year-old Rudolph, a young marketing director, as a happy-go-lucky guy, someone "who loves everybody, is always happy to see you, and is excited about life – kind of like a puppy." Part of Rudolph's job was to bring top-level skiers and boarders, and the companies that support them, to Stevens Pass. "There weren't many people as enthusiastic about skiing as Chris. He was the type of guy who'd go skiing in the rain," Gifford says.

Rudolph wasn't a local – he'd grown up in Northern California, learning to ski at his family's cabin in Lake Tahoe – but he brought an infectious enthusiasm to his job, identifying himself on Twitter as the resort's "director of marketing, culture, and stoke." He was anxious to get out of the morning meeting because he had made plans to meet up with Jack, Brenan, and Black – all close friends – as soon as he could. They would be joined by another group invited by Rudolph that included former professional skier Elyse Saugstad, the 2008 Freeride World Tour champion; prominent industry folk like John Stifter, editor of Powder, who was there doing a story on night skiing at the resort; and reporters like Megan Michelson, the freeskiing editor at Everyone would gather at 11:15 am at the "coffee deck," a popular on-slope watering hole, to finalize plans about where to ski. The marketing could wait.