Tragedy at Stevens Pass
Credit: Courtesy Chase Jarvis
John stifter's morning started slowly. He'd been up late the night before, working on his story and drinking beer around a bonfire, and he wanted to relax before he headed to the slopes. He sipped his coffee and read the avalanche report for the day. Stifter, recalling that morning months later from his home in California, says, "I remember feeling really lucky that this was my life, that my job had brought me here, and that I could look forward to a day of powder skiing with friends. I was living my dream." Unlike Brenan and Jack, he didn't make it to the hill until around 9:45 am. Then he did a few in-bounds runs before heading to the coffee deck.

At the coffee deck, the group, which by now had grown to more than a dozen skiers, got themselves organized to head to Tunnel Creek, an accessible side-country area. (As opposed to backcountry, side-country can be reached from in-bounds ski lifts.) Tunnel Creek is a large gulley on Cowboy Mountain with a wide array of terrain and a sustained vertical drop, making it a popular out-of-bounds spot for skiers looking for untracked snow. Tunnel Creek is also a dangerous avalanche zone: A slide there had killed a snowboarder in March 2011. After a couple of hours struggling to keep up with Jack and Brenan, Black, who wasn't in great skiing shape, decided not to push himself at Tunnel Creek. He said his goodbyes, and they all agreed to find each other again after the lifts closed for a few cold PBRs, Jack's favorite beer. It was then that Black saw Jack alive for the last time, at the coffee deck, "drinking a cup of coffee, smiling his ass off, surrounded by friends, recounting the best turns of the morning, and getting psyched for more."

Jack, Brenan, and Rudolph were all experienced backcountry skiers who knew Tunnel Creek and understood its risks. They always called for an avalanche report before going out-of-bounds, including that day. At 11:15 am, Rudolph checked with NWAC, and conditions remained "considerable." They finished their coffees, double-checked their radio-controlled avalanche beacons, strapped shovels and collapsible avalanche probes onto their packs, and, in high spirits, headed for Tunnel Creek. Had they called a few minutes later, they might have changed their minds: The NWAC had detected rising temperatures in the area. Warmer conditions could cause the new snowfall to condense, forming a dangerously thick and heavy slab on top of the weak layers of faceted snowpack. At 11:26 am, shortly after the group left the coffee deck, NWAC upgraded the danger level to "high."