Tragedy at Stevens Pass
Credit: Courtesy Chase Jarvis
A 30-foot-wide slab of snow gave way beneath Jack, his skis tangling in the torrent. As far as avalanches go, it was a relatively small, and probably survivable, slide. But then two other slabs broke free, transforming the slide, in seconds, into a 200-foot-wide wall of cascading snow. The entire slope surged forward, continuing to gain speed and power as it ripped through the Tunnel Creek gulley, snapping trees like toothpicks as it descended 2,400 vertical feet in just 45 seconds.

Moments before the avalanche struck, Stifter was standing at the top with ESPN.com's Megan Michelson and her then fiancé, Dan Abrams. "I was next in line to ski when the mountain came down," Stifter says, the emotional strain evident as he recalls the event months later. "There wasn't any sound. No crack or roar, nothing violent. Jim Jack just disappeared in the white." Stifter immediately reached for his mobile phone and called Rudolph to see if he was all right, and Abrams tried Jack. Stifter noted the time on his phone: 11:59 am. Neither answered.

Rudolph, Brenan, Saugstad, and Castillo were waiting at the safe zone as Jack made his last turn, directly in the path of the avalanche. Saugstad, like Stifter, says she didn't hear the avalanche, but only became aware of it when she saw it hurtling at her through the trees. "I saw this plume of snow coming at us; it looked like smoke. It was really surreal. Rudolph started yelling, 'Elyse, avalanche! Avalanche!'" Saugstad, Rudolph, and Brenan were knocked from their feet as the snow collapsed beneath them, swallowed by the slide. Castillo was lucky enough to grab hold of a tree, bear-hugging it as the avalanche cascaded over his head. He survived and would later assist with the rescue. The others were swept away. "I was tumbling and turning and tossing," Saugstad says. "I couldn't see anything, I didn't know which way was up, and I could feel myself bumping against the tops of trees. The slide would pick up speed and then slow down. I remember thinking a couple of times that it was about to stop, and then it would pick up speed again, like a roller coaster. After a few seconds, when I realized, like, this thing isn't stopping, I started to think, 'Holy shit, this is the end. I'm going to die here.'"

Her goggles were wrenched violently away from her face, and she lost her ski poles and one ski (and her nose ring). "It all happened really quickly, and only Chris yelling gave me a sensation of what was going on. That's when I pulled my air bag." Saugstad was wearing a specially designed backpack, which came equipped with an emergency air bag that allowed her to stay close to the surface of the snow during the slide, and which likely prevented her from drowning in the frozen deluge. She ended up at the bottom of the gulley, almost entirely buried and unable to move, in snow "so wet and heavy it was akin to being stuck in concrete." She sat in stunned silence and waited for help. She had no way of knowing that Johnny Brenan was close to her, or that Chris Rudolph was a few yards away, buried facedown beneath six feet of snow.

"It was so quiet," Stifter says, describing the moments after the slide when he was still at the top. "You couldn't hear anything." The survivors immediately switched into search mode. "Nobody panicked. We were all really calm." Stifter started zigzagging slowly down the slide path, looking for beacon signals with Michelson and Abrams, who soon after broke off and headed directly for the bottom. Keith Carlsen came down a few minutes later. A snowboarder who had joined them that day found Saugstad trapped in the snow but unharmed, and dug her out, helped her get her bearings, and then enlisted her in the search for the others who may have been lost in the avalanche.

Stifter, meanwhile, was still methodically conducting his search, and didn't know the scale of the slide. "It didn't take long," he said, "before I realized it was a huge funnel, just this giant fucking terrain trap." Then, about halfway down, he found one of Johnny Brenan's skis hung up in a tree. "I picked it up, and as I traversed across the slope, it was like a bobsled track – everything was striated, and there were brown dirt marks on the side of the snow; it was just scarred. That's when I realized that this thing went big, and that they were all down at the bottom."

It was near the mouth of the gulley that Stifter picked up his first beacon signal. "It was a fucking mess," he says. "A serene landscape that just looked completely un-earthed. There were large snow boulders and broken trees." He twice probed the snow in the vicinity of where he was receiving the beacon signal. On the third attempt, he struck what proved to be Chris Rudolph's backpack. He started digging furiously, and more survivors joined the effort. "It took us about 10 to 15 minutes to pull [Rudolph] out," says Stifter, his eyes glazing with tears at the memory of recovering his friend's body. "His face was blue, his lips were purple, and his eyes were rolled back. I cleared his airway and checked for a pulse. He didn't have one."

Reacting on instincts and adrenaline, Stifter immediately started performing CPR. Time and motion blurred as he focused on the task at hand. "I remember being so present in the situation." he says. "There was no panic at all."

Saugstad was the one who discovered Brenan's body. She said that while he had some obvious injuries and his face was blue, she thought he might be alive, so she began CPR. Jack's badly broken figure was found later, farther down the slope. No one attempted CPR on him.

The ski patrollers, including an avalanche dog team, began heading to the scene at 12:15 pm. They quickly closed access to the area and took Seventh Heaven to the top of Cowboy Ridge. At 12:43 pm, three patrollers descended the slide path, while the dog team went around to the base of Tunnel Creek to assist with the rescue. Jack Soukup, the veteran ski patroller, says, "When we arrived, all the victims had been located and were being given CPR. They were really on top of it, but unfortunately there was nothing anyone could do."

Stifter helped perform CPR on Rudolph for 30 minutes, until one of the ski patrollers arrived and asked how long he'd been attempting to revive him. "When I told him," Stifter says, "he looked at Chris' body, and then told me to stop." Soukup later confirmed that all three men died from severe blunt trauma, possibly from the impact of colliding with trees as they tumbled down the mountain. They were dead before anyone had a chance to dig them out. "We broke out a space blanket and covered Chris up," Stifter recalls. "Then I just sat there next to him. I didn't want to leave. It just felt weird. It was awful. An absolute horror story."