The Stevens Pass tragedy ended up being a small part of a national problem, with 34 people losing their lives to avalanches in the U.S. this year. It's a problem that seems to be growing worse. Three of the four worst years on record for avalanche-related deaths have occurred since 2007, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Interestingly, it tends to be the more advanced skiers with ample backcountry experience who are dying. "It's now the people who know better," says Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center. "In the past, we felt once you're in the hardcore category, you're more low-risk. But now, everybody is pushing it to the extreme." Jack, Rudolph, and Brenan followed all the established safety protocols, and they had the right gear – they did everything right, except deciding to ski out-of-bounds in the first place. NWAC director Mark Moore cautions that experience and skill mean little if you get caught in an avalanche. "Once you're in an avalanche, it has you at its mercy. The snow doesn't care how experienced you are."
Credit: Courtesy Chase Jarvis
Stifter has struggled in the aftermath of the tragedy. He felt grateful to be alive but guilt-ridden at the memory of what happened. What if he had gone down in Jim Jack's group? Would someone be mourning him? Would Chris Rudolph have wanted to go to Tunnel Creek if he hadn't been entertaining out-of-town guests like him? He suffered through horrific nightmares in which he relived the slide, and experienced panic attacks when he was awake.
A lifelong skier and an editor devoted to the sport, Stifter refused to return to the slopes for months. "People would say, 'John, you gotta get out there and ski for those guys,'" he says. "But I was like, I'm done with this shit. Something so sacred for me became toxic."
He finally did ski again, though, in May, on a late spring day at Mammoth Mountain in California. "I think Jim, Chris, and Johnny wouldn't want me to quit," he says. "I had so much fun. I know this is a cliché, but I made that first turn, and it felt right."
Kitt Doucette wrote about advances in snowmaking technology in the April 2012 issue.