Tragedy at Stevens Pass

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.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.”

Seventh heaven, the chair up Cowboy Mountain to Tunnel Creek, is an old and rickety double-seater that climbs steeply up the mountainside. At 11:30 am, the group hopped off the chair, passed through an open gate separating in-bounds from out, and began the steep 15-minute hike up Cowboy Ridge to the peak of Cowboy Mountain. Other skiers had come through this way that morning, breaking a trail, so the climb was manageable. “I saw Johnny [Brenan] on the way up,” Stifter says, “and I told him that I missed seeing him at the bonfire the night before. He just smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I was with the wife and kids.'” By 11:45 am, they had all reached the top, everyone smiling, getting geared up, and ready to go. A meadow of beautiful, untracked snow stretched out below them.

“We realized how big the group was by then and started separating ourselves and partnering up,” Stifter says. He remembers Rudolph, in particular, being eager to start skiing. “I saw Chris, and he shouted at me, ‘Remember when we skied this together four years ago?'” They split into groups that would go down separately, pulling into avalanche-safe spots on the slope to wait for one another and make sure they stayed together. Rudolph, Brenan, Saugstad, and Rob Castillo, a skier from Seattle, decided to join up, heading down before Jack. “We discussed what line we were going to ski and how we were going to ski it,” Saugstad says. “I remember feeling excited to be there with this group and knew the snow was going to be really good. Chris went first, then me, and I was hooting the entire way because the snow was so awesome.” They stopped about 500 feet down at a cluster of old-growth trees (trees are typically considered avalanche-safe because their roots offer anchorage for the snow). “We were all just chatting about where to head next.”

At the top, Jack and Keith Carlsen, a photographer working for Powder, readied themselves. “We knocked fists through ski gloves,” Carlsen says, “smiled at each other, and then I said, ‘Have a great run.’ Jim smiled back, let out a big whoop, and pushed out onto the apron of untouched snow.” Jack went first, dropping into the meadow, skiing between the tracks of those who had already gone down, another backcountry safety measure. A powerful and graceful skier, his turns were smooth and fast. About 100 yards from the top, at 11:57 am, he leaned into a hard turn, the last he would ever make. “As he angled left into the fall line,” Carlsen later wrote in Powder, Jack sank his skis and body into “the comforting embrace of over two feet of powder.” Then the mountain released.

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’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.”

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.”

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.

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