SEATTLE – When the snow broke loose, a group of expert skiers who watched in horror as a large avalanche swept their friends down a steep slope in Washington state immediately turned on their emergency beacons and began searching for signs of life.
Powder Magazine senior editor John Stifter, who witnessed the slide that killed three of his skiing companions Sunday, said one person survived by bear-hugging a tree and holding on as the snow barreled over him. Another skier who was caught in the slide was saved when she deployed an air bag designed to keep her afloat.
"It's an absolute horror story," Stifter said Monday.
Experts say once an avalanche has you in its grips, the chances of surviving are slim.
"The snow doesn't really care how experienced you are. It's not keeping track of experience level," said Mark Moore, an avalanche meteorologist and director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, which warned of extreme avalanche danger Tuesday. "Once you're in an avalanche, it has you at its mercy," he added.
Stifter identified the victims as Jim Jack, a well-known head judge for the Freeskiing World Tour; Stevens Pass marketing director Chris Rudolph; and Johnny Brenan, a Leavenworth contractor.
The Freeskiing World Tour and Utah's Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort had scheduled a gathering at the resort Monday afternoon to remember Jack, whom Stifter described as a generous, smart and influential in the ski industry.
The skiers were equipped with safety devices and kept track of each other as they strayed beyond the boundaries of the popular Stevens Pass Ski resort, about 90 miles northeast of Seattle. But the precautions still didn't save some from getting trapped, highlighting the risks of backcountry activity during a season of heightened avalanche dangers in the West.
Sunday's avalanche was relatively large, Moore said. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center rate Sunday's avalanche danger as considerable to high. Heavy snow had fallen in the Cascades on Saturday with widespread avalanches and strong winds, all red flags, Moore said.
"Most of our avalanches here are storm-related, so we get most of our avalanche activity during or immediately after a storm," Moore said. "It's very sad to have accidents like this happen. No matter how good the snow is, you still have to be objective about risk," he added.
Statistics show that 93 percent of avalanche victims can be recovered alive if dug out within 15 minutes, but survival rates drop quickly as time passes, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. After 45 minutes, only 20 to 30 percent of victims are alive. After two hours, few survive. People die because their carbon dioxide builds up in the snow around their mouth and they quickly die from carbon dioxide poisoning.
The Tunnel Creek canyon — where a snowboarder died in an avalanche last year — is outside the boundaries of Stevens Pass ski resort, but the area can be accessed by taking one of the resort's lifts to the top and hiking a short distance. The area is not controlled for avalanches.
Stifter said he and Jack skied in the resort until about 11:15 a.m. Sunday when they met up with Rudolph. Stifter was in Washington state on an assignment, but this "was just a fun run with friends."
He said he read the avalanche report that morning and knew avalanche dangers were considerable. He and others talked about it and determined they could ski it safely, he said. Jack and Rudolph had both skied the area countless times, he said.
Three of the 15 in the initial group peeled off and went a different way. Twelve others headed down, pairing up and skiing one by one, leapfrogging each other.
Each carried shovels and avalanche probes and wore avalanche beacons, a standard rescue device that allows rescuers to locate the signal of a victim if buried.
Stifter watched as Jim Jack made three turns, and then he saw a pocket of snow pop out. "Holy smokes! This is huge," Stifter recalled, when they realized how huge the avalanche was.
"We immediately pulled out our transceivers, designated a leader and spaced out 30 feet, zig-zagging all the way down," hoping to pick up their friends' signals, Stifter said.
Eventually, they picked up on the first signal and began digging furiously. They found Rudolph face down. Stifter performed CPR for about 30 minutes to no avail. Another group worked on digging out Brenan and Jack.
Professional skier Elyse Saugstad told NBC's "Today Show" she's convinced the airbag she deployed immediately — which she carried in a backpack and deployed with a lever by her chest — saved her life.
"It's lifting you kind of up above the avalanche," Saugstad said Monday. "It's not like you're taking an inner tube ride down some snowy field. ... It feels like you're in a washing machine."
Only Saugstad had an air bag, Stifter said. Airbags range from about $600 to $1,000. They have been widely used in Europe with reports of high survival rates, but they have become popular in the U.S. only recently.
An avalanche beacon, shovel and probe are among the mandatory rescue items for those heading into the backcountry, but experts say it's best to avoid avalanches entirely.
"The truth is, if you have to use your beacon, it means you've made a big mistake," said Benj Wadsworth, executive director of the Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, a nonprofit that works with the center to promote avalanche education and safety. "The focus of avalanche education is to keep you out of avalanche in the first place."
Adds Moore: "There are all of these technological things that will help us, but they're not a talisman that you can wave at the snowpack. You can't wave your beacon or your airbag at the snowpack. It's not going to make you safe. It's going to help you when get in trouble. You take the stuff with you, but you don't rely on them to extend your risk."