Three killed in avalanche at Stevens Pass

Feb 20, 2012, 4:04 AM | Updated: 1:13 pm

It’s what back-country skiers live for. A blanket of fresh powder. No tracks in the snow. A chance to put their skills to the test.

It’s what brought more than a dozen skiers to Tunnel Creek, an area outside the ropes off Stevens’ 7th Heaven chairlift. But there was extreme avalanche danger on Sunday, and three of them did not make it off the mountain alive.

“That’s the risk that we take,” Joel Hammond, who was with the group, told KING 5. “That’s part of the sport, but it’s also what we live for. That’s what those three guys lived for. That’s what drove those amazing people.”

The group was caught up in a cascade of fresh powder. They were pushed through and intro trees, nearly 1,500 feet down the mountain. Many were buried by the fast moving avalanche. Most were able to dig themselves out. But three could not. They died in the snow, despite their friends best efforts to revive them.

John Gifford, the General Manager at Stevens Pass, said “It’s a sad day.”

“It’s tough when you have a death, and when you have three at one time, it’s really hard on all the staff.”

Especially hard on that staff considering one of the men killed was Chris Rudolph, the Marketing Director at Stevens.

A fourth skier buried by the snow survived the avalanche because she was wearing an inflatable safety vest that she was able to deploy. It kept Elyse Saugstad near the top of the snow, allowing her head to stay above it, but she told Good Morning America it wasn’t an easy ride.

“I will say it’s not like you’re actually having an inner-tube ride down the snow it’s definitely not like that,” she said. “You are still very much in the avalanche itself. It’s kind of like you’re in a washing machine, and you’re being tossed and turned. You don’t know which was is up or down.”

All the skiers caught up in this avalanche had extensive back-country experience. They were all well-prepared for the conditions, and they were using all the safety precautions for back country skiing, including skiing with buddies and going one person at a time.

The Stevens Pass fatalities were part of a deadly Sunday on Washington ski slopes. A male snowboarder was killed in a separate avalanche incident at the Alpental ski area east of Seattle, authorities said.

Stevens Pass is one of the most popular outdoor recreation areas in the state, with visitors flocking to the scenic site to go cross-country, back-country and downhill skiing, as well as snowshoeing and backpacking.

Across the West, there had been 13 avalanche deaths this season as of Thursday, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which tracks avalanche deaths in the U.S.

Experts have said the risk of additional slides in the region could remain high all season. They attribute the dangers in part to a weak base layer of snow caused by a dry winter.

Avalanche deaths are more common in the backcountry than at ski resorts. Out of about 900 avalanche deaths nationwide since the winter of 1950-51, 32 were within terrain that was open for riding at ski resorts, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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