Stevens Pass Avalanche: 4 Dead in Washington Cascade Mountains
Three expert skiers and one snowboarder are dead after a series of avalanches hit the Stevens Pass resort and the surrounding area in the Cascade Mountains of Washington on Sunday. The second avalanche, which wiped out a group of fifteen skiers, included professional skier Elyse Saugstad, who survived with minor injuries. REUTERS

Three expert skiers and one snowboarder are dead after two avalanches hit ski resorts near Stevens Pass resort in the Cascade Mountains of Washington on Sunday.

The first avalanche struck around 11:30 a.m. at Alpental, one of four areas at The Summit resort. It claimed the life of a 41-year-old Seattle man who has yet to be identified. The King County Sheriff's Office said the snowboarder, who was swept about 500 feet over a cliff, triggered the avalanche himself while he was in an off-trail area. His friend quickly called for help, but rescue workers were unable to find the snowboarder until an hour and a half later.

The second avalanche, in an out-of-bounds area of Stevens Pass, swept through a group of 15, many of them expert skiers. All the back-country skiers were partly or wholly buried in snow. Those that could free themselves rushed to dig out the victims and perform CPR on those crushed by the wave.

This avalanche claimed three lives. The victims have been identified as Chris Rudolph, 30, the Stevens Pass marketing director; Jim Jack, 46, a free-skiing judge; and John Brenan, age unknown. It is Washington's deadliest avalanche in years.

Avalanche Warnings Near Stevens Pass

High avalanche warnings had already been issued for some areas in and around the Stevens Pass ski resort Sunday morning, and both the snowboarder and group of skiers on the mountain that day were navigating in an out-of-bounds areas.

But for them, it was just another day out on the slopes. Most of the people in the second group were local experts, and had skied across the back-country valley many times before.

Professional skier Elyse Saugstad was one of them. In an interview with The Vancouver Sun, Saugstad said her group had been following back-country protocol all morning. Each skied with a buddy, and crossed the slopes one at a time.

'It's White the Entire Way'

Suddenly, however, the snow started sliding.

Saugstad's buddy started the alarm: Avalanche! To Saugstad, it only felt like a tiny rush of loose snow running beneath her feet.

In the next instant, she was slammed so heavily with snow that she was tumbling down the slope, rolling over and banging into debris under the weight and pressure of the deadly force.

I was taking more than a 2,000-foot ride down an avalanche, tumbling and turning and tossing the entire way, Saugstad told the Sun.

Thinking fast, the professional skier immediately pulled the lever on her avalanche safety backpack. An airbag inside is designed to lift the skier above the avalanche to avoid being buried in the snow.

Saugstad was battered by the Stevens Pass avalanche, which still covered her in snow.

It's white the entire way---it's very scary, she said on The Today Show. I tried to remain calm, tried not to freak out. I finally thought to yell 'help' and it was just magically then that the first guy showed up.

In the end, Saugstad suffered only minor injuries. Three of her friends would not be so lucky, tumbling approximately 1,500 feet down a chute in the Tunnel Creek Canyon area. The three men who died in the avalanche were buried only a few feet away from Saugstad and her other friends.

We didn't anticipate it, but when we saw it happening we knew exactly what was happening, she told Today. It's amazing how quickly an avalanche happens and it progresses.

'Sometimes Nature Is Bigger Than We Are'

Megan Michelson, free-skiing editor for ESPN, was also part of the expedition, and helped the other survivors look for victims of the avalanche.

It was well-trafficked, Michelson said of the area near Stevens Pass, stressing that the skiers were all very experienced and very well-equipped. Obviously, we assume a risk when you ski in the backcountry... It was a great loss.

It's nature, Katie Larson, spokeswoman for King County Sheriff's Office, added in a statement to The Sun. I don't want to make it seem trite, but sometimes nature is bigger than we are.

With 18 inches of fresh snow in northern Washington, avalanche warnings are still in effect at ski resorts across the state. Skiers and snowboarders are urged to use caution if they plan to visit resorts over the next few days.