When the avalanche ripped, there was no sound—no rumbling, no snapping of trees, no screams from any of the seven people who’d just skied the untracked 42-degree slope off the back side of Washington’s Stevens Pass resort. I watched as my friend Jim Jack, 46, dropped in and crested a roll in the terrain. That’s when the snow cracked in a concave line two feet deep and 30 feet wide, shattering into blocks that began to tumble slowly before picking up speed. Lower, beyond where I could see, the slope fractured again, dislodging another sheet of snow into a steep, narrow chute more than a thousand feet below us. In the distance, I saw the top boughs rattling on a tall spruce.
It was nearly noon on Sunday, February 19, 2012, clear and windless after two days of stormy weather. We were in the Tunnel Creek drainage, a 3,000-vertical-foot swath descending southward to Washington’s Highway 2. Twenty-six inches of snow had fallen in the past 48 hours. According to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center’s subsequent incident report, the avalanche—our avalanche—was a 32-inch-deep-by-200-foot-wide slab that traveled 2,650 vertical feet down a twisting, tree-ringed chute. Four of the seven skiers ahead of me were caught, and three of them were killed. The five of us left standing above the release point had no idea how big the slide would become and how much damage it would do.
Twenty minutes earlier, we’d glided out the open backcountry gates from Stevens for some powder skiing. There were at least a dozen of us—a mix of locals and visitors, some of whom had just met for the first time. We skied, as everyone does who leaves the resort boundary, at our own risk.
As recently as the '90s, most resorts kept these backcountry boundaries closed. But starting around 2000, areas like Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Telluride, and Vail responded to the huge demand for more adventurous skiing and opened their gates. Last year, 4.2 percent of the nation’s 10.2 million skiers ventured into the backcountry. But with increased use comes increased risk. The average annual number of avalanche fatalities in the U.S. has been slowly notched up since the 1990s, from 15 to the current 29 per year. Last winter saw 34 people, including snowmobilers, die in avalanches, thanks to an especially unstable snowpack across the West. Thirty-seven people died in 2007.
Standing alongside me in disbelief at the top of that slope were my fiancé, Dan Abrams, 34, who owns the ski-clothing company Flylow; John Stifter, 29, the editor of Powder magazine; ski photographer Keith Carlsen, 38; and Salomon sales rep Joel Hammond, 38. A group of six had already dropped in ahead of Jim. They were Chris Rudolph, the 30-year-old marketing director of Stevens Pass; Elyse Saugstad, 33, a pro freeskier; Johnny Brenan, 41, a local contractor and father of two; Rob Castillo, 41, from Seattle; Wenzel Peikert, 29, a Stevens ski instructor; and Tim Wangen, 54, a landscaper and longtime Stevens local. Another two snowboarders and a skier had split off and disappeared onto a different run down the ridge.
We were all expert skiers trained in avalanche safety and equipped with the proper gear. Many in the group had skied Tunnel Creek hundreds of times in similar conditions. The snow in the Pacific Northwest, heavier and with higher moisture content, is often more stable than elsewhere in the West, and reports from those who’d skied Tunnel Creek just a day earlier had suggested that the snow conditions were solid. We practiced responsible backcountry travel, skiing one at a time, close to the tree line, and waiting for each other in sheltered groves of ancient spruce trees.
Jack was a Stevens Pass legend, a longtime ski patroller at nearby Mission Ridge and the head judge on the Freeskiing World Tour, where he was known as someone who preached controlled, responsible skiing, even in a contest where the most extreme run wins. He was 30 feet below us when he triggered the avalanche and vanished.
Hammond scooted down to the fracture line and spotted Jack’s ski sticking out of the snow but no sign of Jack. “Turn your beacons to search!” he shouted. We clicked our transceivers over and edged down into the slide path one at a time, trying to pick up the digital pulses that Jack’s beacon was now sending from somewhere beneath the snow.