(SEATTLE) — Three advanced skiers died Sunday when an avalanche pushed them down the back side a mountain pass and ski area in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, while a fourth survived the slide by using an inflatable safety device.
“We were at the top of our run and we were going through the protocol that we use to take when we’re out in the back country,” Pro skier Elyse Saugstad, the survivor, told Good Morning America today. “I think there were a few of us that were down below the avalanche. We thought we were in a safe zone, but ended up being swept in the avalanche.
“It happened really fast, ultimately I think you don’t have much time to react,” she added. “The first thing that came to my mind was to use my airbag device.
The deadly avalanche surprised a group of 15 skiers who were exploring outside the resort boundaries in search of fresh powder at Stevens Pass, about 80 miles northeast of Seattle. Skiing outside the boundaries as a practice is not illegal, but it is considered dangerous.
“It’s public land so the Forest Service basically requires to have open boundaries so people can ski out in the open ski area if they want, if they are on their own,” John Gifford, general manager of Stevens Pass told ABC News.
The Northwest Avalanche Center had put out a warning telling the public of a high-avalanche-danger alert for areas above 5,000 feet, indicating that warm weather could loosen snow. Police officials confirmed the group knew about the warning.
“Everyone that is skiing was an experienced skier, and they were all wearing their avalanche beacons,” Deputy Chris Bedker of the King County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue said, referring to a device worn to help find people who have been buried in snow.
Around noon Sunday the avalanche took three men and one woman downhill almost 3,000 feet. Among the three men who died were free-skiing world tour judge Jim Jack, Stevens Pass Marketing Director Chris Rudolph and skier John Brenan. ESPN’s free skiing editor Megan Michelson was also skiing with the group but was not caught in the slide that killed the three men.
Saugstad ultimately survived the avalanche, too, and crediting her airbag for saving her life.
“[Saugstad] was wearing an avalanche rescue system — an ABS — it’s basically an airbag system that she deployed and assisted her in surviving the avalanche,” Deputy Bedker said Sunday.
Such devices typically contain two airbags that allow a person to float on top of an avalanche slide rather than being buried beneath it.
“It’s a relative new thing in America,” Saugstad said. “There’s a system where you have a lever on the chest part of the backpack. You pull a lever … it keeps you so you’re staying on top of the avalanche. It’s not like an inner-tube ride. It’s kind of like you’re in a washing machine.
“You don’t know which way is up, but the system keeps you up above. It literally was like being in cement. All I could do was keep the snow off my face and wait for my friends to come [help] me,” Saugstad said.
The other skiers in the group were able to free themselves from the snow, and quickly made their way to dig out those still buried. Reports of the avalanche reached the sheriff’s office shortly after noon and ski patrol officials had reached the group by 12:50 p.m.
Stevens Pass is one of the most popular outdoor recreation destinations on the Northwest, particularly for skiing, snowboarding and backpackers.
About two hours south at Snoqualomi Pass, a snowboarder was killed after another avalanche struck Sunday and he went over a cliff. Rescue video taken earlier this month shows a man being rescued when an avalanche buried him next to his snowmobile.
There have now been 13 avalanche deaths this winter season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Experts have said that a weak base layer of snow caused by a dry winter has lead to the dangerous conditions.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Eric Bradner, CNN
Kevin Liptak, Peter Morris and Shimon Prokupecz, CNN