Sunday, September 1, 2013

Part 185 - Death at Steven's Pass

This was the day I would arrive at Stevens Pass and would be spending the night at the last trail angel's home on the trail, Hiker Haven, located eighteen miles west on Highway 2 in the little town of Baring, and hosted by Andrea and Jerry Dinsmore.

I made an experiment this day regarding my food.  I was at the tail end of my 2,665-mile journey, and I was always famished.  I ate five to six meals a day, including snacks, which meant every two to three hours.  I had to stop and prepare something to eat, even if it was just another one of the hundreds of peanut butter and jam tortilla sandwiches I had eaten in the last four and a half months.

I had half a bag of Frito chips and four peanut butter cups left in my pack, both of which were highly caloric.  These were the only food items I ate this day, and to my great surprise, they provided me with enough energy to complete the day’s hike, without feeling starved.

From Piper Pass, it was fifteen miles to Stevens Pass, and the trail going forward was much like the trail I had traveled on for the last three days.  First, the trail climbed thirteen hundred feet to its high point around Sunrise Lake, and then descended seventeen hundred feet to the highway at the pass.

Nearing the pass, I walked under another set of heavy-duty transmission lines that brought “hydroelectricity from the Columbia basin east of the Cascades to the cities of the coast,” [3] and shortly thereafter, I encountered the tall, steel pylons that marched straight up the slopes of the mountain carrying cables and ski chairs for the ski lifts at Stevens Pass.

Death at Stevens Pass 

The ski resort at Stevens Pass was the site of a very tragic avalanche accident that occurred on February 19, 2012.  A group of friends, well known to each other, were sharing beers in a restaurant at Stevens Pass, when the subject of a ski run down Tunnel Creek drainage was suggested for the following day, Sunday, February 19.

Tunnel Creek drainage is a three-thousand-foot descent down the backside of Cowboy Mountain to Highway 2 that meanders up the mountain to Stevens Pass.  It’s out of bounds and off-limits to skiers, and not managed for avalanche control.  Anyone who ventures into this terrain and gets into trouble is on their own, although, in practicality, search and rescue personnel will respond when it’s a matter of life and death.

The small group eventually blossomed to a group of fifteen, all of whom were expert skiers, and many had skied Tunnel Creek numerous times.

Ski conditions were perfect, sort of; twenty-six inches of powder had fallen in the last twenty-four hours, and the day offered clear weather and blue skies.

The group rode the Skyline Express ski lift to the top of the mountain, and then transferred to the Seventh Heaven ski lift leading to the top of Cowboy Mountain.  After getting off the Seventh Heaven ski lift, it was only a short ten-minute walk to the summit of Cowboy Mountain.  Some in the group had deep reservations about making the run, but said nothing.  They deferred to the most experienced members of the group, figuring, incorrectly, that they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t safe.

Before starting the descent, four members of the party split off to try a different run, leaving eleven, very experienced backcountry skiers, trained in avalanche safety and equipped with the proper gear, to go it alone.  Pairing up in twos to provide support for one another, they started down, periodically stopping in the trees to keep in contact with one another and to assess the progress of their run.

A group of four stopped momentarily in a stand of old-growth spruce trees, while the remaining seven plunged on down the chute, whooping and hollering and congratulating each other on how great the powder was.

And then, above the seven, the crack appeared, creating a shelf two feet deep and hundreds of feet wide.  A wall of snow twenty-five feet high roared down Tunnel Creek drainage, sweeping anything and everything in its path to the bottom of the chute.  Seven were caught in the maelstrom of the avalanche and only four survived.

The three who died that day were forty-six-year-old Jim Jack, a legend at Stevens Pass and a longtime ski patroller at nearby Mission Ridge and head judge on the Freeskiing World Tour; thirty-year-old Chris Rudolph, marketing director for Stevens Pass; and forty-one-year-old Johnny Brenan, a local contractor.

One of the survivors, thirty-year-old Elyse Saugstad, a pro skier from Lake Tahoe, was wearing an ABS airbag backpack.  As she was being swept down the chute, she was able to yank the cord and activate the devise which inflated two giant air bladders, which allowed her to float on the surface of the avalanche rather than being buried at the bottom of it as two of her companions were.  Both Chris Rudolph and John Brenan were buried under more than six feet of snow and debris.

Megan Michelson, a member of the group and the author of the article that appeared in Outside Magazine, wrote this:

"All of the warning signs had been there, glaring and obvious: heaps of new snow, terrain that would funnel a slide into a gully, a large and confident group with a herd mentality, and a forecast that warned of dangerous avalanche conditions.  All of us had been trained to recognize these risk factors, yet we did not heed them.” (Michelson)

No comments:

Post a Comment