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Avalanche Deaths

Ski-related avalanche deaths are troubling to skiers, but such tragedies cut hundreds of times deeper when the victims are part of your community as is the case with Leavenworth locals John Brenan, Jim Jack, and Chris Rudolph, who were all killed in an avalanche February 19 in the Stevens Pass sidecountry. The slide occurred on Sunday at about noon as a group of skiers that contained the victims descended the south-facing slopes of Cowboy Mountain feeding into the Tunnel Creek drainage. Details about the accident and the snow conditions of the day are described in these reports: 1) Wenatchee World 2) KOMO News 3) Tacoma News Tribune.

Of the three skiers that were killed I didn't know John, a 41-year-old father, skier, and contractor from the Upper Valley and I had only met Jim Jack, 46, a few times. Jim was a local legend who many in Leavenworth and in the wider ski world knew and admired for his positive energy and his lifestyle that kept his passions on the front burner.

Chris Rudolph, 30, was someone I knew better. He was the Marketing Director at Stevens Pass and I first met him professionally perhaps eight years ago. He had an easy way with people and I quickly came to enjoy his company. While I typically only saw him a few times a year, I always looked forward to an hour of talking or a half-day of skiing with him. He had a contagious passion for Stevens Pass, the mountains, and people who were part of the mountain culture. He attacked work, fun, and life, which were often interwoven, with enthusiasm and a can-do spirit. And the writer in me very much appreciated his expressive language. He usually encapsulated ideas or issues with colorful phrases -- I just had to record his nuggets and it made anything I was writing more readable. The very likable man who possessed these and many other qualities will leave a hole in the lives of many who considered him a friend and a crater in the lives of those close enough to love him.

I say this not to eulogize Chris more than the others but because Chris happens to be the one who leaves a hole in my life. John and and Jim will have the same impact among the people who knew or loved them. All of which is to say that this is a tragedy that will pull in complex ways in our small community where the strings binding us are all a tangle.

Since the accident, a number of news and radio stations have contacted WenatcheeOutdoors for comments. What happened? Were mistakes made? Why would you ever expose yourself to these risks? How can others avoid finding themselves in a deadly slide? How do we make sense of this?

What happened? I wasn't there and know only what the news has reported. Rather than speculate, I'll wait for those who were present and for the experts affiliated with Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) to compile an accounting of the accident and to analyze what took place before, during, and after the slide.

Were mistakes made? With the benefit of hindsight, those in attendance would undoubtedly make some different decisions about how to ski these slopes if they could push the reset button and do it all over again. This is not to cast judgement on the decisions that were made but, rather, a frank admission that we who partake in risky sports make mistakes -- some major, many minor. We who survive these mistakes do so not necessarily because we're more competent than others but often because we're luckier. The mistakes we make moving through the mountains might be compared to the mistakes we make driving. Drivers who are still alive have all had close calls of their own making (perhaps nodding off to sleep briefly or pulling into a lane with someone in their blind spot). If we are still among the living, we should feel blessed that we survived some incidents that others did not. Being a careful, safety-conscious driver reduces the odds of accidents, but even excellent drivers make mistakes, sometimes fatal ones.

Why would you ever expose yourself to these risks? The sidecountry skiing that took the lives of these three is fun, beautiful, and adrenaline inducing. It requires skills that are challenging but rewarding to develop. Powder skiing produces a sense of speed, weightlessness, and flight that is intoxicating.  Skiing with friends creates social connections, camaraderie, and a sense of shared accomplishment that is similar to the rewards of a team sport. Experiencing nature taps people into forces and thoughts that are bigger than themselves. In other words, those who pursue this kind of skiing (whether it's in the sidecountry or backcountry) receive multi-dimensional rewards from what they're doing. So while there are inherent danger affiliated with these activities, rather than avoid them skiers look for ways to evaluate and reduce them. Going back to the driving analogy, even though we know driving is inherently dangerous and that 40,000 Americans a year die in car accidents, those of us who have grown accustomed to what automobiles add to our lives are unwilling to give up driving -- we accept the risk.

How can others avoid finding themselves in a deadly slide? Short of not skiing ungroomed/uncontrolled areas (which is not a viable option for many), there is neither a simple nor definitive answer because we all have different goals, different experiences weighting what we believe to be true, different tolerances for risk, and different ways we exert or subvert our opinions in a group. In my own case as an older and less talented skier than the three who died, I'm no longer as concerned about pushing my personal limits as I once was. I'm also more patient and committed to avoiding injury than I was 15 or 20 years ago. In other words, I've grown more conservative. Each weekend I look at the avalanche hazard in the very different snow zones we can easily visit between Stevens Pass, the Icicle Canyon environs, Blewett Pass, and the Mission Ridge area, and I choose a zone where I'm confident I can find safe skiing. I choose a tour whose steepness and exposure to hazards is appropriate for the forecasted conditions. And I look for like-minded companions who have a similar tolerance for risk and who will object to any group think (i.e., herd mentality) that makes them uneasy. All of these steps help reduce, but do not eliminate, risk.

How do we make sense of this? Many won't find any sense here but, being a similar animal to these three, I believe I understand something about what made them tick. When I was 30 and considerably bolder than I am today, I told my parents that, should I die doing these things I loved, they were not to mourn the shortness of my life. I told them my outdoor passions defined much about who I was, what I believed, the way I lived, and what gave me joy. These passions, I told them, might also define how I died. I was OK with that and I needed my parents to understand that. A few decades later I’m not quite the same person I was then and I practice these same activities with more calculation, less risk, less confidence in my abilities, and more humility. I practice these activities with the belief that completing a descent or making a summit is optional but returning home is mandatory. Even so, given the fallibilities of my physical and mental talents, I lack total control of outdoor situations. It is entirely possible that someday I might flip the switch of my own demise. I hope my family never needs to grapple with the loss the families of John Brenan, Jim Jack, and Chris Rudolph now feel. And yet, being similar to these three skiers, I can speculate with high degree of confidence that they don't regret the lives they lived or the passions they lived for. I'm confident they would want us to miss them, but not pity them.

And so I say to my friend, Chris, I will miss you. I will miss your enthusiasm, energy, helpfulness, can-do spirit, and your use of words. I regret you did not live long and that your loved ones will feel such loss without you. That regret, however, is primarily reserved for them. I don't regret that you followed the passions that fueled and defined you. Your wallet may have been thin with time but it was fat with life.


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Info from the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club. Ski Hill Memorial for Johnny, Chris & Jim. Wednesday, Feb. 22nd, 6-7 p.m. Come to the Leavenworth Ski Hill to honor these three. Bring a headlamp to participate in a torchlight ski down the big hill at 6:45 p.m.