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3 experienced skiers die in Washington avalanche, 4th dies in separate incident

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 9:06 PM EST, Mon February 20, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A fourth man died in an avalanche elsewhere in Washington, his family says
  • John Brenan, Jim Jack and Chris Rudolph are killed in the Cascade Mountains
  • Professional skier Elyse Saugstad credits an airbag backpack for her survival
  • She recalls swiftly "taking more than a 2,000-foot ride down an avalanche"

(CNN) -- The close-knit community of backcountry skiing was in mourning Monday, a day after an avalanche in Washington state killed a prominent judge in the extreme sport plus two other experienced skiers.

The avalanche occurred Sunday in the Cascade Mountains about three miles west of the Stevens Pass ski area, said John Gifford, general manager of that resort.

The dead included Stevens Pass marketing director Chris Rudolph, who was described on the ski area's website as "a man of endless charisma and charm, whose vision and dedication to Stevens Pass helped shape the mountain we all love today."

Another victim was John Brenan, whom the website called "an enthusiastic Leavenworth local, events host and former ski patroller."

The third man killed was Jim Jack, head judge of the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour. With events from Chile to Canada, that competitive circuit bills itself on its website as the "longest running and most prestigious competitive big mountain skiing tour in the world."

According to that organization's Facebook page, there was a 4 p.m. MT (6 p.m. ET) memorial Monday at the Snowbird ski area in Utah to honor Jack, who was called "our brother and (an) amazing freeskiing spirit," and the two other victims. More than 100 people attended the event, according to the Seattle Times.

"This is unreal," wrote one commenter. "Jim Jack, you will be so missed."

The three were among a group of about 12 skiers that included staffers from ESPN and Powder magazine, which both offered accounts of the incident.

The designated out-of-bounds area they were all in was not closed, and they were allowed to be there, said Deputy Chris Bedker of the King County Sheriff's Office.

"Nature happened," added Katie Larson, also from the sheriff's office, noting that those in the group were experienced and had the required equipment.

John Stifler, Powder magazine's senior editor, said that Jack -- the seventh skiier to head down the slope -- triggered the avalanche.

The barreling snow rapidly enveloped Jack, Brenan, Rudolph and professional skier Elyse Saugstad.

Saugstad told The Seattle Times on Sunday that she recalled hearing someone yell "Avalanche!"

"The next thing I knew, I was taking more than a 2,000-foot ride down an avalanche, tumbling and turning and tossing the entire way," she told the newspaper.

On her website, Saugstad said that she ended up being buried partially and survived "on account of the inflation of my ABS Avalanche Airbag Backpack." That device allowed her to keep her head and arms above the snow.

After the avalanche hit, "almost all" the skiers were "buried in snow," said Larson of the King County Sheriff's Office. Those who could dug themselves out and then located Brenan, Jack and Rudolph.

"They (began) CPR and, unfortunately, were not able to resuscitate the victims," Larson said.

On the same day and about 25 miles away, Karl Milanoski, 41, was traversing an area he'd "skied many times" when fresh snow "collapsed to what was a cliff and Karl fell between 500 to 1,000 feet to his death," according to a website set up to raise memorial funds for his family.

Milanoski, who is survived by a 10-year-old daughter, was "an expert skier and snowboarder (who was) always very cautious," according to the website.

A posting on the Facebook page of Alpental, a backcountry skiing area affiliated with the Summit at Snoqualmie around where this avalanche reportedly occurred, said, "Our thoughts and prayers to all the families and friends of those lost in the mountains today. A tough day for the mountain community!"

Backcountry skiing draws people looking for "better turns (and) less people," said Michelle "Meesh" Hytner, who was not part of the Washington group and who recently survived a avalanche in Colorado.

Hytner expressed fears that the risks -- at least this year -- may outweigh the rewards.

"There are a lot of reasons to go out of bounds, but ... I don't want anything else to happen to anybody," she told CNN. "It's just so sad."

CNN's Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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