It was a beautiful Monday morning in the Austrian Alps when six young US ski racers set off for a day of freeskiing.
But what should have been a relaxing morning on the slopes of Sölden turned into tragedy when the group skied down an unmarked, ungroomed slope and unwittingly caused an avalanche.
The 13-minute “Off Piste: Tragedy in the Alps” movie, released by the Bryce and Ronnie Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS), opens with a dramatic re-enactment of the moment immediately after the huge avalanche engulfed two future ski stars on the US youth team on January 5, 2015.
Their four team mates frantically dug in the snow to find them, to no avail. When the two Americans were finally found, buried under 12 feet of snow, Austrian rescue workers tried to resuscitate them, but it was too late. Bryce Astle, 19, and Ronnie Berlack, 20, were pronounced dead at the scene.
“We stood there, and we watched them go,” one of their team mates, Eric Arvidsson, says in the movie. “Nothing made any sense.”
The short film, executive produced by Cindy and Steve Berlack, Ronnie’s parents, and Bryce’s parents, Jamie and Laura Astle, tries to answer two questions.
First, how could this happen to two US Olympic skiing hopefuls who had grown up in the mountains? And second, what can be done to prevent it from happening again?
“Right from the time of Ronnie and Bryce’s accident it’s been the goal of the families to use the tragedy as an opportunity to educate others,” says BRASS chairman Jamie Astle on the foundation’s website.
“For that reason, we wanted to be very candid and forthcoming with the film to reach viewing audiences with a very simple yet poignant message.”
The movie features some of the sport’s biggest names, including Olympic champions Bode Miller and Mikaela Shiffrin, who befriended Ronnie while they attended the Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont.
After the dramatic opening scene, the “Off Piste” movie cuts to home videos of Bryce and Ronnie, celebrating a fourth birthday, playing baseball and taking their first turns on skis.
It is a deeply moving segment that brings home the gaping hole their deaths have left in their families’ lives.
“He always had my back, and it makes you appreciate it a lot more now that he is not here,” says Chris Astle, Bryce’s younger brother, choking back tears.
Bryce Astle grew up in the mountains of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. He had been a top junior technical skier in North America and was the US junior giant slalom champion.
Ronnie Berlack was raised in Franconia, New Hampshire. Berlack, who joined the US development squad in 2013, also excelled in other sports, including soccer, tennis, cycling and sailing.
On New Year’s Day 2015, the pair traveled to Sölden, near Innsbruck, to train for a Europa Cup event, the tier below the World Cup.
When training was canceled because of heavy snowfall, the US coaches gave the development team part of the day off to do some free skiing.
With mostly clear blue skies, sunshine and lots of fresh snow, the young men started from the top of the 3,058-meter (10,000 feet) Gaislachkogl, one of three peaks above 3,000 meters in Sölden.
At 9:40 a.m., the group left the prepared piste to go down a steep ungroomed slope that connected to another marked and groomed trail about 1,200 feet below.
“I initially remember skiing across this face, and all of a sudden, I just heard cracking,” said US skier Drew Duffy, one of the four men who escaped the avalanche.
“I saw Bryce and heard him say ‘Oh s—.’ I never even saw Ronnie,” said Arvidsson.
A 21-page “Sölden Avalanche Accident Report” into the tragedy on the BRASS website concluded it is “likely that their collective weight triggered the avalanche.”
The Austrian authorities later said the avalanche was of medium size, meaning it was strong enough to destroy a small building. Its weight was equivalent to 10 Boeing 747 airplanes.
Ronnie and Bryce were found deep under the cement-like snow almost an hour later, via digging and probing by their four remaining team mates, along with two European skiers who had gone down the slope minutes earlier, and local rescue services.
“That was an image that I will never forget,” said US skier Addison Dvoracek.
Could it have been prevented?
The 2015 accident report, conducted by Bruce Tremper, the retired director of the Utah Avalanche Center, cited a lack of clarity in avalanche warnings, snow safety education and knowledge of the local ski environment by athletes and coaches on the US ski team as “primary issues.”
“None of the young men in that group knew the difference between on and off piste,” Ronnie’s father Steve Berlack says in the film. “Off piste in the United States is defined as out of bounds, going through a gate. In Europe, when you are off a groomer you are off piste.”
In addition, the avalanche warning signs were all in German, while none of the skiers carried avalanche gear such as a beacon or a shovel.
’Change avalanche warning systems’
Since the deaths, the Astle and Berlack families have campaigned for changes in warning systems along with education to prevent avalanche accidents.
In October, Cindy Berlack addressed a conference of 1,000 avalanche experts in Innsbruck.
Five things to remember when going off piste:
- 1. Get the gear
- 2. Get the training
- 3. Get the forecast
- 4. Get the picture
- 5. Get out of harm's way
- (Source: BRASS)
“I am not a snow scientist,” she said. “I am an emotionally driven mom. Your mom could be standing here, if it had been you.”
She pleaded for warning signs to be written in the local language and English, urged authorities to post clear danger signs when the snow is unstable off the groomed trails, called for adjustments to the international warning scale, and suggested boosting avalanche education.
“It was a Level 3 ‘considerable’ warning on that day,” Cindy Berlack said. “Being in the middle of the scale, it appeared to our boys’ coach that the danger was moderate. They allowed the athletes to go free riding, unaware the level was actually deadly. Adjust the danger levels 3-5 so visitors will take a Level 3 warning seriously. Also, the word ‘considerable,’ is not a strong clear message that the snow is very dangerous.”
Sölden will now have avalanche warning signs both in German and English, featuring the pictures of Bryce and Ronnie.
The tragedy rocked the US ski team to its core.
“Losing Bryce and Ronnie was a huge loss to the US team,” said Steve Nyman, a three-time World Cup winner. “They were the next generation. These two guys were the best in their disciplines – Bryce in slalom and Ronnie in downhill and super G.”
Tiger Shaw, chief executive officer and chairman of US Ski & Snowboard, said he was “shattered, and I think everyone around me was, too. I can’t possibly imagine what it was like for the families.”
The loss of two of the team’s brightest prospects “causes a ton of introspective thought,” Shaw said.
“We realized that we really needed to look at it from the top down, bottom up. How can we make sure everybody is more educated to avert and reduce the chance of anything like this ever happening again?”