When the snow broke loose, a group of expert skiers who watched in horror as a large avalanche swept their friends down a steep slope in Washington State immediately turned on their emergency beacons and began searching for signs of life.
Powder magazine senior editor John Stifter, who witnessed the slide that killed three of his skiing companions Sunday, said one person survived by bear-hugging a tree and holding on as the snow barreled over him. Another skier who was caught in the slide was saved when she deployed an air bag designed to keep her afloat.
"It's an absolute horror story," Stifter said Monday.
Experts say once an avalanche has you in its grips, the chances of surviving are slim.
"The snow doesn't really care how experienced you are. It's not keeping track of experience level," said Mark Moore, an avalanche meteorologist and director of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, which warned of extreme avalanche danger Tuesday.
Stifter identified the victims as Jim Jack, a well-known head judge for the Freeskiing World Tour; Stevens Pass marketing director Chris Rudolph; and Johnny Brenan, a Leavenworth contractor.
The Freeskiing World Tour and Utah's Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort had scheduled a gathering at the resort Monday afternoon to remember Jack, whom Stifter described as generous, smart and influential in the ski industry.
The skiers were equipped with safety devices and kept track of each other as they strayed beyond the boundaries of the popular Stevens Pass Ski resort, about 90 miles northeast of Seattle. But the precautions still didn't save some from getting trapped, highlighting the risks of backcountry activity during a season of heightened avalanche dangers in the West.
Sunday's avalanche was relatively large, Moore said. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center rated Sunday's avalanche danger as considerable to high. Heavy snow had fallen in the Cascades on Saturday, with widespread avalanches and strong winds, all red flags, Moore said.
Statistics show that 93 percent of avalanche victims can be recovered alive if dug out within 15 minutes, but survival rates drop quickly as time passes, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. After 45 minutes, only 20 to 30 percent of victims are alive. After two hours, few survive.
People die because exhaled carbon dioxide builds up in the snow around their mouth, leading to death from carbon dioxide poisoning.
Stifter said he read the avalanche report that morning and knew avalanche dangers were considerable. He and others talked about it and determined they could ski it safely, he said.
Three of the 15 in the initial group peeled off and went a different way. Twelve others headed down, pairing up and skiing one by one, leapfrogging each other.
Each carried avalanche beacons, a standard rescue device that allows rescuers to locate the signal of a buried victim.
After the avalanche, Stifter and others picked up on the first signal and began digging furiously. They found Rudolph facedown. Stifter performed CPR for about 30 minutes to no avail.
Another group worked on digging out Brenan and Jack.
Professional skier Elyse Saugstad told NBC's "Today" show she's convinced the airbag she deployed immediately saved her life.
"It's lifting you kind of up above the avalanche," Saugstad said Monday. "It's not like you're taking an inner tube ride down some snowy field. It feels like you're in a washing machine."
Only Saugstad had an air bag, Stifter said. Airbags range from about $600 to $1,000. They have been widely used in Europe with reports of high survival rates, but they have only recently become popular in the United States.