Editor's Note: This is the second of six in the New York Times' series about the deadly avalanche at Stevens Pass in Washington. The series features professional skiier and part-time Santa Cruz resident Elyse Saugstad, who survived the ordeal. The series will appear every Friday in the Sports section.
Dawn cracked with the intermittent sound of explosives near the top of Cowboy Mountain. Stevens Pass ski patrollers, called to duty whenever more than a few inches of snow fell, had arrived to check and control the ski area's 200 inbounds avalanche zones.
After getting the latest assessment from the area's full-time avalanche forecaster, more than a dozen patrollers filled their backpacks with 2.2-pound emulsion charges, shaped like cartoon dynamite. Chairlifts rumbled to life, ferrying the crews up the dark mountain.
Three two-person teams assigned to Cowboy Ridge removed their skis and filed through the boundary gate. They took turns plowing a path through the fresh snow with their bodies. Their boots forged an icy stairway to the top of the skinny ridge.
Back on their skis, facing down into the ski area and with their backs to Tunnel Creek, they spread across the ridge to stamp and destroy wind-swept cornices, small balconies of crusty snow.
They removed the charges from their packs. Like party poppers that spew confetti, charges have a pull-wire, an ignition that lights a 90-second fuse. The patrollers lobbed the lighted charges into the many steep chutes below them. With muffled booms, heavy waves of snow tumbled harmlessly into the recesses of the empty slopes below, clearing danger for the day's thousands of inbounds customers.
The lines for the ski lifts began forming about 7, two hours before they were to open. When the gathering skiers and snowboarders heard the explosions echo down the mountain, they cheered. It signaled a powder day.
In nearby Leavenworth, Stevens Pass' effervescent 30-year-old marketing manager, Chris Rudolph, awoke in his two-bedroom house on Ash Street, the one that he and his girlfriend, Anne Hessburg, painted a rich blue and accented with a garden out front.
"Chris was so mad that he had a meeting," Hessburg said. "It was a pow day, and you couldn't tie him to his desk on pow days."
But he thought the meeting would end by 11.
"He said: 'It's going to be so good, babe. I'm going to take some folks up to Tunnel Creek,'" Hessburg said. "Tunnel Creek, it was kind of like the holy grail for Chris. It was where he wanted to show off for friends."
Among those who joined the 45-minute parade from Leavenworth on what would become a deadly expedition were Dan Abrams and Megan Michelson. They planned to marry in March.
Michelson, 30, was the freeskiing editor for ESPN.com. Abrams, 34, was a founder and the president of Flylow, maker of apparel marketed to backcountry users.
The couple lived in Seattle, but had come to Stevens Pass on Saturday for the Salomon promotional event. Michelson and the other women stayed at a Leavenworth hotel. Abrams slept in a spare bedroom at Rudolph's house. He and Michelson drove to Stevens Pass together.
"I said to Dan, 'Do you think Tunnel will be safe today?'" Michelson said. "He said something along the lines of, 'Yeah, those guys know the best route down.'"
There were similar conversations elsewhere. In the slope-side cabin at Stevens Pass that Rudolph arranged, two journalists from Powder magazine, John Stifter and Keith Carlsen, contemplated the day's plans.
"We started asking questions," Carlsen said. "'Where are we going? Out of bounds? Didn't it just snow nonstop for two days? How much snow?' That's when John pulled up the avalanche report, and he read it aloud."
Mark Moore, director and lead meteorologist of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, had set that day's forecast on Saturday afternoon. A 64-year-old with graying hair pulled into a short ponytail, Moore had a feeling it could be a busy weekend.
The avalanche center, based in Seattle, is one of about 20 regional avalanche forecasting centers in the United States, most run by the Forest Service. During the winter, one of its three employees arrives in the middle of the night, analyzes weather maps and computer models, and examines data -- snowfall, temperatures, wind, humidity and so on -- from 47 remote weather stations scattered across the mountains, including five in the vicinity of Stevens Pass. They take calls from ski patrollers and highway crews.
The biggest storm of the season increased avalanche concerns. But it was not just the new snow that concerned Moore. It was what lay nearly three feet beneath -- a thin layer of perfectly preserved frost called surface hoar. The frozen equivalent of dew, created on crisp, clear nights, it features fragile, featherlike crystals that grow skyward.
On the surface, they glimmer like a million tiny diamonds. When frosted and protected by soft blankets of fluffy snow, they are weak stilts supporting all that falls on top. When they finally give way, falling like microscopic dominoes on a steep slope, they provide an icy flume for the snow above.
A shot of rain or above-freezing temperatures, both common in Cascade Mountain Range winters, usually destroy the fragile crystals, melding them into the snowpack. But five days of dry, cold weather, from Feb. 3 to 7, created a perfect, sparkly layer of surface hoar. Sporadic light snow, never more than an inch or two a day, delicately shrouded it over the next 10 days.
By the weekend, as snow fell heavily over the Cascades and powder-hungry hordes took to the slopes, the old layer was long out of sight, and mostly out of mind.
Not to Moore.
"Snowpack is never static," he said. "It's changing, even once it's buried."
Changes in temperatures, precipitation, humidity and wind can turn a benign snowpack into a deadly one, and vice versa. Sometimes weather is enough to start an avalanche. But "natural" avalanches rarely kill. The majority of avalanche fatalities are in human-triggered slides -- usually of the victims' own making.
"Every skier, everyone who hits the slope, changes the structure of the snowpack," Moore said. "Even though they don't know it."
In the rugged area of the Cascades that includes Stevens Pass, Moore deemed the avalanche danger "high" -- the fourth degree out of five -- for slopes above 5,000 feet in elevation, facing north to southeast.
For everything else, the danger level was deemed "considerable," defined as "dangerous avalanche conditions" with "human-triggered avalanches likely."
The top of Cowboy Mountain is nearly 6,000 feet. The Tunnel Creek terrain descends off its southwest side to roughly 3,000 feet. Officially, the danger was "considerable."
"In avalanche forecasting terms, 'considerable' is a really weird forecast," said Elyse Saugstad, a part-time Santa Cruz resident who survived the avalanche, which killed Rudolph and companions Jim Jack and Johnny Brenan. "Because it's this gray area. It's a hard one to predict. It can mean, well, you're not going to see any activity. Or, if something goes, you're going to be screwed. It's hard to work with that one."
Moore's forecast offered more specifics.
"Although decreasing light showers and decreasing winds are expected Sunday, cold temperatures should slow stabilization of existing wind slabs and help maintain the threat of further human-triggered avalanche activity, especially on previously wind-loaded terrain showing no evidence of recent avalanche activity," Moore wrote.
Spotty afternoon sunshine, he added, could raise the danger, especially on south-facing slopes.
The snow had stopped at Stevens Pass by the time the lifts opened Sunday morning. The runs were quickly doodled with curvy lines.
Stifter sat in the cabin and examined the forecast on his laptop.
"I have this image burned in my head," Stifter said. "I had a coffee cup in my right hand, I was reading e-mails, and I read the Northwest Avalanche Center report. And it said 'considerable to high' was the avalanche danger. And I read it out loud to Keith. And he listened, and I read it again -- I read it twice -- and looked at it. Huh. I've skied enough to know that when it snows a lot, which it did, up to two feet, there's always going to be instability, with that much weight on an older snowpack."
Stifter left Carlsen behind and headed to the lifts. He found Jim Jack. If anyone could judge terrain and snow in the backcountry, it was Jim Jack.
The license plate on Jack's Subaru Brat as a teenager read "IM JIM." To family and his closest friends, he was Jimmy, sometimes J.J. To most everyone else, he was Jim Jack, blended into one name, accent on the first syllable: JIM-jack.
Jack was the head judge and former president of the International Freeskiers Association, which oversaw a world tour of competitions. At 46, he was a sort of Peter Pan of the ski world, a charismatic, carefree boy who never grew up, beloved by like-minded skiers and snowboarders half his age.
He spent winters traveling the world, spreading the gospel of freeskiing, professing the beauty of finding improbable ways down precarious slopes with grace, nerve and flair. He had been a competitor on the tour, distinguishable from great distances by the silkiness of his loose form, until he landed hard and took his own knee to his face, shattering the bones around his right eye. You could feel the screws when you touched his face.
He was a party accelerator with a penchant for streaking. He did drama in high school and never declined the stage as an adult. On Halloween, his costumes played off his name: Jack on the Rocks, Jim Jack in the Box, Cracker Jack, Jack Frost.
Jack shared a bungalow off the highway, near the Howard Johnson, with his longtime girlfriend, Tiffany Abraham.
Jack drove a 1994 Chevy pickup with 216,000 miles on it, topped by a Wilderness camper that he added for $350. Jack and his camper rolled into the R.V. parking lot at Stevens Pass on Friday night. On weekends, when the snow was good, the lot filled with dozens of pickup campers and motor homes.
"I woke up on Saturday in my R.V.," said Tim Wangen, a 53-year-old former commercial diver who lived in a cabin at nearby Lake Wenatchee. "When I wake up, I look outside to see who is next to me. I saw that Jim Jack was next to me. I thought, cool, I got a great neighbor this week."
Jack and Wangen had skied a couple of runs Sunday morning by the time Stifter caught up to them. Wangen knew Tunnel Creek as well as anyone, having skied it since he was a boy. Jack traveled the world, scouting courses for extreme skiing. He knew how to avoid danger.
Stifter asked Jack about the avalanche report.
"He's like: 'Yeah, not to worry,'" Stifter said. "'We'll just do it slowly and safely and just stay in the trees.'"