US & Canada

Expert skiers killed by avalanche in Washington state

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Media captionElyse Saugstad tells ABC News: "I'm still in shock and absolutely devastated by the loss of our friends"

Three expert skiers have died in an avalanche near a ski resort in the US state of Washington.

Rescuers were sent to an out-of-bounds area near Stevens Pass resort on Sunday around noon local time (20:00 GMT). Pro-skier Elyse Saugstad survived the avalanche by using an airbag backpack.

Stevens Pass is located in the Cascade Mountains, north-east of Seattle.

The area has seen heavy snowfall in recent days, with as much as 2ft (61cm) of fresh snow before the avalanche.

A larger group of about 12 skiers were travelling in a backcountry area known as Tunnel Creek when the avalanche was triggered.

The fast-moving sheet of snow hit the skiers, sending them almost 3,000ft (914m) down the mountain.

The three men who died were named as Jim Jack, a freeskiing world tour judge, Chris Rudolph, who worked at Stevens Pass as marketing director, and skier John Brenan.

Elyse Saugstad, a professional skier, was carried along with the avalanche but survived.

She credited her survival to a backpack airbag system that she triggered as the avalanche hit.

Stevens Pass is a day resort which draws heavily on skiers from the city and has a base elevation of 4,061ft (1,238 m).

Little time to react

Elyse Saugstad told ABC News that the avalanche happened "really fast".

"Ultimately I think you don't have much time to react," she said. "The first thing that came to my mind was to use my airbag device."

Image caption The Cascade Mountains stretch from Canada to northern California

The device inflates like a car airbag and keeps the user's hands and face outside of the snow.

"It's not like having an inner tube ride down the snow," Ms Saugstad said.

"It's kind of like you're in a washing machine, you're being tossed and turned. You don't know which way is up, but the system keeps you up above so you have a very good chance of survival."

Ms Saugstad said the group was using standard skiing protocol for backcountry routes. They were standing in what they thought was a safe zone when the avalanche was triggered, she said.

Skiing outside the resort boundaries can be dangerous, but is not illegal in the US.

"It's public land so the [US] Forest Service basically requires [resorts] to have open boundaries so people can ski out in the open ski area if they want," said John Gifford, general manager of Stevens Pass.

The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center warned of a high avalanche danger above 5,000ft in the Stevens Pass area with a considerable danger at lower levels.

The centre said there had been heavy snowfall over the last few days.

King County Sheriff's Office Sgt Cindi West, who briefed journalists on the Stevens Pass deaths, said another person was killed in a separate incident elsewhere in the state.

Sgt West said a snowboarder went over a cliff at Alpental ski area east of Seattle.

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