There’s a new trail cut into the low hills just north of downtown Leavenworth. Completed this past summer, it sidles away from the Ski Hill parking lot, at the end of Ski Hill Drive, and winds uphill before turning east, following the contour of the land, a sandy dirt line carved through damp, ripe evergreen forest.
In gaps between the tall trees, the trail looks out over fields of fruit stretching east, the little Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth to the south, and the snow-etched Cascades to the west. Highway 2 disappears into those mountains—heading for Stevens Pass and, beyond it, the coast.
The new trail intersects with others—Rosy Boa, Lower Rosy Boa—before ending at a T intersection with the Freund Canyon Loop. It’s not long: maybe a 90-minute walk round trip, or a much faster mountain bike ride. It’s called “4 the Boys.”
“The Boys,” in this small, ski-crazy community, is shorthand for three well-known, well-loved local men who were killed in an avalanche at Tunnel Creek, in the Stevens Pass backcountry, on February 19, 2012: Chris Rudolph, 30; Jim Jack, 46; and Johnny Brenan, 41. The men were part of a large group of visitors and local legends who ventured out of the resort gates late on a Sunday morning and were caught up in a massive snowslide.
Avalanches kill an average of 27 people in America every year. This one attracted the attention of the national media. Good Morning America and Today came calling, wanting to speak to the survivors just hours after the slide. Magazines, including Outside and Men’s Journal, published major features on the tragedy. And, most famously, The New York Times spent months producing “Snow Fall,” an ambitious, multimedia feature about the avalanche that would go on to redefine how stories are presented online. Written by John Branch, it won a Pulitzer Prize, spawned hundreds of imitators, and is now taught in journalism schools.
Once the reporters and the cameras moved on, the avalanche survivors, and the families and friends of the men who died, were left to cope with the aftermath. Five years later, they’re finding their own ways to remember and honor their friends—and their own ways through the trauma of that day.
On the morning of February 19, 2012, Anne Hessburg woke up early. It was a powder day, and she wanted to be among the first skiers in line when the chairlifts started turning. She met up with neighbors who lived across the alley from her Leavenworth home, and together they drove the 35 miles northwest to Stevens Pass, the ski resort where Chris Rudolph, her boyfriend of six and a half years, worked as the marketing director.
The pair lived in an old turn-of-the-century house, an 800-square-foot relic of Leavenworth’s early history as a railroad town, and had met as young employees of the resort in the fall of 2004. They were just friends at first, part of a tight-knit crew that hiked, fished, and picked berries in the mountains together, before becoming a couple late in the summer of 2005. That winter, their second on staff at the resort, Rudolph introduced Hessburg to skiing for the first time. She’d grown up in Wenatchee, within easy striking distance of Stevens, Leavenworth’s Ski Hill, and Wenatchee’s own hill, Mission Ridge, but she was one of five kids, and outfitting the family with hiking boots was a lot easier than fitting them all with ski gear.
Rudolph, who’d been on skis since age two, was incredibly patient with her. Soon they were venturing beyond the resort and into the backcountry—they skied Tunnel Creek together several times.
Not this morning. This morning she rode the lifts with her friends. Rudolph had other plans. He’d been up and out the door even earlier than Hessburg, and after an early Sunday meeting at the resort, he met up with 15 other skiers and snowboarders.
Hessburg skied hard all morning and was exhausted by midday. Around the time she and her neighbors were knocking off for an early lunch—pizza at one of the resort’s lodges—Rudolph and his group were just venturing out of bounds. To reach their objective, the fresh powder of Tunnel Creek, they rode up two chairlifts, walked out through the resort gates, and hiked for a final few minutes to the top of Cowboy Mountain. On the front side of Cowboy was the resort, its avalanche risk mitigated by ski patrollers who set off small explosive charges to trigger potential slides. On the back was the Washington wilderness. Tunnel Creek is what’s known in skiing circles as sidecountry—backcountry terrain that’s adjacent to a ski resort and easily accessible.
Joining Rudolph were local skiers and snowboarders, visiting friends, and a few ski-industry VIPs, all on the mountain for both work and play. Elyse Saugstad, a world-class pro skier, was visiting from California. Wenzel Peikert, a part-time ski instructor at the resort, had come up from Seattle. John Stifter, the incoming editor in chief of Powder magazine, was at Stevens to research a story about night skiing. Megan Michelson, then ESPN’s freeskiing editor, was there with her fiance, Dan Abrams. Three of the longtime locals in the group were Jim Jack, the head judge on the Free-skiing World Tour; Tim Wangen, a Lake Wenatchee resident; and Johnny Brenan, a Leavenworth-based building contractor and father of two. Rob Castillo, a longtime friend of Jack and Brenan’s, was another out-of-towner.
All were experienced in backcountry conditions. Each carried with them a beacon that emits a signal that lets other beacon users know where you are, a collapsible probe to search the snow, and a small shovel for digging out buried friends. Saugstad also wore an airbag backpack, an emergency inflatable device intended to help skiers “float” near the surface of an avalanche, giving them a better chance at survival and rescue.
Back at the resort, while Hessburg was eating, rumors were starting to fly of an avalanche on the far side of the mountain. There was a nervous buzz in the lodge. She knew where Rudolph had gone after his meeting, so after lunch she texted him to allay her worries. When he didn’t respond, she called his cell phone—it went straight to voice mail. With her fear growing, she hurried to the ski patrol’s headquarters. The head of the patrol beckoned her into his office, closed the door behind her, and gave her the unthinkable news.
The details of what happened at Tunnel Creek sharpened over time. Those early rumors became broad facts—who lived, who died—and then were combed over and made more precise by ski patrollers, survivors, and reporters. Even months later, when “Snow Fall” was published, some of the skiers who’d been at Tunnel Creek that day learned things they hadn’t known about their own avalanche.
When they reached the summit of Cowboy Mountain, a few members of the group had peeled off in separate directions. The rest turned their attention to the heaps of fresh snow directly below them. Chris Rudolph launched first, heading straight downhill; Elyse Saugstad imitated his line. The pair paused in a grove of sturdy old-growth trees, a relatively safe spot, about 500 feet down from the summit. One by one, Rob Castillo and Johnny Brenan followed. Castillo paused above two large, close-set trees; Brenan stopped near Rudolph and Saugstad.
Tim Wangen started down the mountain next, but he cut over to skier’s left of the others, into what he knew to be safer terrain. Wenzel Peikert followed him. Jim Jack pointed his skis downhill toward Rudolph and the rest.
That’s when the snowpack on the hillside let go.
In “Snow Fall,” John Branch describes the slide as “a ghostly white fog…a powder cloud two stories high.”
It shed more than 2,500 feet in altitude in a matter of seconds, gaining mass as it went, ripping up trees and rocks along the way and reaching a peak speed of about 70 miles per hour. The New York Times estimated its weight at 11 million pounds.
Peikert and Wangen were just barely out of the avalanche’s path. Castillo, in its path, was able to wedge himself against his two trees and hang on as the snow roared by around him. But Jack, Brenan, Rudolph, and Saugstad were all caught up. Before she was engulfed, Saugstad had just enough time to deploy her airbag backpack.
Megan Michelson, the ESPN editor, was still at the top of Tunnel Creek with the rest of the group, including her fiance, and John Stifter of Powder. In the shocked moments after the slide, they quickly turned their avalanche beacons from signaling mode to search mode and began edging down the mountain, knowing they risked triggering a secondary slide but that they had to hurry nonetheless: They would have only minutes to find their friends buried below. Downhill, Peikert, Wangen, and Castillo also went into search mode and moved gingerly into the slide path. Michelson called 911.
Way down at the valley bottom, two of the skiers who’d peeled away from the group early on, and made it down the mountain without trouble, now spotted a mound of snow and debris. At first, they didn’t realize it was a fresh avalanche—then they saw a ski pole sticking out of it and they too switched their beacons to search mode and started digging. Jim Jack’s battered body emerged from the snow.
Higher up, Elyse Saugstad had come to rest with her head pointing downhill, on her back, her face and hands poking out of the snow but the rest of her firmly buried. Wenzel Peikert found her like that and pulled a small shovel from his pack to dig her out. As Saugstad was freed and climbed to her feet, the other rescuers homed in on two more beacon signals from buried skiers. Peikert and others dug out Johnny Brenan a few feet from where Saugstad had been trapped, and a short ways uphill, Stifter and Abrams hunted for Rudolph. They eventually found him buried more than six feet deep. The skiers took turns attempting to resuscitate the men, but as the minutes ticked away, their hopes faded and a grim reality took hold.
That night, the media started calling. In the aftermath of the avalanche, Saugstad had gone with Michelson and Abrams to their home in Seattle. Soon news vans were parked out front, and within 18 hours of the avalanche, still in shock and running on almost no sleep, Saugstad found herself appearing on Good Morning America and Today, telling her story of survival to households across the country. It’s still surreal for her to look back on those hours—but she remembers, even in her state of shock, wanting to get ahead of the frenzy and put the group’s story out there in place of any rumors or misunderstandings that might arise.
Michelson, as a journalist, found it strange and hard to be on the opposite end of the tape recorder in those first few days. She has more sympathy now, having been through it herself, for the people she is sometimes obliged to call up and interrogate about the worst hours of their lives. “You know, you’re at a point in your life where you’re trying to process this horrific incident and grieve for the men that we lost,” she says. “And then you’re also trying to deal with all of that media interference.”
Within a few months, Michelson had decided to write about Tunnel Creek herself. Outside had reached out to interview her for a short blurb about what it was like to experience an avalanche, but that felt insufficient. She had already spent hours upon hours thinking through the events of February 19, trying to analyze where and how the group went wrong, so she offered instead to write a longer first-person account of the avalanche, interviewing experts and examining the group’s decision making and the various factors that were at play. The result was “Tunnel Vision,” which was published in November 2012, about a month before “Snow Fall” appeared.
“People ask, ‘Was it cathartic to write it?’” Michelson says. “No, it was awful writing it because it was my worst experience in my life, and here I was having to put it down on paper and think about it objectively and then have it be edited and all of that.” Still, she’s glad that she did it—glad to have put something out into the world that could help other people avoid trouble in the future.
The initial nightmares she experienced after the avalanche have faded, but a newfound caution in the mountains remains.
She and Abrams got married that spring and moved from Seattle to the Tahoe area that summer to be closer to family. They have two children now, and the older one, a toddler, is already skiing.
Michelson keeps in touch with Chris Rudolph’s parents, who live nearby, and she occasionally sends new ski jackets from Abrams’s gear company to Laurie Brenan, Johnny’s wife, for their two daughters. She still relives the avalanche, she says, “more than I care to admit.” But she tries to funnel the horror of Tunnel Creek into motivation to build a good life for herself and her family. The loss of her friends, and the realization that she or her fiance could easily have died that day too, makes her current life a gift. “I got to live another day,” she says. “I got to marry my best friend a month after the avalanche. We got to bring two amazing children into the world.” She’s painfully aware that not everyone who was at Tunnel Creek can say the same.
John Stifter also wanted to create something to help other skiers avoid avalanches. Trauma affects everyone differently, and Tunnel Creek hit him hard. For months after the avalanche, he had difficulty sleeping. He felt raw, intensely emotional—the world around him, he says, “felt ominous.” Some of his hair fell out and “Xanax became a good friend.” He didn’t ski again for nearly a year.
Before the avalanche, Stifter, then just 29 years old, had been on the verge of achieving his lifelong dream: He was due to accept the position of editor in chief of Powder in April 2012. He grew up in Spokane and started skiing at age two—Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain was his home turf. By high school, he was reading Powder and already dreaming of running it himself someday. He interned at the magazine in college, got hired on as full-time staff in 2007, and worked his way up the ranks. He’d been groomed for the top job, and he was supposed to take over within a few weeks. But the slide and its aftermath threatened to derail him.
He took a month or so off to grieve, and to consider his future as a skier and as a ski journalist. In the end he decided to stay on, and he took over as editor in chief on schedule. He’d realized that he was in a position to make a difference with Powder and its audience of devoted skiers. “I could use Powder as kind of a lever of change,” he says, “a mini soapbox to let people know that we made mistakes and [neither] Powder nor any experienced skier is above those mistakes.” He threw himself fully into the job, first launching an online section of the magazine called “The Safe Zone,” a resource for avalanche education. Next he commissioned “The Human Factor,” an ambitious multi-part, multimedia feature that examines how skiers’ decisions—not just snow conditions—play a role in avalanche incidents. The series launched in late 2014 and wound up being a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
It remains the best, most satisfying project Stifter has ever worked on. “I know that we at Powder have saved lives through that story,” he says. “And I think that we’ve honored a lot of people who’ve been victim to avalanches, and their families. Because it doesn’t just kill the person; I think it kills the family members too, to a certain degree.”
Anne Hessburg doesn’t remember much from the first six months or so after the avalanche. It’s a blur, a blank—sometimes, friends will tell her a story from that time, about something they did together or something she said, and she won’t recognize it at all. But she does remember the way her family and the Leavenworth community rallied around her—how someone always seemed to be at the house with her for the first few days and weeks, how people popped by for months afterward with food, or just to check in and see if she was out of bed, if she was showered, if she was managing to sleep.
Now 37 years old, Hessburg still lives in Leavenworth, in a fixer-upper she just bought, and commutes to an environmental consulting firm in Wenatchee. She never considered leaving town after Rudolph’s death, and she never quit skiing, either. The sport, she says, is “a really great way of remembering him.”
She was back out on the mountain that same winter. But after the avalanche, some things have changed. She’s more conservative in her choices, and she spends more time in bounds.
She’s ventured out into the backcountry occasionally—“but not the way that I skied with Chris. I trusted him, I trusted his instincts, I trusted his snow knowledge, and…I don’t know. I just haven’t found that again.”
Once she emerged from the initial shock and haze, the months of insomnia, Hessburg was determined to put her life back together. “Some people get stuck” in their grief, she says. “And I didn’t want to get stuck.”
Her attitude—not trying to move on from the loss of Rudolph, Jack, and Brenan, but to come to terms with their loss and honor their lives—is mirrored in the Leavenworth community around her.
Take a look at the parked cars on the main drag, and you’ll see the ski boxes and bumpers of locals’ rides dotted with memorial stickers: “I Get Rad for Rudolph,” or “Forever in Our Hearts, Forever in Our Mountains.” At a local brewery, there’s a large bell engraved with the men’s names—ring it, and you’re volunteering to buy a round for the whole bar.
In October 2012, eight months after the avalanche, the community held its first fundraiser for the Ski Hill Memorial Project—an ongoing effort to renovate and expand the ancient lodge at Ski Hill in memory of the boys. (The recently completed 4 the Boys mountain bike trail came out of the same initiative.)
“You’ve got to take the good from it,” says longtime Leavenworth resident T. R. Revere. “And I know [Rudolph, Jack, and Brenan] saved a lot of lives from people realizing, if it can happen to the best skiers in the world, it can happen to them.”
Revere is the owner of Uncle Uli’s, a pub in downtown Leavenworth that’s jammed full of vintage ski memorabilia. He grew up with Jim Jack in Lake Wenatchee. They skied together in winter and water-skied in summer, and Jack helped out at Revere’s first restaurant, the Cougar Inn. For 20 years, Uli’s menu has featured the Napkin Slappin’ Jim Jack burger, a grilled chicken breast topped with cheese, peppers, and a spicy tangy sauce, a concoction inspired by an inside joke between the two men.
Revere worked on a ski resort crew with Johnny Brenan in the ’80s and he met Chris Rudolph soon after the younger man arrived at Stevens. When Revere wanted to propose to his girlfriend on the mountain, Rudolph had the proposal printed on every lift ticket issued that day so she’d be sure to see it. That’s the kind of person who leaves a hole in a community when they’re gone.
Every February 19, a group text circulates among some of the skiers from the Tunnel Creek group: Michelson, Stifter, Saugstad, and others. “Thinking of you.” “Sending love.” “Thinking of the boys.” Up at Stevens Pass, the anniversary is marked every year by a Shred for Stevens event—participants spread out across the resort, filling in a checklist of activities before settling down to tell stories about their friends over beers. And back in Leavenworth, anyone who wants to can hike or bike the 4 the Boys trail anytime, dipping into their memories as they go.
Hessburg also has her own private memorial, carried with her everywhere.
It’s a ring she had made by a friend who’s a jeweler. The thick silver band is etched with the outline of Cowboy Ridge. Above the ridge four birds fly: Rudolph, Jack, Brenan, and another friend, Danny, who was killed by an avalanche in 2011. Two curving lines descend the mountain—ski tracks, one for Rudolph and one for Hessburg.
“This is kind of my daily reminder,” she says of the ring. Not that she’s at risk of forgetting.
“The cliche that I hate the most is that time will heal,” she says. “I think that is such a load of crap. I don’t think that time heals anything, I think that—when someone experiences tragic loss…I don’t think that you ever fully heal from that. I think that it’s a deep wound that you always carry with you. You just learn how to live with it.”
She likens it to building a scab around an unhealed wound, “so that it can’t hurt you every single day.”
For the skiers who were at Tunnel Creek that day, there are lingering questions and regrets that may never heal: What if they had gone out earlier, or later, or not at all? What if they had skied a different line? What if they had talked more, as a group, about the plan and the risks? What if someone had called it off?
People sometimes ask Hessburg if she has regrets too. If she’d somehow known how things would end, would she still have chosen to spend those years with Rudolph? Her answer is easier: Of course. “I am who I am because I had Chris in my life,” she says.
She thinks about him all the time—especially when she’s at Stevens Pass, under a big blue winter sky, making her turns and ripping downhill the way he taught her. She’ll get to the bottom of an especially good run and look back up the snow-covered mountain behind her, and think: He would have loved that one.