Just seconds after the deadly avalanche plowed down the side of a steep Austrian mountain Monday, a group of Olympic skiing hopefuls scrambled up onto the rubble. They began stabbing their seven-foot-long skis deep into the snow in a desperate search for two teammates who had been swallowed up by the massive slide.
Some had been caught in the avalanche themselves but managed to ride at the surface of the churning snow as it rumbled about 1,500 feet down the rocky southern wall of the Rettenbachtal, a stunning glacier-carved valley within the boundaries of the Soelden ski resort, a modern mecca of Alpine ski racing.
The searchers, young members of the American and British national ski teams, were soon joined by their three coaches and a rescue party that grew to include more than 60 people. But it was too late — probably even before the snow had stopped moving — for Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, the two young members of the U.S. Ski Team who didn’t make it out.
Both Astle, 19, and Berlack, 20, were battered mercilessly in the slide, then buried beneath an estimated 15 feet of cement-like snow. Their deaths have sent a shockwave of grief and confusion through the U.S. Ski Team just weeks before the most important race of the winter, the Alpine world championships. For the first time since 1999 the championships will be on home snow in February in Beaver Creek, Colo.
On Tuesday the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, Alexa Wesner, visited the teammates of the fallen skiers at Soelden. Wesner, a former Stanford track and field star, commiserated with the survivors, none older than 20, and all a long way from home in towns like Truckee, Calif., and Warren, Vermont.
A deep ravine above the elevation where trees can grow, the deep valley is home to dramatic ski trails
The Rettenbach Glacier
Home to a prestigious annual World Cup ski race, the Rettenbach is a ski racing mecca
The deadly slide came down a steep wall on the edge of the 10,000-foot-high Gaislachkogl peak
Oetztal Tourism Board
“It sounds like she was like this mother figure for them,” says T.J. Lanning, a U.S. Ski Team coach and former racer who is close with members of the group. “She accompanied them for some interviews at the police station.”
The nightmarish previous day had begun with clear skies and boundless ambition. Astle, Berlack and their friends had arrived in Europe days earlier and expected to soon be training in the vicinity of the Rettenbach glacier, home of a celebrated annual giant slalom race won by Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety.
After breakfast, while the coaches went to scout out training locations, the racers ventured up the enormous mountain. They rode chairlifts to the top of the Gaislachkogl, a 10,000-foot-high wind-scoured peak with serrated ridges and panoramic views — a ski area far too wild for resort managers to totally tame.
From the top of the lifts the racers got onto a cat-track — a snow-covered road used for snow machines and sightseeing skiers — that descends gradually into the Rettenbachtal valley, which in summer is a moonscape of bare rock with a river fed by the runoff from the retreating glacier above.
But then skiers saw what was basically a shortcut, and a chance to get a feel for this rugged corner of the Alps.
Instead of following along the cat-track, they spied a snowy run straight down the mountainside that could match their appetite for the pull of gravity.
They set out in pairs. With Astle and Berlack were two 18-year-olds from Squaw Valley, Calif., Erik Arvidsson and Addison Dvorachek; also present were Drew Duffy, a 19-year- old from Warren, Vermont, and Jack Gower, a 20-year-old member of the British ski team who often trains with the Americans.
They set out in groups of two, the westerners going first. The route offered fresh snow on a steep pitch. The skiers would weave between rock outcroppings at high speeds, and maybe soar off a few wind-sculpted waves of virgin powder. It was well within the abilities of some of the best young skiers in America, all with catlike reflexes and the explosive leg power of an NBA forward.
More than 60 people assisted in the search, including the U.S. Ski Team coaches and athletes
The slide dragged skiers over a steep and craggy mountainside, gathering speed as it went
The skiers started out on a roadway skirting under a ridge near the Gaislachkogl peak
The avalanche began near the top of the run and slid about 1,500 feet to the valley below
But the skiers apparently didn’t fully grasp the risk that they were taking. Swiss and Austrian ski areas, particularly those topped by glaciers, are often filled with far more potential dangers than American resorts. Rather than minimize every hazard, the European way is to ensure safety on the main thoroughfares and let other parts of the mountain be.
Patrollers had used dynamite to trigger avalanches on other parts of the ski area, but the route the young skiers had chosen had not been bombed.
As the skiers descended, a huge fracture appeared in the mountain, a slab of snow breaking free and plunging swiftly down the slope. The surface under their feet became a roiling ocean of moving snow, gathering freeway speed and funneling between menacing rock outcroppings. By the time it stopped, Berlack and Astle were nowhere to be found. Bystanders who rushed to the scene learned that the skiers were not equipped with the radio beacons that transmit signals to potential rescuers.
Snow that comes down in an avalanche is dense and icy. Slightly melted by the friction generated in the slide, it freezes hard the instant it stops, and anyone trapped inside is powerless against its weight. The rescuers had to move fast, but also stay calm and search methodically.
A helicopter was dispatched to the scene. Searchers included mountain rescue teams, local police, nearby chairlift operators, and other skiers from the resort. They spread out over the debris pile, plunging skis and probes — long sticks they hoped would help them locate the skiers — into the snow.
When they finally found the two Americans — one of them upside-down, another with his helmet torn off — there was a desperate effort to resuscitate them. The skiers’ own coaches performed CPR, to no avail. Adrenaline gave way to crushing grief.
Because of the time zone difference, it was still pre-dawn darkness when the phones began ringing in Utah, home to the U.S. Ski Team’s headquarters. Given the relatively high rate of injury in Alpine skiing, the team’s administrators have well-established protocols for notifying the families of injured team athletes.
It was about 6:15 AM when word reached Steve Bounous, the longtime program director of the Snowbird Sports Education Foundation, the team that had produced Astle. Bounous was already at the mountain, helping set things up for an annual high-level slalom race — one that Astle had won the year before.
Giovanni Auletta/AP U.S. skier David Chodounsky pays tribute to his teammates Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, both of whom died in an avalanche in the Austrian mountains. Giovanni Auletta/AP Chodounsky also wears a black armband on his left arm as part of his tribute to his fallen teammates. Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images Actor Daniel Craig films a James Bond movie in Soelden, Austria, not far from where U.S. skiers Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle died in an avalanche.
“It was like getting hit in the face with a two-by-four,” says Bounous. “That was (Astle’s) first trip to Europe. He was on an unbelievable high. Just over the moon, and so confident. He just knew that he was going to take off from there. His confidence was soaring.”
Word spread fast through the tight-knit ski racing community, with Facebook tributes, a few wild rumors. The elder members of the U.S. team, racing on the FIS World Cup tour, honored their teammates at a slalom race in Croatia where they wore messages affixed to the front of their helmets with the initials BA and RB.
Berlack was a graduate of Burke Mountain Academy, the famed Vermont ski school where his father is a longtime coach (his mother also coaches skiing). One of Berlack’s schoolmates at Burke was Alpine skiing phenom Mikaela Shiffrin, crowned Olympic slalom champion last winter at Sochi.
“He radiated what all parents hope their kids discover, a completely unfettered enthusiasm and passion for what they are doing,” said another Burke alum, NBC and Universal Sports commentator Steve Porino, in an online video tribute to the two skiers.
Astle and Berlack were among the very best prospects the U.S. Olympic team had for potentially winning Alpine skiing medals at the 2022 Winter Games, which will be staged in either Kazakhstan or China. The 2018 Olympics in South Korea weren’t out of reach, but top male ski racers tend to develop at a slower rate than females, peaking in their mid-20s or later.
To succeed at the very top levels of ski racing, athletes need to be meticulous and disciplined, but must also preserve a streak of kamikaze recklessness — a willingness to take risks and test limits in search of speed. In that respect, Astle and Berlack were well equipped for the sport they had chosen.
“He was always skiing chutes and leaping off cliffs,” says Bounous of Astle. “He was just passionate about skiing, period. His favorite thing to do. You don’t tame that. You embrace it.”
Bounous resents some commentary on the tragedy that he believes portrays the racers as reckless for going free-skiing. Bounous said Astle, like all members of the Snowbird team, had been given backcountry safety education from a young age, with experts from the Utah Avalanche Center instructing them on conditions and leading them through rescue drills.
“You want your athletes to love skiing,” Bounous says. “That’s what they should be doing. When you get a sunny day with fresh powder that’s what they should be doing. Enjoy the sport for what it is.”
Back in Soelden, participants in the team’s training camp described a surreal scene in the aftermath of the deadly slide. While the athletes met with the Ambassador, the coaches packed up the Astle’s and Berlack’s belongings at the small cluster of apartments where the team was staying.
In a surreal twist, the town was filling up with big-budget feature film crew — days after the accident, the peaks above Soelden were being used as a filming location for Spectre, the next installment of the James Bond franchise. (Daniel Craig is on site, shooting a scene involving a tunnel through which the roadway passes.)
So the teammates left town and took a 90-minute drive to Patsch, a small ski town near the city of Innsbruck. The mountain hosted the Alpine skiing events at the 1976 Winter Olympics, including the men’s downhill won by Austrian favorite Franz Klammer, perhaps the most celebrated ski racer in history.
After some consideration, the survivors decided to honor Astle and Berlack by going skiing. One of the young racers executed a perfect backflip off a 40-foot cornice in honor of his lost teammates, enjoying the sport for what it is.