Killed by snow

Two U.S. Olympic skiers suffocate under avalanche

By Elaine Gerou
Managing Editor

Six developmental-level U.S. Ski Team members set off a deadly avalanche that plowed 1,500 feet down when freeskiing in the Austrian Alps on Jan. 5, killing two team members, 20-year-old Ronnie Berlack from New Hampshire and 19-year-old Bryce Astle from Utah. Luckily, the other four were able to escape and ski out of the slide unscathed.

The accident has the U.S. Ski Team “in shock,” although officials from the Tyrolean region said an avalanche alert was declared for the area due to heavy snowfall days prior to the accident and mild temperatures. The skiers did not fully understand the risk they were taking, as American ski resorts do not have nearly as many dangers as Swiss and Austrian resorts do. The skiers were also unprepared for an avalanche, not wearing radio beacons that would transmit signals to potential rescuers.

The snow collapsed on Gaislachkogel, the 10,000 foot-tall mountain near Solden, Austria, which is the annual World Cup season-opening site. More than 60 people formed the rescue party, including mountain rescue teams, local police, skiers at the resort and chairlift operators, in attempt to find the two young men under approximately 15 feet of snow that compressed to be cement-like. When the skiers were found, one was upside-down and the other had his helmet torn off. CPR was attempted, but was no use.

“Ronnie and Bryce were both outstanding ski racers who were passionate about their sport — both on the race course and skiing the mountain,” U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association President and CEO Tiger Shaw said. “Our hearts go out to the Berlack and Astle families, as well as to their extended sport family. Both of them loved what they did and conveyed that to those around them.”

Berlack, of Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, joined the U.S. Ski Team’s Development Team of potential World Cup racers after a spring tryout camp and placing 11th in the downhill event and 17th in the super-G event at the 2013 U.S. Alpine Championships. Astle was invited to train with the developmental team after posting strong early-season results, which included two top-10 finishes in the NorAm Cup races in Canada in December 2014 and13th in the 2014 U.S. Alpine Championships giant slalom event, as the top junior finisher.

“It is very tragic, and I feel for their loved ones. It shows us that no matter how good of a skier you are, you have to be extremely careful when free skiing,” said Ryan Voyles of the Schoolcraft Edgerunner Ski Club. “It can be very dangerous, and you must take the proper precautions to stay safe, especially in places where avalanches can occur.”

Astle and Berlack were two of the best prospects the U.S. Olympic Ski team had for potentially winning medals at the Winter Games in 2022.

The survivors decided to honor their teammates properly by skiing and enjoying the sport, just how Astle and Berlack did. One of the racers even is said to have done a flawless backflip off a 40-foot overhang for his teammates.