Star skier among 3 dead in huge Wash. avalanche

STEVENS PASS, Wash. - Three skiers died Sunday after being caught in a major avalanche at popular ski resort in Washington state.

Nine others survived the slide at Stevens Pass, about 80 miles northeast of Seattle.

Despite warnings of a "high avalanche danger," visitors packed the ski area, hoping to take advantage of a long holiday weekend and two feet of fresh powder.

Those killed were expert skiers, but no match for the extreme conditions.

The avalanche tore through pine trees, building up speed before burying a dozen skiers, all on a back-country run.

"Those that were able to extricate themselves quickly immediately began their rescue mode, looking for the other persons in their party,' says Chris Bedker of the King County Sheriff's Office. " ... We do have 3 fatalities."

CBS News has learned through friends of the victims that the dead include Jim Jack, a former extreme skier who judged "free-skiing" competitions around the world. Friends say he was on the mountain making a video with Chris Rudolph, a marketing director for the Stevens Pass ski area. A third man, John Brenan, also died.

Pro skier Elyse Saugstad was saved by an avalanche airbag. "It kept her atop the avalanche and saved her life," says Bedker.

Earlier this month, the same kind of gear saved professional snowboarder Meesh Hytner from an avalanche in Colorado. "I see the ground in front of me ripple," Hytner says. "It was like the Earth was breathing. Once an avalanche has you, you're not going anywhere."

She deployed an airbag as she was being swallowed by a wall of snow.

John Swanson was snowmobiling in Washington's Cascade range when he was buried alive late last month. "I was getting suffocated, face first into the snow," he says. Several friends rushed to rescue Swanson, digging frantically to free him.

Nationwide, there have been 17 avalanche deaths this season.

One of the many triggers for an avalanche is a slick snow base caused by a warm winter -- like this year's -- that can cause newly-fallen snow to slide right off it.

Many expect the dangerous conditions that led to this tragedy to continue throughout the spring ski season.

A young snowboarder was killed Sunday in a separate incident when an avalanche in the Snoqualmie Pass pushed him off a cliff.

The victims in both incidents were outside the designated ski-runs.

To see Bill Whitaker's report, click on the video in the player above.