'Off Piste' movie chronicles avalanche deaths of two US Olympic hopefuls

Article Image

In January 2015, Ronnie Berlack & Bryce Astle were training with the US Ski Team in Solden, Austria. While freeskiing off-piste, the snow suddenly shifted.

Posted: Jan 24, 2019 12:20 PM
Updated: Jan 24, 2019 12:20 PM

It was a beautiful Monday morning in the Austrian Alps when six young US ski racers set off for a day of freeskiing.

But what should have been a relaxing morning on the slopes of Sölden turned into tragedy when the group skied down an unmarked, ungroomed slope and unwittingly caused an avalanche.

The 13-minute "Off Piste: Tragedy in the Alps" movie, released by the Bryce and Ronnie Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS), opens with a dramatic re-enactment of the moment immediately after the huge avalanche engulfed two future ski stars on the US youth team on January 5, 2015.

Their four team mates frantically dug in the snow to find them, to no avail. When the two Americans were finally found, buried under 12 feet of snow, Austrian rescue workers tried to resuscitate them, but it was too late. Bryce Astle, 19, and Ronnie Berlack, 20, were pronounced dead at the scene.

"We stood there, and we watched them go," one of their team mates, Eric Arvidsson, says in the movie. "Nothing made any sense."

Visit CNN/com/sport for more news, features and videos

'Candid'

The short film, executive produced by Cindy and Steve Berlack, Ronnie's parents, and Bryce's parents, Jamie and Laura Astle, tries to answer two questions.

First, how could this happen to two US Olympic skiing hopefuls who had grown up in the mountains? And second, what can be done to prevent it from happening again?

"Right from the time of Ronnie and Bryce's accident it's been the goal of the families to use the tragedy as an opportunity to educate others," says BRASS chairman Jamie Astle on the foundation's website.

"For that reason, we wanted to be very candid and forthcoming with the film to reach viewing audiences with a very simple yet poignant message."

Pictures of powder: Meet the color blind ski photographer

The movie features some of the sport's biggest names, including Olympic champions Bode Miller and Mikaela Shiffrin, who befriended Ronnie while they attended the Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont.

After the dramatic opening scene, the "Off Piste" movie cuts to home videos of Bryce and Ronnie, celebrating a fourth birthday, playing baseball and taking their first turns on skis.

It is a deeply moving segment that brings home the gaping hole their deaths have left in their families' lives.

"He always had my back, and it makes you appreciate it a lot more now that he is not here," says Chris Astle, Bryce's younger brother, choking back tears.

READ: Marcel Hirscher breaks record with 63rd World Cup win

What happened?

Bryce Astle grew up in the mountains of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. He had been a top junior technical skier in North America and was the US junior giant slalom champion.

Ronnie Berlack was raised in Franconia, New Hampshire. Berlack, who joined the US development squad in 2013, also excelled in other sports, including soccer, tennis, cycling and sailing.

On New Year's Day 2015, the pair traveled to Sölden, near Innsbruck, to train for a Europa Cup event, the tier below the World Cup.

When training was canceled because of heavy snowfall, the US coaches gave the development team part of the day off to do some free skiing.

With mostly clear blue skies, sunshine and lots of fresh snow, the young men started from the top of the 3,058-meter (10,000 feet) Gaislachkogl, one of three peaks above 3,000 meters in Sölden.

At 9:40 a.m., the group left the prepared piste to go down a steep ungroomed slope that connected to another marked and groomed trail about 1,200 feet below.

"I initially remember skiing across this face, and all of a sudden, I just heard cracking," said US skier Drew Duffy, one of the four men who escaped the avalanche.

"I saw Bryce and heard him say 'Oh s---.' I never even saw Ronnie," said Arvidsson.

A 21-page "Sölden Avalanche Accident Report" into the tragedy on the BRASS website concluded it is "likely that their collective weight triggered the avalanche."

The Austrian authorities later said the avalanche was of medium size, meaning it was strong enough to destroy a small building. Its weight was equivalent to 10 Boeing 747 airplanes.

Ronnie and Bryce were found deep under the cement-like snow almost an hour later, via digging and probing by their four remaining team mates, along with two European skiers who had gone down the slope minutes earlier, and local rescue services.

"That was an image that I will never forget," said US skier Addison Dvoracek.

READ: Horror crash for Gisin in Val Gardena

READ: Shiffrin sparkles in St. Moritz clean sweep

Could it have been prevented?

The 2015 accident report, conducted by Bruce Tremper, the retired director of the Utah Avalanche Center, cited a lack of clarity in avalanche warnings, snow safety education and knowledge of the local ski environment by athletes and coaches on the US ski team as "primary issues."

"None of the young men in that group knew the difference between on and off piste," Ronnie's father Steve Berlack says in the film. "Off piste in the United States is defined as out of bounds, going through a gate. In Europe, when you are off a groomer you are off piste."

In addition, the avalanche warning signs were all in German, while none of the skiers carried avalanche gear such as a beacon or a shovel.

'Change avalanche warning systems'

Since the deaths, the Astle and Berlack families have campaigned for changes in warning systems along with education to prevent avalanche accidents.

In October, Cindy Berlack addressed a conference of 1,000 avalanche experts in Innsbruck.

"I am not a snow scientist," she said. "I am an emotionally driven mom. Your mom could be standing here, if it had been you."

She pleaded for warning signs to be written in the local language and English, urged authorities to post clear danger signs when the snow is unstable off the groomed trails, called for adjustments to the international warning scale, and suggested boosting avalanche education.

"It was a Level 3 'considerable' warning on that day," Cindy Berlack said. "Being in the middle of the scale, it appeared to our boys' coach that the danger was moderate. They allowed the athletes to go free riding, unaware the level was actually deadly. Adjust the danger levels 3-5 so visitors will take a Level 3 warning seriously. Also, the word 'considerable,' is not a strong clear message that the snow is very dangerous."

Sölden will now have avalanche warning signs both in German and English, featuring the pictures of Bryce and Ronnie.

More education

The tragedy rocked the US ski team to its core.

"Losing Bryce and Ronnie was a huge loss to the US team," said Steve Nyman, a three-time World Cup winner. "They were the next generation. These two guys were the best in their disciplines -- Bryce in slalom and Ronnie in downhill and super G."

Tiger Shaw, chief executive officer and chairman of US Ski & Snowboard, said he was "shattered, and I think everyone around me was, too. I can't possibly imagine what it was like for the families."

The loss of two of the team's brightest prospects "causes a ton of introspective thought," Shaw said.

"We realized that we really needed to look at it from the top down, bottom up. How can we make sure everybody is more educated to avert and reduce the chance of anything like this ever happening again?"

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 26273

Reported Deaths: 1126
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin8867641
Ramsey3252140
Stearns205014
Nobles15625
Anoka148878
Dakota141464
Washington68034
Olmsted67211
Kandiyohi5111
Rice4833
Scott4602
Clay44129
Mower4062
Wright3392
Todd3361
Sherburne2482
Carver2322
Benton1823
Steele1670
Blue Earth1480
Freeborn1420
Martin1325
St. Louis11814
Pine930
Nicollet8811
Lyon811
Winona8015
Cottonwood790
Watonwan780
Crow Wing774
Unassigned7511
Carlton750
Otter Tail730
Goodhue715
Chisago641
Polk612
Itasca5610
Dodge530
Chippewa521
Morrison480
Le Sueur461
Meeker460
Douglas450
Becker430
Jackson420
Murray400
McLeod390
Isanti360
Waseca270
Pennington230
Rock230
Mille Lacs231
Faribault200
Swift190
Beltrami180
Wabasha180
Fillmore171
Sibley160
Brown162
Norman150
Pipestone120
Marshall120
Kanabec121
Wilkin113
Cass112
Aitkin110
Wadena100
Pope100
Koochiching90
Big Stone80
Redwood70
Renville70
Mahnomen61
Lincoln60
Yellow Medicine60
Grant40
Traverse40
Red Lake40
Lac qui Parle30
Clearwater30
Roseau30
Hubbard30
Houston20
Kittson10
Lake10
Stevens10

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 20767

Reported Deaths: 583
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk4541137
Woodbury283737
Black Hawk177548
Buena Vista9971
Linn97179
Dallas94025
Marshall91218
Wapello62814
Johnson6189
Muscatine56541
Crawford5472
Tama41029
Scott38010
Dubuque35521
Louisa34911
Pottawattamie31110
Sioux2980
Jasper26917
Wright2120
Washington1958
Warren1661
Plymouth1462
Story1261
Allamakee1204
Mahaska9912
Poweshiek928
Henry722
Bremer706
Boone700
Des Moines671
Clarke660
Clinton651
Taylor640
Webster621
Hamilton610
Guthrie543
Cedar491
Benton431
Monroe415
Shelby370
Cherokee370
Jones370
Jefferson350
Marion350
Osceola340
Clayton343
Cerro Gordo331
Iowa330
Dickinson330
Buchanan330
Madison292
Lee290
Fayette280
Sac280
Davis280
Harrison260
Monona250
Clay250
Lyon240
Winneshiek240
Emmet240
Lucas222
Hardin210
Grundy200
Mills200
Delaware191
Humboldt191
Floyd191
Franklin170
Appanoose173
Hancock160
Butler161
Ida150
Greene150
Pocahontas150
Page140
Kossuth140
Keokuk140
Audubon131
Jackson130
Carroll130
Chickasaw130
Howard120
Cass120
Winnebago110
Montgomery91
Adair90
Union90
Van Buren90
Adams70
Palo Alto70
Calhoun60
Ringgold40
Mitchell40
Fremont40
Worth30
Wayne10
Decatur10
Unassigned00
Rochester
Clear
69° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 69°
Mason City
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 71°
Albert Lea
Overcast
66° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 66°
Austin
Broken Clouds
72° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 72°
Charles City
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 68°
Another round of severe weather tonight
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Pandemic food benefits available to families

Image

Sean Weather 6/5

Image

Covid-19 Cases on the Rise

Image

Becoming a better ally

Image

Giving your best

Image

Coronavirus attacking your blood vessels?

Image

Young Protester's impact on police reform

Image

How important are school resource officers?

Image

Graffiti on Rochester trail

Image

Expedited breast cancer treatment

Community Events