A memorial service is scheduled for Friday, April 18, for Jacob (Jake) Derry, 27, who died in an avalanche March 22 while skiing Granite Mountain on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass. Mr. Derry, who grew up in Edmonds, graduated from Meadowdale High School in 2005 and Washington State University in 2009. He was working as an architect at GGLO at the time of his death.
You can see Mr. Derry’s complete obituary, submitted by his father Bill Derry, here. His father also shared a Facebook remembrance from Donald Chan, who attended Meadowdale High School with Mr. Derry. “What I will remember most about Jake is his unwavering ability to live his desired life, with a rare sense of passion, a penchant for living in the moment and, undoubtedly, the debating, all wrapped in a package that I imagine all who have met him would describe as genuine,” Chan said.
Bill Derry noted that his son was an avid skier: “Double black diamond runs and out-of-bound cliffs were his playgrounds.” Mr. Derry started teaching skiing at Stevens Pass in the eighth grade, which was very unusual for someone so young, Bill Derry said. After college, the younger Derry taught skiing at Jackson Hole, which is one of the most elite ski schools in the country. Although not part of the avalanche patrol, he skied with the avalanche control crews at both Stevens Pass and Jackson Hole and studied avalanches.
“He learned how to dig test pits, evaluate snow and study the forecasts,” Bill Derry said.
“The day he died, he was wearing an avalanche beacon which is supposed to let people find your body if you are in an avalanche and a device called an ‘avalung,’ which is supposed to let you breath under the snow. He had his helmet, his probe and his shovel,” Bill Derry added. “He skied the backcountry almost every weekend and was extremely experienced.”
Bill Derry then added the following, which he said expressed his strong feelings about backcountry skiing:
There is no such thing as backcountry ski safety.
Jake’s beacon didn’t work because he was actually in an avalanche. In an actual avalanche beacons often don’t work because they are crushed. Jake’s beacon was crushed and also stopped working because it was ripped off his body. Beacons are designed to stop working when the straps are removed because they assume you are done skiing.
Jake’s avalung was shredded. An avalung is also useless in an avalanche because in an avalanche your lungs are compressed and you can’t breathe and because you can’t move your arms to reach it because you are trapped by snow or because your arms are broken.
The probe and the shovel are useless if the beacon doesn’t work and you don’t know where the body is. In a real avalanche, the snow is compacted and turns to ice. The search and rescue crew needed a chain saw to get Jake’s body out of the ice.
The avalanche danger on Granite Mountain is permanently extreme. The entire face is an avalanche chute and there are no trees because of that. The avalanche forecast for the day Jake died was “moderate”. That’s about as low as it ever gets in the winter. The forecast was a mistake. They later changed it to extreme. Backcountry skiers should not trust the forecasts.
Ski movies often show pictures of skiers skiing out of avalanches. These are dangerously misleading. Those skiers are just in minor snow slides or at the very edge of a slide. They are extremely lucky. Jake could ski any mountain but when the entire mountain is moving underneath you there is nothing for your skies to ski against.
There is just too much information out there and too many product advertisements that imply backcountry skiing is safe. It’s not.
Too many young men have trouble fully comprehending the dangers of backcountry skiing and there is just too much information out there that suggests it is safe.