U.S. Ski Team shaken by deaths of young racers in Austria avalanche

U.S. Ski Team mourns loss of Olympic hopefuls
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Story highlights

  • "I haven't cried like this in a very long time," a U.S. Ski Team member says
  • She describes Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle as "funny oddballs, great teammates"
  • Astle's friend and fellow skier calls him "sunshine on a cloudy day"

(CNN)They were two rising stars of American skiing -- colorful personalities with bright hopes for the future.

Their deaths in an avalanche at a resort in the Austrian Alps have left their friends on the U.S. Ski Team in shock.
    "I haven't cried like this in a very long time," Katie Ryan, a member of the Alpine B Team, wrote on her blog, in a post titled "Ski in Peace Boys."
    Ronnie Berlack, 20, and Bryce Astle, 19 were two development-level ski racers who were among six people skiing when the avalanche struck. The four others were able to ski out of danger.
    "The sudden deaths of Ronnie and Bryce will shake the entire Ski Racing community as it has shaken me," Ryan wrote on her blog.
    "They were funny oddballs, great teammates and fierce competitors. I have no doubt they would have gone on the race World Cup and beyond," she wrote. "My heart breaks for their families, for the teammates who witnessed it all and for their coaches."
    It's a "very sad day for the U.S. Ski Team, said head men's coach Sasha Rearick on CNN Tuesday. "We're holding strong as a family together. For sure it's been an emotional 24 hours."
    Coach remembers skiers killed in avalanche
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    Coach remembers skiers killed in avalanche 04:49
    Hopes for future
    In his last post on Instagram, Astle hinted at his hopes for the coming year and beyond.
    "2014 was definitely badass...but 2015 will be badasser," said his caption on a photo of sunlight bursting over craggy snow-covered mountains.
    The post, from five days ago, said he had ended the year at the Alta Ski Area in Utah and was next heading "off to Europe!"
    One of the hashtags he added was #roadtopyeongchang, a reference to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
    Astle, from Sandy, Utah, had been invited to train with the development team. He was 13th in giant slalom at the U.S. Alpine Championships last March, ending as the top junior.
    Skier Devin Davis, who roomed with Astle at U.S. nationals, called him "sunshine on a cloudy day."
    "He showed me the joy of the sport and the love and the passion and made me want to come back and keep skiing," Davis told CNN affiliate KSL.
    "Brice always had a smile on his face, always enjoyed whatever he was doing -- whether it was training hard or hanging with friends," said Rearick.
    Berlack, from Franconia, New Hampshire, was named to the U.S. Ski Team's Development Team after a spring 2013 tryout camp. He finished 11th in downhill and 17th in super G at the 2013 U.S. Alpine Championships in Squaw Valley, California.
    An autographed photo of Berlack hangs in Franconia Village Store. "He was a fine young man," owner Steve Heath told CNN affiliate WMUR. "Always had a big smile on his face. We're always real happy to see him. The type of kid that would come in and say, 'Hi Steve,' and look right at you.'"
    Heath said Berlack was in the store during the holidays. His parents and sister live in the town, WMUR reported.
    The skier told the store owner that he was heading to Europe to ski the Europa races, the affiliate said.
    Berlack had attended Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, which released a statement saying that the skier was "loved and deeply respected" and praising his "huge spirit."
    "He was a talent, but more than a talent, he was someone who didn't see limitations," school headmaster Kirk Dwyer told WMUR. "And he thought that if he wanted to achieve something, he just set his mind out to do it, and generally he did."
    "Everyone loved [Berlack's] enthusiasm for being part of the team," said Rearick.
    Rescuers 'tried everything to save them'
    Hansjoerg Posch, a cable car manager at the resort in Soelden where the two Americans were killed, said they and the other four skiers left the safe slopes and went out into an open area Monday.
    There had been a lot of wind over the past few days that had moved new snow into the area before the avalanche, Posch told CNN. The avalanche risk was set at level 3 out of 5, with warnings on TV and radio not to go off piste, he said.
    A team of around 60 rescuers, including dogs and two helicopters, took 40 to 50 minutes to find Astle and Berlack, Posch said, adding that it took so long because the two Americans weren't wearing gear that sends out signals to rescuers after avalanches.
    Four U.S. men's skiers tried immediately to rescue their teammates. "The amount of strength and courage that those individuals demonstrated was remarkable," said Rearick.
    The searchers eventually found the two men about 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet) under the snow, he said.
    The rescue team "tried everything to save them" but without success, Posch said.
    Tom Kelly, the vice president of communications with the U.S. Ski Team, said the four surviving skiers had no injuries -- "none whatsoever."
    Ryan talked on her blog about the risk that skiers face from avalanches.
    "It could have been any one or all of those six boys caught in that avalanche," she said. "It could have been any two of my teammates. It could have been me."