Another skier dies in avalanche

Published February 23, 2007 12:58 am
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Rescuers Thursday recovered the body of a 37-year-old Norwegian man who died in an avalanche in Big Cottonwood Canyon the day before. It is the fourth avalanche death in six days, and weather forecasters are warning skiers of an elevated avalanche danger through the weekend.

Vegard Lund, a former University of Utah graduate student who lived in Stavanger, Norway, was close to the top of the 10,200-foot peak of Gobblers Knob when he triggered an avalanche that swept him 400 feet into a grove of trees, said Sgt. Todd Griffiths, search and rescue coordinator for the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office. The impact with trees likely killed Lund, Griffiths said.

Two Norwegian friends skiing with Lund did not realize anything was wrong until Lund failed to meet them at the trailhead at 4 p.m. He had split from them to ski in a different area, Griffiths said. About an hour and a half later, with no sign of Lund, they called police.

If Lund survived the initial avalanche, there was little hope for him. Rescuers were able to spot the snow slide Wednesday night using night-vision equipment on a hospital helicopter, but the avalanche danger was too high for them to land or hike up, Griffiths said.

"There was a pair of ski tracks going in [to the snow-slide area] and none coming out," said Lt. Jon Fassett with the sheriff's office.

Rescuers from Wasatch Powderbird Guides, a private ski touring company, flew a helicopter over the area Thursday morning and detected Lund's avalanche beacon signal from above. By 10:30 a.m. members of Wasatch Backcountry Rescuers - a collection of area ski patrol guides who volunteer on their off time - and the sheriff's search and rescue team found Lund.

High winds prevented a helicopter from landing, so rescuers brought the body down on skis.

Lund studied mechanical engineering at the University of Utah from 1998 to 2000, according to the school.

Three others died in avalanches in the past week. They include:

* Zachary Holmes, 16, of Farr West, who died Saturday snowmobiling in the Tower Mountain area near Heber City in Wasatch County.

* Michael Pendleton, 44, of Richfield, who died Saturday snowmobiling near Signal Peak in Sevier County.

* Brian Schwartz, 17, of Topsfield, Mass., who died while skiing in the backcountry near Snowbasin ski resort Sunday.

During the 2004-2005 season, eight snowboarders, skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers died, making it the deadliest ski season in Utah history since the U.S. Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center began keeping records in 1951.

The number of avalanche deaths this week easily could have been higher, said Brett Kobernik a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center.

"I've visited a number of close calls," said Kobernik, who visited about 10 human-triggered avalanches around Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo this week. "We are lucky we aren't dealing with more fatalities right now."

The slope Lund apparently attempted to ski is the kind forecasters warn about, Kobernik said.

"Northeastern facing, more than 30 degrees, high elevation," Kobernik said of the northeast slope of Gobblers Knob. "This is the perfect slope if you're looking for an avalanche."

Kobernik said the avalanche was 250 feet wide and 18 inches to 2 feet deep on a 36-degree slope. It triggered other avalanches that totalled 800 feet in length, he said.

Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, said he expected more avalanches to come this weekend. Strong winds up to 50 mph, with gusts up to 80 mph, started Wednesday night and will continue through Thursday night, and a foot of snow is expected today, increasing the danger of natural and human-triggered avalanches, Tremper said.

Tremper said he worried that a sunny forecast for Saturday could mean more skiers will be willing to take risks in the backcountry. He advised skiers to stay off slopes greater than 30 degrees.

"A foot of fresh snow, sunny skies, and a high avalanche danger - that's a bad combination," Tremper said. "There's just a lot of people who aren't going to be able to resist."




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