Utah avalanche season exacts heartbreaking toll
Statistically speaking, Utah's avalanche season could not have been more average.
Four people died, equaling the average number of fatalities annually in snowslides around the state. But as Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Drew Hardesty observed in his emotional report on the 2012-13 season, the stories underlying the numbers are a reminder that tragedies are never ordinary and that this winter's toll was particularly hard to take for avalanche-safety professionals.
"In terms of the mark [the fatalities] left upon communities and families, particularly our avalanche family, it sits among that loose plurality of 'second to none,' " he said, largely because we "lost one of our own."
The death of Craig Patterson, a Utah Department of Transportation forecaster who was swept away April 11 by an avalanche on Kessler Peak in Big Cottonwood Canyon, was gut-wrenching for his state and U.S. Forest Service colleagues who recovered his body, informed his family of the accident and investigated what happened.
"To say this was part of a cathartic or healing process would be missing the point. We all travel in the mountains alone and all agreed that this could have happened to any of us," Hardesty wrote. "The investigation was the easy part. The hard part fell to those going in the night before to retrieve Craig. â¦ Hardest of all, of course, was going to see his wife and 6-year-old daughter."
No less tragic were the Jan. 18 deaths of Coleman and Traven Sweat, brothers aged 14 and 7, on a family snowmobiling trip in the Uinta Mountains.
"This twin fatality stops us in our tracks," Hardesty said, recounting how the Sweat family stopped for lunch just off the groomed Mill Hollow road near the Duchesne River. "What follows may be more than one family can bear."
Four family members went to the edge of what appeared to be a packed trail overlooking the river. But it actually was a cornice that broke loose, taking the two boys with it. The collapse triggered more slides, burying the brothers and asphyxiating them.
"This one leaves one speechless with sorrow," he said. "This family, too, will never be the same."
The fourth fatality also was a family man, James Child, 32, a husband and father of four. The Pleasant Grove man was snowmobiling with friends on the Manti-Skyline Plateau when he was buried by an avalanche 2 feet deep and 350 feet wide.
Those were the lowest points, Hardesty said, in a season in which the Avalanche Center learned of 51 people being caught in slides, and 34 carried some distance by the snow. Ten victims were partially submerged while six more were fully buried.
"There are tragedies and there are reasons to rejoice," he added, noting "We investigated three full and complete avalanche burials with three full and complete recoveries."
One took place in mid-January in Depth Hoar Bowl in upper Mill Creek Canyon, the second a few weeks later in the Whisky Hill area near Monte Cristo above Ogden and the third in Broads Fork of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Nationally, 24 people died in slides last winter, down from 34 a year earlier. Colorado had the most fatalities 11, including five snowboarders killed April 20 near Loveland Pass.
Alta Guard Station in upper Little Cottonwood Canyon received 381.5 inches of snow from Nov. 1 to April 30, 76 percent of the annual average since 1944-45. The snow contained 33.13 inches of water.