Four dead in Mill Creek Canyon avalanche, matching most killed in one slide in modern state history

The avalanche happened near Wilson Peak, on steep, north-facing terrain.

[Updated: Crews recover bodies of Utah skiers killed in avalanche; dangerous conditions will persist, expert says]

Four skiers died in an avalanche in Mill Creek Canyon on Saturday, making it one of the most deadly slides in the era of modern recreation.

The skier-triggered avalanche swept up eight people in their early 20s to late 30s who were in two groups touring the backcountry, Unified police Sgt. Melody Cutler said. She said a group of three people were from Mill Creek Canyon and a group of five were from Big Cottonwood Canyon.

All the skiers were carrying avalanche safety gear, including beacons, shovels and probes, Cutler told The Salt Lake Tribune. Unified police first received a distress call at 11:40 a.m., Cutler said. The four survivors were able to dig out the skiers who died, she added, but the bodies may not be recovered until Sunday morning, depending on the chance of further slides and daylight.

The four who survived had minor injuries and are off the mountain. Two people survived from each group, according to Cutler.

[Read more: Skier ‘grabbed a tree and held on for dear life’: How his quick actions saved two lives in Mill Creek avalanche]

Drew Hardesty with the Utah Avalanche Center said the victims were experienced skiers who were well known in the community, calling their deaths a terrible tragedy.

The avalanche happened near Wilson Peak, Hardesty said, on the ridge line separating Big Cottonwood Canyon and Mill Creek Canyon. He said it happened on steep, north-facing terrain.

The Utah Avalanche Center had deemed the avalanche risk in the area “high.” Hours prior to the slide, it tweeted out a warning that there was “High Danger. Large natural avalanches overnight. Dangerous avalanche conditions. Keep it low angle.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Search and rescue crews respond to the top of Mill Creek Canyon on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, where four skiers died in an avalanche near Wilson Peak.

The slide had a depth of 2.5 feet and was 250 feet wide, according to the center’s preliminary report. Staff planned to visit the site Sunday.

Two other people have died in avalanches in Utah this year, a snowboarder on Jan. 8 and a skier on Jan. 30. In total, 20 people nationwide have died in avalanches during the 2020-21 season, 16 of which were skiers or snowboarders. The last time an avalanche took as many skiers or snowboarders was when five were killed near Loveland Pass in Colorado in 2013.

Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Toby Weed told FOX 13 on Friday that as of then, 10 people throughout the United States in the preceding week had not made it back from the backcountry to see their families because they triggered a deadly avalanche.

He said the avalanche risk is so high that it’s not about having the right equipment this weekend, it’s about avoiding the backcountry entirely.

“It’s not getting safer right now — it’s getting more dangerous,” Weed said.

Forecasters anticipate the weakened snow conditions to persist until the end of the 2020-21 snow season, the FOX 13 report said.

(Photo courtesy John Diener) A slide near Wilson Peak above Mill Creek Canyon shows the site of an avalanche that killed four skiers on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.

UPD has closed Mill Creek Canyon to recreation at least through Sunday, FOX 13 reported, but restaurants and businesses in the canyon will still be open.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said on Twitter that rescue teams were on site Saturday afternoon. Intermountain Healthcare sent three LifeFlight medical aircraft and crews to assist, spokesman Jess Gomez said on Twitter.

Four is the highest number of deaths in an avalanche in the Wasatch Mountains since 1914, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. It would also match the state record. Four people were killed in a skier-triggered avalanche in Gold Basin near Moab in 1992.

Three died in an avalanche that swept up 15 people in Provo Canyon near Sundance Resort in 2003.

Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted that the deaths are a terrible tragedy. He said people should exercise extreme caution because of the current avalanche conditions.

A skier triggered an avalanche in the nearby Alexander Basin area Friday, Hardesty noted in his Saturday report for the Utah Avalanche Center. That slide was two to three feet deep and up to 500 feet wide.

Hardesty also noted that the center knows of nearly 40 avalanches that slid over the past week in the mountains around Salt Lake City, but the “actual number is likely much higher.”

FOX 13 is a reporting partner of The Salt Lake Tribune.