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

The four people who were killed in Mill Creek Canyon on Saturday have been identified; all were in their 20s.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Search and Rescue members watch as a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter lands, carrying the belongings and the body of one of four people who died in an avalanche in Mill Creek Canyon Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021.

Editor’s note • This story contains sensitive photography from Sunday’s recovery of the four skiers killed in Saturday’s avalanche.

The deadly avalanche that swept eight skiers down a Utah mountain Saturday occurred against a backdrop of soaring backcountry use coinciding with hazardous avalanche conditions created by the most shallow midwinter snowpack in years.

On Sunday, the Unified Police Department identified the four skiers who died in the upper reaches of Mill Creek Canyon, just outside Salt Lake City, in an area called Wilson Glade. They were members of two separate groups who happened to be on the same slope when the avalanche was released.

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

Six skiers were completely buried. Two were able to extricate themselves and look for their companions using transceivers that backcountry travelers carry in avalanche terrain, according to report posted by the Utah Avalanche Center. Two of the buried skiers were recovered alive, while four were not found in time. The skiers who died are:

• Sarah Moughamian, 29, of Sandy.

• Louis Holian, 26, of Salt Lake City.

• Stephanie Hopkins, 26, of Salt Lake City.

• Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, 23, of Salt Lake City.

The four survivors, all men ages 23 to 38, were retrieved from the mountain by LifeFlight helicopters and crews. None had life-threatening injuries, and they were not hospitalized.

Because of unstable snow conditions, the efforts to recover the four deceased skiers were paused Saturday and resumed early Sunday. By afternoon, the victims’ bodies had been removed from the mountain.

[Read more: Life Flight rescuers could see Saturday’s Mill Creek avalanche ‘was a dire situation,’ pilot says]

The U.S. Forest Service’s avalanche center is investigating the accident and will provide updates on its website. The conditions on Saturday were considered high risk, particularly in the type of terrain — north-facing and high elevation — where the avalanche took place.

Wilson Glade is adjacent to Alexander Basin, a precipitous bowl below Mill Creek’s divide with Big Cottonwood Canyon, under the shadows of Wilson Peak and Gobblers Knob. The eight skiers were on Wilson’s northeast face in separate groups, five skiers who entered from Big Cottonwood Canyon and three who came up from below, according to officials.

The cascading snow was a 3.5-foot-deep “hard slab” that broke free at an elevation of 9,600 feet, according to the avalanche center’s report posted late Sunday. At 31 degrees, the slope was not particularly steep. The avalanche measured 1,000 feet wide and ran for 400 vertical feet.

Rescue officials “checked [the area] this [Sunday] morning to see if they needed to do avalanche control,” said Unified police Sgt. Melody Cutler. “They chose not to, but the rescuers are there now. It still is pretty unstable up there. So they’re trying to be as careful as possible.”

The Unified Police Department ferried people and gear to the avalanche site using a helicopter borrowed from the Utah Department of Public Safety.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Department of Public Safety tactical flight operator Nick Napierski, right, on Sunday helps Salt Lake County Search and Rescue members to remove a net carrying the personal effects and the body of one of four people who died Saturday in an avalanche in Mill Creek Canyon.

The flights were staged from the parking area where the Mill Creek Canyon road is gated for the winter. After dropping off the search crew, the pilot left the canyon to refuel and returned to the accident site around noon to ferry the victims back to the staging area, where a medical examiner was waiting.

It is not yet known whether the four skiers died from traumatic injuries or suffocation; the slide dragged two of them through areas with trees, Cutler said.

Officials closed the canyon, popular with nordic skiers and hikers this time of year, at the staging area, while the entire canyon below the Terraces remained open Sunday.

All eight skiers were well prepared and had the necessary equipment for the conditions, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office said. “Our hearts go out to loved ones of the skiers lost in Saturday’s avalanche,” Sheriff Rosie Rivera said.

Saturday’s tragedy was a testament not just to this winter’s unstable snowpack, but potentially also the crowding in Wasatch backcountry, where the superb snow and ski terrain is easily accessed from plowed mountain roads and ski areas. For the past several years, Utah avalanche forecasters have been warning that a multi-casualty accident could happen, given the growing numbers of parties touring near each other.

The pandemic appears to be pushing even more powder-seekers into Wasatch backcountry, thanks in part to capacity limits that ski areas have implemented to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Avalanche conditions, meanwhile, have been particularly dangerous in recent weeks due to this winter’s low snowfall, according to avalanche forecaster Craig Gordon.

“It is completely counterintuitive to think that it has hardly snowed this winter, yet we’re seeing extremely dangerous avalanche conditions,” Gordon said. ”In a shallow snowpack, in particular, the layers grow weak, they grow sugary, they become an unstable foundation.”

Thin snowpacks, like the ones recorded this winter in Utah’s mountains, tend to lose their cohesion because moisture migrates through the snowpack more quickly.

“The instability lingers for long periods of time and now it’s buried and in the lower portion of our snowpack,” Gordon said. “Each time we load that with either new snow or wind, it reactivates the dormant layers, brings them back to life. And it is the perfect combination for deceptively tricky avalanche conditions here in the Wasatch.”

Forecasters recognized this on Friday, Jan. 29, and put out a stern warning after new snow fell, urging extreme caution. The next day, skier Kurt Damschroder triggered the slide that killed him on Square Top while skiing out of bounds at Park City Mountain Resort.

Another storm on Friday left a foot or more of dense snow over much of the Wasatch. On Saturday morning, the avalanche center posted the following forecast for Salt Lake City-area mountains.

“Areas of HIGH DANGER exist this morning in steep upper elevation terrain. This danger is most pronounced on north through southeast facing slopes. A CONSIDERABLE danger exists at the mid-elevations and this is where we may see a few close calls today. Avalanches may be up to 5 feet deep and over several hundred feet wide.”

The avalanche center reported 27 slides on Saturday in the Uinta, Bear River and Wasatch mountains, nine of which were triggered by backcountry travelers. One swept a snowmobiler down Mary Ellen Gulch, leaving the rider partially buried, but unharmed.

Utah’s avalanche hazard won’t likely subside soon.

“What we need for this snowpack to heal and start turning the corner, at least suggesting a glimmer of hope, is a consistent storm track and we need to put some thick insulating layers on top of this snowpack,” Gordon said.

“But right now, we’ve just been getting nickel and dimed, and once it does start snowing and if it does start snowing in earnest, this won’t happen overnight,” he said. “Avalanche conditions will get super crazy or tricky. … This is with us for a while.”

Former Salt Lake City mayor and avid outdoorsman Ralph Becker was out skiing on Saturday near the area of the avalanche. The 68-year-old saw helicopters and hospital helicopters flying overheard.

Becker said the tragic event came after a period of time when, due to work from the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center and others, the state has seen a significant reduction in avalanche accidents and deaths. Officials and agencies had warned that there would be dangerous avalanche conditions over the weekend due to recent snow.

“If you are really careful and understand avalanche conditions, you tremendously reduce your risk,” Becker said. “Clearly, that’s a slope people shouldn’t have been on yesterday.”

While the backcountry has seen exceptionally risky conditions this winter, many people cooped up by the pandemic have been going out to ski, including those with less experience.

Becker hopes Saturday’s avalanche will serve as a wake-up call. “I hope it sort of grabs people’s attention and makes them that much more cautious,” he said.

“I don’t want to see people not going into the backcountry and enjoying it,” he said, pointing to the “enormous amount [of] health benefits, physically and mentally for us.” But, he said, “that’s an unnecessary risk to get on a slope like that under the conditions we’re having this winter, at least leading up to this point in time.

“I hope it causes people to increase their caution in the backcountry, because yesterday was just so tragic and massive.”