An avalanche in Mill Creek Canyon crashed down the north face of Wilson’s Peak on Saturday, killing four young Utahns in one of the deadliest slides in Utah’s modern recreation era.
One skier clung to a tree as seven others were swept away. Six were buried, and one was partially covered in snow, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
The avalanche would have been even more deadly, said forecaster Drew Hardesty, had the skier who had escaped not immediately begun fighting to save lives.
He used a transceiver to locate signals being transmitted by beacons carried by buried skiers, and dug down to two who were trapped under 3 to 5 feet of snow, Hardesty said.
“To see this occur,” he said, “and then have the wherewithal to go acquire the [beacon] signals and do not one but two full and deep burials and rescue two lives, is amazing.”
But the four who died — two women and two men, all in their 20s — matched the number killed in the state in 1992, when a skier-triggered avalanche hit Gold Basin near Moab.
Here’s a timeline of the Mill Creek avalanche.
A Friday warning
“There are hundreds and thousands of slopes that are ready to avalanche right now,” Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Toby Weed told FOX 13 on Friday.
The heavy powder that had fallen on top of a weak layer of snow was creating high-risk conditions that could be “deceiving to even people that are really experienced,” he said.
“It’s not getting safer right now, it’s getting even more dangerous,” Weed said, urging people to stay out of the backcountry.
A repeated message
The center had similar warnings on its site, and was steering people away especially from high elevation, steep, north-facing slopes. It deemed the avalanche risk in the area “high.”
Three hours before the avalanche, the center tweeted: “High Danger. Large natural avalanches overnight. Dangerous avalanche conditions. Keep it low angle.”
Saturday morning ski trips
A group of five skiers came over the ridge from Big Cottonwood Canyon into Mill Creek Canyon early Saturday, officials said, starting down Wilson Glade into Alexander Basin. The basin is a precipitous bowl below the divide between the two canyons, under the shadow of Wilson Peak.
Meanwhile, a group of three skiers — University of Utah Health nurse Stephanie Hopkins, according to her family, and two men — were hiking up the slope from the Mill Creek Canyon side.
All eight men and women were carrying avalanche safety gear, including beacons, said Unified police Sgt. Melody Cutler.
A ‘hard slab’ breaks loose
The avalanche began on the ridge line separating the two canyons, on north-facing terrain, said Hardesty, with the Utah Avalanche Center. It broke free at an elevation of 9,600 feet, the center said, down a slope that, at 31 degrees, was not particularly steep — likely evidence that the conditions were exceptionally unstable.
The center’s preliminary report estimated the cascading snow was a layer 2 1/2 feet deep and 250 feet wide.
But after a visit the next day, the center described the slab as deeper and wider — 3 1/2 feet thick, stretching across 1,000 feet and falling for 400 vertical feet.
When it stopped, only the skier who had grabbed a tree was free; he had been with the group of five skiers.
Six of the other skiers were fully buried, while one was partially covered.
A call for help
Unified police first received a distress call at 11:40 a.m., Cutler said.
As a Life Flight helicopter arrived, the crew didn’t immediately see anyone, said pilot Richard Dobson. But after a few minutes, he spotted four people along a tree line. One was performing CPR on one of the injured skiers.
“At that point,” Dobson said, “we knew that the situation was a dire situation.”
The skier who had been receiving CPR did not survive.
Hopkins, 26, of Salt Lake City, was the only skier who died from the group of three who had been lower on the slope, her family said; the two men with her survived.
Three died from the group of five who came over the ridge: Sarah Moughamian, 29, of Sandy, and Louis Holian, 26, and Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, 23, both of Salt Lake City.
The two men with them also survived. One had been Moughamian’s soulmate, who freed her from the snow but was unable to revive her, her mother, Jill Moughamian told KSL-Channel 5.
The response begins
Life Flight paramedic Rick Black spent nearly two hours being hoisted down from and up to the helicopter, as he helped retrieve three of the four men who survived. The four rescued were between the ages of 23 and 38, officials said.
Between the noise of the helicopter and the helmet he was wearing, Black mostly communicated with the three men through hand gestures. But he could see how affected they were by the disaster, he said.
“You had a group of individuals that started out — it’s a beautiful morning, you’re with friends, and then without warning, it turns out to be the worst day of their lives,” Black said. “It was obviously a real traumatic experience for those individuals.”
A Department of Public Safety helicopter extracted the fourth man.
By afternoon, survivors were off the mountain. None had life-threatening injuries, and they were not hospitalized.
Crews eventually stopped for the night, planning to return Sunday to recover the four bodies.
A recovery mission
Crews and avalanche researchers returned to Mill Creek Canyon the next day.
Rescue officials first checked to see whether they needed to do avalanche control, Cutler said. “They chose not to, but the rescuers are there now,” she said Sunday morning. “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.
By 3:20 p.m., all four bodies had been recovered and flown out of the canyon, and flights were continuing to bring down the recovery crews.
Remembering those lost
By Sunday evening, tributes were appearing on social media to Hopkins, Moughamian, Holian and Steinbrecher. They were remembered as avid outdoor adventurers who loved Utah’s mountains and deserts and redrock country.
On Monday, FOX 13 reported that family and friends of the four victims are planning a day of celebration and remembrance for them. The event will start at 7 a.m. Sunday at the Gear Room, 3422 Fort Union Blvd., near the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
There will be a bike ride to a hill where Steinbrecher and Holian loved to ski, organizers told FOX 13. Then the event will move to Hangar 15, 3969 Wasatch Blvd., a bicycle shop where Holian worked.
Organizers told FOX 13 that anyone who knew the victims is encouraged to come share stories and connect with one another.
Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.