In ‘heroic’ search, skiers in deadly Mill Creek avalanche dug out those they didn’t even know were on the mountain, too

One survivor tried but couldn’t save his girlfriend.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) This graphic shows the placement of the victims of the Mill Creek Canyon avalanche on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Avalanche Center) The crown of a fatal avalanche that occurred in Mill Creek Canyon, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, which was 3-4 feet deep and close to 1,000 feet wide.

Two skiers who barely escaped a deadly avalanche in Mill Creek Canyon shifted instantly from survival to rescue mode as they began a desperate race against time to find three companions who were flushed down Wilson Glades in a snowy torrent.

Their swift action last weekend saved two men, even though the buried skiers they found alive were not the ones they were looking for.

Identified only as Chris and Steve in an official account of the deadly accident posted Friday, the pair used avalanche beacons to scan for signals coming from under a swath of debris hundreds of feet across.

Chris quickly found two signals, and they began digging, expecting to find Chris’ girlfriend or two other friends, but instead came upon Nate, whom they didn’t even know.

Unbeknownst to Chris and Steve, three skiers in another party were below them when the slide tumbled down. So rather than three skiers being trapped, six were buried up to 6 feet deep on that slope, including Sarah Moughamian, whom they found after rescuing Ethan, second skier from the other party.

Moughamian, buried under 2 to 4 feet of snow, was not breathing and had no pulse. Chris turned off his girlfriend’s beacon and started CPR.

He could not revive her.

These were among the new details of the Feb. 6 tragedy to emerge in a full report posted Friday by the Utah Avalanche Center.

“Chris and Steve saved two lives (Nate and Ethan from Group B) with their heroic rescue efforts. Then Chris, Nate, and Steve gave their best attempt to save the rest,” states the report, written by forecaster Trent Meisenheimer and colleagues at the Salt Lake City-based center. “Unfortunately, time was working against them. Their rescue efforts were top-notch, and they knew how to perform companion rescue quickly and efficiently. They did the absolute best anyone could do with six full [snow] burials.”

The avalanche center, which identified the four survivors only by their first names, is an arm of the U.S. Forest Service that provides slide forecasts and safety information to those who venture into Utah’s mountainous backcountry in winter.

Aware of the high avalanche hazards that day, the two groups of skiers selected Wilson Glades thinking it would be a safer option, according to the report. The slope angles there, in the low 30-degree range, are barely steep enough to slide.

Who triggered the avalanche?

Due to a shallow snowpack, slide conditions had been extremely unstable in recent weeks in the Wasatch Mountains, especially on Feb. 6, the day after a storm left at least a foot of dense powder.

“They thought any avalanches in that area would be ‘pockety,’ and did not think the entire slope would avalanche as it did,” states the report.

The skiers were ascending a “skin track” in two widely spaced groups when a 3.5-foot thick “hard slab” broke loose above them across 1,000 feet of Wilson Peak’s northeast face, according to the report.

“This avalanche was likely human triggered, but it cannot be determined by whom,” it states. Both groups adhered to standard practices for staying safe in slide-prone backcountry and most of the skiers were familiar with the terrain. Even so, four lives were lost in Utah’s deadliest avalanche since 1992.

A day of remembrance has been organized at several locations Sunday to honor the skiers who died: Sarah Moughamian, 29; Stephanie Hopkins, 26; Thomas Steinbrecher, 23; and Louis Holian, 26. All were passionate explorers of Utah’s mountains and redrock deserts.

Backcountry skiers use ski bindings that lock at the top; investigators suspect the skis’ failure to release contributed to the deep burials, which complicated rescue efforts.

Conditions before the avalanche

The weather was gorgeous and serene on the morning of the slide. Eager to enjoy fresh snow in what has been a meager winter, many skiers ventured into Wasatch backcountry that day, including Moughamian, who skied with a group of five that included Chris, Steve, Holian and Steinbrecher. Identified in the avalanche center report as Group A, they entered the backcountry in Big Cottonwood Canyon at the Butler Fork trailhead at 7 a.m. and skied over the Mill Creek divide into Wilson Glades.

All eight skiers were all properly equipped for backcountry travel, the report noted. That means they carried the gear needed to find and extricate someone buried under snow. The key items are collapsible lightweight shovels, segmented probe poles and, most importantly, transceiver beacons, which emit an electronic signal that can lead rescuers to its carrier if they are buried. When needed for a search, the beacon is switched from transmitting to receiving.

While climbing 9,950-foot Wilson Peak en route to Mill Creek Canyon, Group A noticed naturally triggered avalanches. They photographed one that had rushed down Wilson Chutes and posted it on Instagram at 8:33 a.m.

“At the top, they discussed how to ski Wilson Glades but never discussed if they should ski it or not. They discussed avoiding the steeper sections and going one at a time with everyone participating in that discussion,” the report said. “No other party had been there that day, and they descended/skied the Wilson Glades one at a time.”

Without digging a snow pit to investigate the slope’s stability, Group A skied the glades three times. While ascending an uphill “skin track” — which they had put down along the left side of the bowl — Group B entered from below. Hopkins, Nate and Ethan had skied three miles up the Mill Creek Canyon road and entered the backcountry at the Alexander Basin trailhead.

Wilson Glades occupies the top of a ravine connected to Alexander Basin, the precipitous bowl under Gobblers Knob, a prominent peak to the west. The fatal slide began on the northeast-facing slope under the ridge separating these two basins.

Where they were when the avalanche began

Members of Group A planned to return to Butler Fork after reaching the top following their third run. Having skied two laps, Steve was already at the ridge, waiting for his friends. Chris was in the lead and, as they approached the top, he heard “something that sounded like an earthquake.”

The slide, which started on a 31-degree slope at 9,600 feet in elevation, broke about 30 feet above him.

“Chris lunged for a tree and hit it so hard that the ‘wind was knocked out of him,’” the report said. “He was able to hang onto it and felt immense pressure while the avalanche swept over him. He saw nothing but blackness for 2-3 seconds. Both skis were ripped off his feet, and he was left hanging in the tree above the bed surface after the avalanche passed.”

The slide pulled Holian, Steinbrecher and Moughamian down the slope, and seconds later hit Hopkins’ group while dropping 400 vertical feet.

“Nate initially thought the avalanche was moving slowly and did not think it would reach them,” the report said. “Then he remembers the wall of snow overtaking him and Ethan, moving them only a short distance downhill.”

By the time the snow stopped moving, six skiers were buried at depths up to 6 feet.

Chris shouted out to Steve, then switched his beacon onto receive mode as he hiked down the slope in a zigzagging pattern, searching for a signal.

“Steve heard the yelling and skied down as Chris was acquiring the first transceiver signal,” the report said. “Chris followed the signal to the lowest number and deployed his avalanche probe. His probe struck a person on the first strike, and both Chris and Steve started digging.”

The digging for buried skiers begins

They dug down to a depth of 4 to 6 feet, expecting to find someone from their group, but were surprised to discover a man they didn’t know or recognize. Nate was unconscious but breathing.

“As Nate gained consciousness, they told him to get out his shovel and turn off his transceiver,” the report said. At this point, Chris called 911, giving brief details before hanging up to resume the search. He and Steve quickly located Ethan, who was buried 2 feet from Nate and at the same depth. They uncovered him just enough to ensure he was breathing and turn off his transceiver, so they could focus on locating other signals, now with Nate helping.

“Chris walked in a circle around Ethan and acquired another transceiver signal,” the report said. “They followed the signal to another buried person who was approximately 150 feet to the east at about the same elevation.”

Here they found Moughamian, Chris’ girlfriend. While Steve and Nate scouted for the rest of the skiers, Chris tried to resuscitate her but couldn’t.

Nate and Steve, meanwhile, located Holian, who also had no pulse, about 30 feet downslope from Moughamian. They shut off his beacon and kept searching as Chris rejoined the hunt. Further downslope, they found Steinbrecher. That left only Hopkins, whom they located 100 feet downslope from where Nathan and Ethan were buried.

By this time, Ethan was hypothermic after his prolonged burial and in pain, so Nate, a nurse, turned his attention to his friend. Soon, helicopters carrying rescue personnel were circling overhead and the four survivors were hoisted from the scene.

Before leaving, they turned their dead companions’ beacons back on to ensure they could be found later. Search crews recovered the bodies the next day.

“We all got a second chance at life today; we need to go now [and] make a difference in the world,” Chris told his fellow survivors, according to the report, as they were about to be airlifted.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Avalanche Center) The left photo shows Dave Richards demonstrating how Ethan was positioned when he was found alive after the fatal avalanche that occurred in Mill Creek Canyon, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. Nate was recovered alive just to the right of Ethan. The right image with the backpack shows where one of the victims was buried.

Return to Story