Mill Creek avalanche victims remembered as ‘full of life’

Morning ski and slushy bike ride formed part of fitting memorial for skiers who died in Wilson Glades slide.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People participate in a memorial bike ride along Wasatch Blvd in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021, in honor of the four who died in an avalanche on Saturday, Feb. 6.

The streets were wet and brown puddles of runoff and slush pooled beside them. Above them, snow covered the mountains above Big Cottonwood Canyon and an icy chill filled the air.

About 40 people, many wearing pink beanies over their helmets, mounted their knobby-tired bikes Sunday for a six-mile ride that formed part of a fitting tribute to the four skiers who died in a Feb. 6 avalanche in Mill Creek Canyon. The muddy bike parade started at The Gear Room in Cottonwood Heights and ended at the Hangar 15 bike shop on Wasatch Boulevard, where friends, family and co-workers of three of the skiers spoke about their shared zest for life.

The event, which also included a morning ski tour in Big Cottonwood Canyon, was the brainchild of Abby Powers, a close friend of Louis Holian and Thomas Luis Steinbrecher, who both died in the avalanche.

“It just felt right,” Powers said. “When you’re with someone, you want to do the things that they love and you want to bring together all the people that love them.”

Holian, 26, and Steinbrecher, 23, both of Salt Lake City, were skinning up a track near Wilson Glades in a group of five that also included victim Sarah Moughamian, 29, of Sandy, when the avalanche struck. Stephanie Hopkins, 26, of Salt Lake City was below them skinning up in a separate group of three and was also killed in the slide that measured 1,000 feet across. The four skier deaths match the most in state history.

Holian had worked at both The Gear Room and Hangar 15, where a memorial had been set up for him. It included a bike packed with beers — or “Go fast juice,” as he called it — in the water bottle holders, pictures of him on various wilderness adventures, flowers and some of his favorite food staples, such as peanut butter, blueberry jam and bag of “premium” Country Ranch salad mix. The pink beanies were worn in remembrance of his appreciation of the color and anything unique and untraditional.

Many of the approximately 60 people who gathered in a horseshoe around the shrine told stories illustrating Holian’s unique personality and seemingly endless energy. One said Holian liked to ride to the top of Emigration Canyon on his fixed-gear bike while wearing jean shorts and Vans sneakers, passing many other more-traditionally outfitted cyclists along the way.

“He was incredibly strong, but incredibly humble,” said Kevin Gmitro, a co-owner of The Gear Room. “And he liked to beat all of us at what we’re best at and not brag about it.”

Holian would have particularly enjoyed Sunday’s lineup of events. Once, on a whim, he biked from Salt Lake City to Denver — in January. And though he grew up skiing terrain parks in Illinois, he had become enthralled with Utah’s backcountry and was always eager to log a few laps.

“He was just so full of life,” Powers said. “He honestly probably lived more in five years than most people do in a lifetime.”

Steinbrecher and Moughamian weren’t ones to let an adventure go untapped, either.

Moughamian had a competitive but fun-loving spirit and was “herculean” in terms of energy and strength, Gmitro said. He said while most backcountry skiers are reluctant to take on the arduous task of breaking trail, she relished it.

In fact, he said, the day of the avalanche she was told how strong Holian was and how he would likely expect to break trail for the group.

“She said, ‘Not a chance in hell,’” he said with a chuckle. “And she broke trail all day. And Louis kept trying to get in front of her and she just kind of knew how to use her elbow. And she broke trail all day, and he was probably pissed about it.”

Powers said they introduced Holian and Steinbrecher a few years ago because “they were two peas in a pod.” Like Holian, friends remembered Steinbrecher as having unlimited energy and a goofy personality.

Juan Peon-Baker, who worked on a snowmaking crew at Snowbird with Steinbrecher a few years back, said Sunday’s celebration would have been just what Steinbrecher wanted.

“He would want people to just, like, carry on,” Peon-Baker said, “and go play.”