The mountains of Utah called to Christian Helger three years ago, and he went.
Since graduating from the University of New Hampshire, he had been working as a climbing guide for the Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School in Maine and Fox Mountain Guides in North Carolina. When Helger decided to go west, it was to explore the bigger mountains and his options for making a life and career in them, according to AMG owner Jon Tierney. That included not just traditional climbing and skiing, but ice climbing and backcountry touring — and working as a ski patroller at Park City Mountain Resort.
“He made that choice and, gosh, this happened, you know?” Tierney said. “How tragic.”
Helger, 29, of Millcreek died on-duty Monday after a spruce tree struck the cable of the chairlift he was riding on The Canyons side of the Park City ski area. The tree — possibly burdened by some of the more than two feet of especially wet snow that fell at the resort Sunday and Monday — hit behind Helger’s chair on the Short Cut lift, where he was riding alone around 10:45 a.m., Summit County Sheriff spokesperson Andrew Wright said. The chair swayed violently, tossing Helger at least 25 feet into the ravine below, a PCMR news release said.
“It hit behind the chair of the individual, who didn’t see it coming,” Wright said. “Which if he didn’t see it coming, [he] couldn’t prepare.”
Ten other people had been riding the short lift that serves as a link between the terrain serviced by the Red Pine Gondola and the front of the mountain. Ski patrol had evacuated all of them as of 1:06 p.m., according to the PCMR statement.
As the investigation into the accident continues, those who knew and loved Helger are mourning the loss of an authentic mountain man.
Who was Christian Helger?
Those who knew Helger said he was responsible and motivated. Tierney said he had “a quiet strength.”
“I was 110% confident in what Christian did, and I would welcome him back any day,” Tierney said. “I really wanted him to consider buying my climbing school.”
Karsten Delap, a professional mountain athlete and photographer, met Helger when he came to work for Delap as a climbing guide in North Carolina after college.
“He was such a good climber, good skier, good with risk management — I honestly can’t believe I’m having this conversation,” Delap said, his voice trailing off. “… It’s one of those things you could always try to place blame, but let’s be real, that’s pretty crazy.”
Helger had felt the societal pressure to go to college and later felt the weight of student loan debt, Delap said, but he wouldn’t let it dictate his life. Helger worked as ski patroller in the winter and fought forest fires and guided in the summer.
“You have to work a lot and live a pretty simple life. He could have quit, gotten a corporate job to pay off these loans but that’s not what made him happy,” Delap said. “What made him happy was being in the mountains with friends and family, and showing the mountains to others.”
A recent trip to Mount Rainier with Helger was one of those moments for Delap: “a couple of the best days I have ever had in the mountains on some of the best snow with one of the best people.”
Delap took a photo of his friend — boots off at 9,460 feet, sitting in the sunshine at the Camp Schurman ranger station — drawing in his notebook. It was a sketch of the mountain that Helger gave to Delap when it was finished.
In the days since Helger’s death, Delap has been searching for it.
“I’ve got to find that drawing,” he said. “It’s what we have now.”
Who is responsible for chairlift safety?
Helger’s death has caught national attention in large part because the circumstances around it are so unusual.
Thirty people died in ski lift-related events in the United States between 1973 and 2021, according to a report from the National Ski Area Association, an industry trade association. Most of the fatalities over that nearly 50-year span came in the 1970s and ‘80s, the report says, and just three were ski resort employees.
One of Utah’s most notable chairlift malfunctions occurred a year ago on Christmas Eve. At that time, 167 people had to be evacuated chair by chair from the Carpenter Express lift at Deer Valley Resort after it experienced a mechanical failure and stopped. A spokesperson said he suspected a defect in a newly replaced part. No one was injured in the incident.
Though most resorts require routine staff evaluations, lifts must also undergo annual independent inspection via the Passenger Ropeway Safety Committee, a division of the Utah Department of Transportation. The inspections ensure the lifts meet standards set by the American National Standards Institute, a national nonprofit.
According to the NSAA, inspectors check the cables, the tower footings that support the lift equipment, the sheaves that support the haul rope on the towers, gearboxes, brakes and the electric motors powering the lifts. All ski lifts are also required to have auxiliary engines as back-up power sources in the rare instance of a loss of electrical power.
In addition, ANSI requires that trees and other vegetation be at least five feet away from the lift path, according to UDOT traffic and safety director Robert Miles, who serves on the ropeway safety committee. If they encroach on the path, Miles said, it is the operator’s responsibility to cut them back.
The Short Cut lift, according to LiftBlog.com, was a second-hand lift that was installed in 1997. One of the shortest lifts at the resort, it features triple chairs with a lap bar.
Did wet snow cause the accident?
The exact cause of Helger’s death is unclear pending an autopsy report. Wright said rescue personnel had difficulty reaching him because he fell in a ravine that is not part of a ski run where the snow was particularly deep.
Resort ski patrol had contacted the sheriff’s office to request a helicopter rescue, Wright said, but thick cloud cover and snow made it too dangerous to send one out. Helger was declared dead at the scene. His body had to be loaded onto a toboggan and pulled by ski patrollers up to an area where it could be taken back to the base of the resort.
PCMR received 11 inches of snow Monday, the forecasting site OpenSnow.com said, adding to the 14 inches that fell on the resort Sunday. This wasn’t the typical “right side up” fine powder that Utah is known for, however. Stemming from an “atmospheric river event,” it carried about twice the amount of water as is usual for the Wasatch Mountains.
Mike Wessler, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Salt Lake City, said the snow-to-liquid ratio of a typical Wasatch range storm is 13-to-1. This one varied from 5-to-1 to 9-to-1.
“It’s that heavy, wet, waterlogged snow that I’m sure everybody in the valley had to suffer through shoveling,” he said.
While Wessler had no specific knowledge of what caused the spruce to fall in The Canyons, he said the NWS fielded reports of “pretty widespread tree damage throughout the Wasatch Front and across the Salt Lake Valley.”
“This heavy, wet snow does tend to stick to trees quite well,” he said, “definitely more than our typical Utah powder.”
More wet snow is on the way. Wessler said another storm is expected to hit the Wasatch Mountains on Thursday and Friday and that it will be generated by another atmospheric river event. Those types of storms generally swoop into the area two or three times a year, Wessler said. Usually the Sierra Nevada range absorbs most of the moisture, leaving Utah with the lighter powder. Last weekend’s storm was an exception to that rule, however. It was also unique in that it didn’t include much wind and it dumped more snow on Sundance Resort and Deer Valley Resort than it did in the typically moisture-mongering Cottonwood Canyons.
PCMR shut down several of the lifts neighboring Short Cut to help with the rescue effort Monday, including the Red Pine Gondola. By Tuesday afternoon, the gondola, the Orange Bubble Express, High Meadow and Saddleback were all operating normally. Short Cut will remain closed while the sheriff’s office investigates the fatal fall.
“The Park City Mountain team — as well as the entire Vail Resorts team — extend our deepest sympathy and support to the family and friends of our team member,” Deirdra Walsh, PCMR’s vice president and chief operating officer, said in a press release. “We are all deeply saddened by this tragic incident, and we will be providing support for our employees as we grieve this devastating loss.”
Tribune editor Aaron Falk contributed to this report.
Correction: Jan. 5, 2023, 10:52 a.m. >> The toboggan holding Helger’s body was pulled out of the ravine by a group of ski patrollers, not by a snowmobile as stated in a previous version of this article.