Avalanche report offers new details of rare skier death in Uintas

Man was one of 11 clients, two guides touring the Weber Canyon backcountry with a Park City snowcat company

(Utah Avalanche Center) Two skiers who were touring with Park City Powder Cats were caught up in this avalanche in Upper Weber Canyon on March 9, 2023. One of them, Ryan Barr of San Diego, died in the slide.

Eleven clients and two guides were attempting to cross an avalanche path in the Uinta Mountains last month when one of them fell, according to a Utah Avalanche Center report released this week. The fall likely played a role in triggering the slide that killed a San Diego man in Utah’s only skiing-related avalanche death so far this season.

The group had booked the trip through Park City Powder Cats, which has been operating snowcat tours on its 15,000-acre Thousand Peaks Ranch and surrounding areas for nearly 30 years. A search for untouched terrain on one of their final runs of the day, just after 3 p.m. on March 9, took the skiers to a southeast-facing slope about three miles west of Windy Peak.

According to the report, one guide crossed the avalanche path first and staged themselves above a cluster of trees outside the slide zone. Going single-file, two skiers safely followed the guide across. The third skier fell while making his crossing, however, and was still on the slope when the fourth skier started across.

That’s when the mountain broke loose, according to Trevor Hanson, who was among the skiers on the trip and watched the events unfold.

“They went down and the whole side of the mountain fell off,” Hanson told FOX13, “and so I’d never seen anything like it before in my life.

“The whole side of the mountain came off. It’s almost like a flash flood.”

The UAC described it as a “hard slab” avalanche. Even at 10,400 feet elevation and a 37-degree slope, avalanche conditions in the Uintas on that day were “Low” to “Moderate,” according to Craig Gordon, the UAC forecaster for that range.

“On a scale of one to five, the terrain was rated at that elevation at level two, so moderate avalanche danger,” Gordon said. “And of course what that means is that human-triggered avalanches are possible.”

The two skiers who were on the slope were caught up and buried in the slide, which the report said measured 400 feet wide, 1,250 feet long and 4-9 feet deep.

The first guide radioed for help from all PCPC employees as well as a medical helicopter as he descended the slope, hoping his transceiver would pick up a signal from the beacon of one of the buried skiers, the report states. PCPC outfits all its clients with avalanche beacons, according to the company’s website, but probes and shovels are optional and not provided.

That guide reached the bottom of the debris field without fielding a reliable signal, the report states. As he prepared to skin back up the slide path to continue his search, the second guide arrived on scene and picked up a signal. With the help of a fifth skier, that guide dug down about four feet to uncover one of the buried skiers. They found the skier face up, breathing and alert. That skier, who has not been identified, was extricated from the snow and flown to a hospital, where they were later released.

Meanwhile, the search for the second skier continued, aided by snowcat drivers and other PCPC guides. When they picked up the signal for that skier, it indicated he was buried about six feet under the snow, according to the report. The first guide led the excavation process, and when they uncovered the skier, he was face down, not breathing and had no pulse. Efforts to resuscitate him failed, and he was declared dead an hour and 20 minutes after the avalanche.

The skier who died in the avalanche was Ryan Barr, a 46-year-old commercial real estate agent from San Diego. Barr was “a devoted husband, father, son, and brother” who “loved skiing, surfing and cooking,” according to a statement put out by his family through the Summit County Sheriff’s Department. He left behind his wife, Caroline, and daughter, Anna.

The UAC noted in its report that a couple of factors led to Barr’s death.

“One factor was that [he] was buried deeply. Shoveling is the most demanding and time-consuming phase of a rescue which takes longer the deeper a person is buried,” the report said. “The other factor was that there were two people buried. Rescue becomes more complex and more time consuming when there are multiple people buried by an avalanche.”

Barr was just the second skier to die in an avalanche in the Uintas since at least 1914, according to a UAC log that dates back to the year, though a dozen snowmobilers have died there. The only other skier death in the range took place in 2002 — before the UAC created avalanche forecasts for the area — when experienced avalanche worker Brian Roust and his dog were killed in a slide on Windy Ridge, which is also in upper Weber Canyon.

The Uintas have seen an uptick in backcountry travelers in recent years, however. Gordon said more people have been going there to escape crowding in the Cottonwood Canyons and other areas closer to the Salt Lake Valley.

In a statement to the Tribune, PCPC said this is the first fatality under its watch.

“It is impossible to put into words the sorrow we feel and the grief that is shared by the entirety of our Powder Cat family,” the statement said.

“In our 29 years of operation, this is the first tragedy we have experienced of this magnitude. We consider every one of our guests’ [sic] to be family and will continue to put our primary focus on the safety & well being of our guests and staff.”

It is standard practice for backcountry ski tour operators to have a ratio of one guide for every four or five clients. Gordon, who took part in the UAC investigation of the avalanche, could not say if any of the guests had safety gear other than a beacon. He said carrying a shovel and probe “is not normally a requirement on guided trips.”

Hanson said in his interview with FOX13 that he hadn’t met Barr prior to March 9, the date of the ski trip and avalanche. He advised carrying all backcountry safety gear.

“If you’re going out, wear the proper equipment,” he told FOX13. “I know it’s expensive, but pay every penny you can to make sure you have what you need in case this event happens.”