4 killed in Millcreek Canyon avalanche Saturday, one of deadliest slides in Utah history (updated)
High avalanche danger persists, including on the Park City ridgeline, experts warn
Four skiers were killed in an avalanche in Millcreek Canyon on Saturday, one of the deadliest slides in state history and a tragedy that comes after two fatalities on the nearby Park City ridgeline in recent weeks.
Unified Police Department Sgt. Melody Cutler said four others were also involved in the slide, which happened near Wilson Glade. Emergency crews were alerted to the avalanche at 11:40 a.m. and used a helicopter to reach the site and rescue the four survivors. Crews returned to the site Sunday to retrieve the victims.
The eight skiers were part of two parties — one of five members and the other with three, Cutler said. She added that the skiers were carrying proper avalanche equipment.
Chad Brackelsberg, executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center, said in an email that seven of the skiers were skinning up the slope at the time of the avalanche, while the eighth was waiting on the ridge. The cause of the avalanche was not known.
Authorities identified the victims as Stephanie Hopkins, 26, of Salt Lake City; Sarah Moughimian, 29, of Sandy; Louis Holian, 26, of Salt Lake City; and Thomas Steinbrecher, 23 of Salt Lake City.
It was the third fatal avalanche of the winter in Utah, following two that occurred in the backcountry near the Canyons Village side of Park City Mountain Resort. On Jan. 8, a 31-year-old man from Clinton was killed in a slide in Dutch Draw. Three weeks later, on Jan. 30, an avalanche in Square Top claimed the life of 57-year-old Parkite Kurt Damschroder.
Entering the winter, experts feared that it could be a particularly dangerous season, predicting that the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions at ski resorts would prompt a surge in backcountry activity and that some users would travel into the backcountry without the proper education and equipment. Early snowfall followed by a sustained dry spell exacerbated the danger, avalanche experts have said, leaving a weak layer at the bottom of the snowpack that is likely to remain without a significant change in the weather pattern.
“The avalanche danger is incredibly high right now,” Cutler said. “So being in the backcountry is obviously very dangerous.”
Saturday’s avalanche was among the deadliest ever in Utah. According to a list of fatal avalanches compiled by the Utah Avalanche Center, the only other recorded avalanche in the state’s history to have killed four people occurred in 1992 near Moab.
A forecast from the Utah Avalanche Center on Saturday deemed the avalanche risk in the area “high,” a designation that indicates human-triggered slides are very likely. The center recommends users avoid traveling in avalanche terrain in such conditions. The “high” risk remained Sunday, and the center’s forecast urged backcountry users to choose “low-angle terrain with no overhead hazard.”
Sunday’s forecast specified the upper Millcreek Canyon area and much of the Park City ridgeline as being “particularly dangerous areas.”
The Utah Avalanche Center indicated that it planned to visit the site of Saturday’s fatal avalanche on Sunday to learn more about the incident. According to the center’s preliminary report, the avalanche was 1,000 feet wide and 3 ½ feet deep and happened at an elevation around 9,600 feet.
The six people killed in avalanches this winter makes it Utah’s deadliest season since 2007, when slides claimed the lives of seven people. Since Feb. 1, 13 people have died in avalanches in the U.S., according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
Correction: The Unified Police Department initially indicated that the group of five skiers was at the top of the slope and that the slide was triggered when the group started skiing down the mountain. The article has been updated to reflect that, according to the Utah Avalanche Center, seven of the skiers were skinning up the mountain and that the cause of the slide has not been determined.
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Utah’s legislative general session is set to end on Friday, and if history is any indicator, there will be a flurry of floor amendments and last-minute changes for county officials to monitor.