Skiers describe how avalanche overtook them
With criminal citations in hand, four experienced backcountry skiers from Salt Lake County were grateful to be alive in the Snyderville Basin Saturday afternoon.
They say their day trip nearly turned deadly after they dropped into the Wasatch Back from a ridge near Big Cottonwood Canyon and skied several runs in western Summit County’s fabled No Name Bowl.
"This could have easily been a four-person fatality instead of a slide where no one was killed," Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said. "That is absolutely the last thing that we want to see."
Richard Steiner described the "wall of snow" that overtook him. "When I saw the wall of snow coming towards me there was an instantaneous and simultaneous fear and disbelief that this was really happening," said the 59-year-old, who went into the trees to avoid the slide. "There was still kind of a disbelief that this would actually have enough power to engulf me when it reached me."
Steiner and Jim Manos, 45, freed themselves from the snowfield and helped uncover Jane Arhart, 55, and 59-year-old Roger Arhart, who triggered the slide. "They were both buried to the point where they would have had trouble digging themselves out, an arm was trapped or they were stuck in a funny position," Steiner said. "[Roger] had one arm free, his right shoulder free and his head free, the head is all that counts."
Roger triggered the avalanche while skiing the group’s 10th line through some of Summit County’s most pristine backcountry between Park City Mountain Resort and The Canyons. "He just hit the unlucky button," Steiner said. "The lure of powder, the peer pressure, the fact that it’s been skied all of that factored into not a good decision." However, the group followed rules of the backcountry by skiing each run individually and waiting off to the side. "Everyone in the backcountry follows the protocol of skiing off to the side where they think they’re out of harm’s way," Steiner said. "We all underestimate how big something can go if it goes and how often when we think we’re out of harm’s way we are still in harm’s way." Avalanche danger was considerable in western Summit County Saturday afternoon. "Slides can occur even after you’ve been down a run once or twice," Edmunds said. "You’re not necessarily out of danger when you’re in the backcountry just because you’ve been down a chute or you’ve been in a bowl." Shortly after he was flown to safety Saturday around 4:30 p.m., Manos said, "I’m grateful to be alive."
The group reported the slide to dispatch around 12:45 p.m. Sheriff’s Office searchers went into the area near South Monitor Peak on snowmobiles after setting up a mobile command at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. But snow, wind and low visibility complicated rescue efforts until weather improved and the skiers were spotted from a helicopter, Summit County sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Dorman said.
"They’re very lucky. They’re very, very lucky," he added.
After losing five skis and six poles in the slide, the group made a fire and stayed put until they were found, Jane Arhart said, adding that no one was injured in the avalanche. "We usually play it conservatively. We were stupid today," she said.
The 600-foot-wide avalanche was triggered at roughly 9,800 feet and ran nearly the entire width of the bowl. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, the slide was 1,200 feet long
"This is the first major avalanche we’ve witnessed, let alone been stuck in," Steiner said, adding that members of the group have decades of experience traveling in the backcountry.
He believes they were ticketed by the Sheriff’s Office because deputies were under the impression they had left the boundaries of a ski resort. "We did not leave a ski area," Steiner said. "The citation was the result of the assumption that we either came up from the church, through White Pine Canyon, that’s posted as ‘private’ by The Colony, or that we broke a ski-area line." The skiers intend to contest the tickets, he said, adding, "I did not break any law." He claims they skied over a ridge from Big Cottonwood Canyon near USA Bowl, to access the No Name area. "We were prepared, we were also lucky," Steiner said, adding that the group had probes and shovels to perform beacon searches if necessary.
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