UPDATE: More details emerge about avalanche that killed skier near PCMR
It is the fourth avalanche fatality in Dutch Draw in 15 years
A man died in an avalanche Friday morning in Dutch Draw, according to Summit County Sheriff’s Lt. Andrew Wright, the fourth life lost in the last 15 years in the easily accessible but avalanche-prone backcountry skiing spot just outside the boundary of Park City Mountain Resort.
Authorities identified the victim as Kevin Jack Steuterman, a 31-year-old man from Clinton.
Dutch Draw is located just beyond the backcountry access gate at the top of the Ninety Nine 90 lift on the Canyons Village side of PCMR.
Dutch Draw can be seen from PCMR chairlifts and often boasts tracks that make it appear that others have skied it safely, enticing people who may not have experience traveling in the backcountry.
Wright said he had been told the man and his partner had some experience riding in the backcountry.
According to a Utah Avalanche Center report, Steuterman and his girlfriend rode the Ninety Nine 90 lift and hiked to the nearby access gate. Neither were carrying avalanche equipment. A sign near the gate tells readers “you may die” entering the backcountry and features a large skull and crossbones.
Several sets of tracks are visible in pictures of the scene posted by the Utah Avalanche Center.
“Sadly, while tracks on the slope are inviting they don’t mean anything (about the slope’s safety),” said Nikki Champion, a Utah Avalanche Center forecaster.
She said that slopes can have one relatively weak spot that, if hit, can trigger a slide no matter how many users had skied or snowboarded safely past.
According to the report, Steuterman and his girlfriend traveled on the ridgeline until he dropped into a run known as Conehead. He was about halfway down when the woman began to ski down. Two turns later, a 150-foot wide avalanche let loose from beneath her feet, hitting, carrying and burying Steuterman below.
The report does not conclude which rider triggered the avalanche. Avalanches can be triggered from distances hundreds of feet below what’s known as the crown, or the area at the top of the slide.
The woman was not caught in the slide and used her cellphone to call 911 shortly after 10 a.m.
Dozens of emergency personnel responded to the scene after receiving the call, Wright said, but the dangerous avalanche conditions meant they did not begin digging to find Steuterman until shortly after 2 p.m.
Rescue crews found his body at 2:29 p.m. buried 2 feet below the surface. The slide traveled 400 feet, according to the report.
Wright said that around three dozen first responders went to the scene, including Park City Mountain Resort ski patrollers, Park City Fire District personnel and Summit County Search and Rescue crews.
After clearing three users that were in the area, including evacuating a skier via helicopter, a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter crew deployed explosives to set off other potential avalanches in the area to make it safe for rescuers to access the site.
The explosives triggered another avalanche close to the fatal slide.
The helicopter was also equipped with remote sensing technology known as RECCO, which bounces a signal off transceivers that are embedded in many pieces of ski apparel.
The crew used the technology to hone in on an area to search, and an avalanche rescue dog eventually found Steuterman.
Dutch Draw is prone to avalanches and its accessibility belies its deadly past.
Last year, a 45-year-old man died while snowboarding alone in the area. Dutch Draw was also the site of avalanche-related fatalities in 2012 and 2005, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
The center advised that avalanche danger in much of Utah was “considerable” on Friday, a rating that indicated dangerous avalanche conditions and that human-caused avalanches were likely.
The problem, Champion explained, is a persistent weak layer of snow from earlier this winter underneath more recent snowfall.
It will take time for that layer to become integrated into the snowpack, Champion said, advising riders in the meantime to avoid terrain above 30 degrees in steepness.
The Dutch Draw area that once again proved fatal has a relatively benign initial slope, according to the report, but the pitch soon approaches 40 degrees. The report indicates the crown of the avalanche was on a part of the terrain that has a 39-degree pitch.
Champion said terrain that receives a lot of sun would have a safer snowpack, like faces with southwestern, southern and southeastern aspects. The center puts out daily avalanche forecasts on its website, utahavalanchecenter.org.
The forecast for Friday predicted almost the exact scenario that occurred.
“Keep in mind: If you are leaving the ski area through an exit gate, you are entering the backcountry and likely stepping into a CONSIDERABLE avalanche danger,” the forecast states. “Previous tracks are zero indication of stability.”
Officials fear this winter will be a particularly dangerous one as many users travel in the backcountry for the first time, seeking socially distanced recreation amid the pandemic. Free introductory avalanche education is available online at kbyg.org.
According to the Utah Avalanche Center, this was the first avalanche fatality in Utah this season.
Standing “in almost (the) exact same spot” where he was after the fatal avalanche last season, Wright said it was important for people to prepare for risks if they venture into the backcountry.
Experts advise traveling in the backcountry only when equipped with a beacon, which sends signals that can be received by other beacons to help find buried partners; a probe to help locate riders buried beneath the snow; and a shovel to dig them out.
“It’s a good reminder that people need to be prepared for the backcountry and the outdoors. If you choose to take the risk to go into the backcountry, make sure you have the right equipment,” Wright said. “… It’s worth every penny in the event you take that risk, get caught in an avalanche, it increases your likelihood of surviving being caught in an avalanche.”
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