Longtime Park City resident killed in backcountry avalanche Saturday
Park City ridgeline has seen 3 deaths in 13 months
Saturday ended in tragedy when an avalanche in backcountry terrain just outside Park City Mountain Resort killed a 57-year-old Park City man.
Kurt Damschroder was riding a face known as Square Top around 3:30 p.m. when an avalanche broke free partly down the slope, carrying him to his death, according to a statement from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
Damschroder loved spending time outdoors, according to the statement, which offered condolences to his girlfriend, friends and family.
Damschroder and his touring partner were both carrying avalanche safety equipment, which his partner used to locate him and dig him out before attempting lifesaving procedures Saturday, according to the statement.
Citing dangerous snow conditions, rescuers waited until they could control the area for avalanches before entering the zone and recovering Damschroder’s body on Sunday.
Damschroder was the second man in less than a month to die in backcountry terrain in the same general area of the Park City ridgeline, and the third in a little over a year.
His death came amid dangerous avalanche conditions and the day after the Utah Avalanche Center released a statement pleading with backcountry users to make conservative choices and avoid steep terrain.
Mark Staples, the avalanche center’s director, said his team was still investigating the incident and spoke with the touring partner Sunday evening.
Staples confirmed in an interview that the man and his partner were carrying avalanche safety equipment, but did not say whether they had used the nearby access gate at the top of the Ninety Nine 90 lift on the Canyons Village side of PCMR.
The easiest legal route to Square Top is through that access gate, which also allows the easiest access to Dutch Draw, which was the site of a fatal avalanche earlier in January, as well as one in December 2019. Dutch Draw is south of Square Top on the same ridgeline, a ridgeline both share with in-bounds terrain at PCMR.
Officials say the gate remains open to preserve access to public lands, and it provides one of the best access points to Wasatch Range backcountry from the Park City side of the mountains.
Staples said he anticipated the dangerous avalanche conditions to persist, barring extreme weather changes.
“We’re very, very far from being out of the woods,” he said.
Saturday started with the Utah Avalanche Center reporting about a foot of new snow on the Park City ridgeline and even more in the Cottonwood Canyons.
On Friday, the center issued an avalanche warning covering the northern Wasatch Range and Uinta Mountains, which was extended to Sunday.
Saturday’s avalanche forecast called for high or considerable avalanche danger, with the greatest risk on steeper northerly facing slopes from northwest to southeast at higher elevations. Square Top fits each of those descriptors.
High avalanche danger means that natural avalanches are likely and human-caused ones are very likely, and there were dozens of recorded avalanches in the Salt Lake reporting region from Friday to Sunday.
The forecast advised against traveling in avalanche terrain and staying off slopes steeper than 30 degrees.
The Sheriff’s Office received the report of a skier-caused avalanche late in the afternoon, just as the resort lifts were set to stop turning.
Damschroder’s partner attempted lifesaving efforts for more than an hour, according to the statement.
The Sheriff’s Office announced it was suspending rescue operations around 7 p.m. Saturday.
“The extreme avalanche danger prevented rescuers from getting into the area before nightfall,” the statement said.
At first light, emergency personnel resumed their mission, with a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter dropping multiple explosive charges on the Square Top ridgeline, which caused several avalanches.
“That, to me, just highlighted how sensitive things were,” Staples said, adding that an explosive charge often fails to cause an avalanche and doesn’t pack more punch than a skier or snowboarder.
A photo taken before the avalanches were set off shows the slide that killed Damschroder was relatively small. Staples said even small slides can hit 45 mph almost instantly, but that this season’s snowpack is setting up to create larger and wider slides.
“Absolutely, it’s a dangerous season,” Staples said.
He added that it would take extreme weather conditions to make the snowpack safe, like a storm dumping 6 or 7 feet of snow, or if storm activity completely stopped.
He indicated this year isn’t like others, when backcountry users can wait a few days for the snowpack to eventually settle into safety.
A persistent weak layer still exists under much of the area’s snowpack, stemming from early season storms before an extended dry period.
Now, a slab of new snow is building on top of that layer, with the potential to yield larger avalanches.
Staples said the center tries to disseminate its safety message and forecasts as widely as it can, but acknowledged that “message fatigue” could be hindering its efficacy.
“It’s a moving target, communicating with humans,” Staples said. “It’s also a challenge to — we can’t cry wolf, lose credibility. We try to not sound the alarm more than we need to.”
Staples said there are environmental factors that make the Park City ridgeline slightly more dangerous than other parts of the Wasatch Range, with typically weaker snow coupled with prevailing winds that load slopes. But he indicated a significant reason there have been so many deaths in the area over the last two decades is due to the number of users it attracts, aided by the relatively easy access afforded by the nearby chairlift.
“If you put a lot of people anywhere — if you have a really busy section of beach, or really busy lake or river — probably see more drownings than anywhere else,” he said. “When you have more people in an area, it’s a numbers game. The odds of people getting hurt increase.”
Staples indicated that avalanche safety awareness has improved significantly, with the seemingly exponential increase in backcountry users in recent years, but the number of fatalities holding steady or decreasing.
“Every accident is tragic,” Staples said. “But we’re glad to see the number of fatalities isn’t matching the exponential growth (of users).”
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Vail Resorts announced two lift expansions for Park City Mountain Resort set to take place next summer. The Silverlode Express and Eagle lift are to be expanded, with the latter slated to be realigned to end near the top of the King Con Express, changing access from the PCMR base.