SALT LAKE CITY — One skier survived the Wilson Glades Avalanche in Millcreek Canyon by clinging onto a tree as it rushed past him.
Two others, who were completely buried, survived after they were rescued by that skier and another skier who avoided the avalanche completely in the frantic moments after it occurred.
These were moments captured in a final report released Friday of last week's deadly avalanche. In all, eight skiers from two groups were in the area when the avalanche was triggered. Six were completely buried by it.
"The remaining two members pulled off a heroic effort and saved two peoples' lives but sadly four did not survive the accident," said Nikki Champion, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, in a video released Friday.
It was the deadliest avalanche in Utah since 1992. Prime avalanche conditions across the western U.S. led to 14 avalanche deaths across the country last week. It was the deadliest week for avalanches since the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center started tracking deaths.
A total of six Utahns have died in three different avalanches this year. The Utah Avalanche Center has reported scores of nonfatal avalanches caused by human and natural triggers, as well.
The harrowing moments of the Wilson Glades Avalanche
There were two groups of skiers caught up in the fatal avalanche. One group of five individuals began its trek at Butler Fork trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon with a plan to reach Wilson Glades in Millcreek Canyon. The second group, consisting of three skiers, reached Wilson Glades from Millcreek. Neither group made contact with the other.
The report stated both groups were aware of elevated avalanche risks. Some members of the first group told Utah Avalanche Center officials that they selected their route for that reason.
"While they knew that Wilson Glades was avalanche terrain, they considered it a safer option during HIGH avalanche danger," the Utah Avalanche Center report stated.
The Wilson Glade Avalanche wasn't the first avalanche reported by one of the groups Saturday. The first group, listed as Group A in the report, witnessed a "very large" natural avalanche near Wilson Chutes in Millcreek Canyon about 1½ hours into their trip. Members from the group even reported it to the Utah Avalanche Center through Instagram Saturday morning.
The report stated that Group A's members made 10 successful trips down the slope Saturday. One of the members said he was tired and waited somewhere above the group while the other four members completed one more successful lap down the slope. They then planned to return via the route they came through.
Group B, on the other hand, saw the ski tracks and followed them uphill. Two of them made it to a spot just below where four members from Group A were located less than a minute before the avalanche occurred.
A member of Group A identified as Chris reported hearing something he likened to an earthquake. A cascade of snow 1,000 feet wide and 3.5 feet deep barrelled down toward seven of the eight total skiers in the area. Six were completely buried.
The seventh, a member from Group A, was partially buried but avoided being swept away by clinging onto a tree — something the agency wrote is "very rare."
The swiftness of the avalanche ripped the skis off his feet and he reported a few seconds of complete darkness but avoided a worse fate.
A man named Steve, who was a member of Group A that didn't make a third run down the slope, and Chris raced down to where the snow stopped. They turned on a transmitter to look for beacons. They dug anywhere from 4 to 6 feet deep when they located someone from Group B to their surprise.
The individual, identified as Nate, was initially unconscious but breathing. When he came to, he aided the rescue effort — providing the two strangers who saved him with a shovel. Chris called 911 and then kept digging.
They were able to rescue another person from Group B named Ethan. Four other skiers — Sarah Moughamian, 29, of Sandy, as well as Louis Holian, 26, Stephanie Hopkins, 26, and Thomas Steinbrecher, 23, all of Salt Lake City — were located but had died by the time they were reached by the surviving skiers.
The survivors were flown off the mountain that day, while the bodies of the individuals who died were flown out Sunday.
The report lauded Chris and Steve for their attempt to save all six people who were trapped. Their frantic efforts in the moments after the avalanche ultimately saved two lives.
"Their rescue efforts were top-notch, and they knew how to perform companion rescue quickly and efficiently. They did the absolute best anyone could do with six full burials."
What caused the Wilson Glade Avalanche?
Utah Avalanche Center officials determined that the skiers unintentionally triggered the avalanche, which was the official cause.
In a video released Friday to accompany the report, Champion stood next to the crown of the fatal avalanche. She said the crown of an avalanche is traditionally 2 to 4 feet deep and 700 to 1,000 feet wide, which the Wilson Glade Avalanche measured within.
"What we're seeing is you have this soft new snow from the past two storms sitting on top of a firmer, more one finger hard layer … when you get to the bottom of this crown, we're seeing really weak-faceted snow," she said, poking at the snowpack before holding light powdery snow from the scene.
"This is where the avalanche failed," she continued. "And beneath that we've got weak-faceted snow all the way to the ground."
While skiers from both groups told officials they were aware of avalanche danger, it's worth pointing out that the crown of the avalanche was measured at 31 degrees. That's only one degree above the Utah Avalanche Center's safety recommendation for avalanches.
The center advises anyone recreating in steep terrain to avoid slopes above 30 degrees in angle when avalanche danger is possible or even likely. The area members of Group B were standing at when it was triggered was 25 degrees, but the avalanche from above came through to their location.
"Avalanches generally do not happen on slopes less than 30 degrees in steepness except in rare circumstances," the report stated.
The report added the area is where several human-caused avalanches occur because it's "often perceived as safer than nearby terrain." In fact, it stated another avalanche was triggered by a skier a little more than a month before last week's fatal avalanche.
"Bottom line: If a slope is steeper than 30 degrees, it can avalanche," it concluded.
The continued danger
With another storm that arrived in Utah overnight and more snow forecast in the coming days, the Utah Avalanche Center issued another avalanche watch. It placed the avalanche danger in northern Utah as "high" Friday; other mountainous locations in the state still had considerable risk — but that could increase throughout the weekend.
The continued danger is caused by what Champion talked about in the video of the fatal avalanche: There is weak, powdery snow lying underneath fresh, dense snow. It makes it easier for an avalanche to happen.
"We kind of have this upside-down pyramid, where the base is weak and the top is strong," Champion told KSL.com earlier this month.
2-10-2021: We've issued an Avalanche Watch for very dangerous avalanche conditions beginning Friday and lasting through the weekend.— UAC Logan (@UAClogan) February 11, 2021
Here is a stability test from yesterday showing unstable snow conditions. A slab of wind drifted snow sitting on very weak faceted snow. East,7600' pic.twitter.com/hIbFLhvBey
UAC's Logan Office posted a video to Twitter this week that demonstrates exactly how easy it is for an avalanche to be triggered. It shows a forecaster conducting a stability test at 7,600 feet elevation. The newer snow had no trouble sliding down above the weaker snow beneath it.
Craig Gordon, another forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, said the snowpack is essentially 50% of what it normally would be right now. Recent storms have tacked onto the total but it's all resting on that weak snow.
"That weaker snow is like a house of cards. We flip a few of those cards over, pull the rug out from underneath that stronger snow, and now the entire roof is crashing down on top of us," he told KSL TV on Friday.
That's why the agency continues to warn even experienced skiers and other seasoned outdoors people to avoid any type of steep terrain in the backcountry, especially over the next few days.
"We've got to realize that this unusual snowpack is creating unusually dangerous avalanche conditions," he added, saying that's especially true of northern-facing slopes. "(This weekend's storms are) going to add additional load. It's going to add additional stress on top of the snowpack. If we come along and knock the legs out from underneath it, the avalanche that we trigger is going to break deep, it's going to break wide — it's going to have several football fields worth of snow. And it could lead to just a catastrophic outcome at the end of the day."