Man who survived fatal avalanche tumbled 300 feet before finding other skiers, calling for help

The crown area of the Big Willow avalanche near Lone Peak Summit that killed two skiers and injured another on May 9. The surviving skier reported no "obvious signs of instability" on the slope, according to a report of the incident published Friday.

The crown area of the Big Willow avalanche near Lone Peak Summit that killed two skiers and injured another on May 9. The surviving skier reported no "obvious signs of instability" on the slope, according to a report of the incident published Friday. (Utah Avalanche Center)


Save Story
Leer en español

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON — The man who survived an avalanche that killed two people near Little Cottonwood Canyon earlier this month tumbled "head over heels" about 300 feet before he was able to escape from the slide and call for help, according to a report of the incident.

Utah Avalanche Center published a report of the May 9 Big Willow avalanche on Friday. Andrew Cameron, 22, of Cottonwood Heights, and Austin Mallet, 32, of Bozeman, Montana, were fully buried and died in the avalanche. A 23-year-old skier whose name was not released was partially buried and survived the incident.

The agency compiled the harrowing report after interviewing the surviving skier and gathering data from the site near Lone Peak Summit, just south of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Cameron and the 23-year-old man who survived the avalanche had skied in the area on May 6, taking advantage of new snow, according to the report. A late-season storm dumped multiple feet of water-heavy snow in Little Cottonwood Canyon that week.

The 23-year-old returned to the canyon over next two days and reported to Utah Avalanche Center officials that the snowpack "seemed to be stabilizing." He, Cameron and Mallet arrived in Little Cottonwood Canyon early on May 9, first hiking, before switching over to skis as they reached the snow line.

The trio — described as "strong, experienced mountain athletes" — reached the bottom of Big Willow Cirque by 8:30 a.m. before the group ascended the mountain together, switching to hike on foot as they reached an area about 150 feet from the mountain ridge.

"The old snow was still soft, and (the 23-year-old man) remembers not feeling any supportable layer under the new snow," the report states. "He noticed a very thin, wind-affected layer on the surface of the snow, but no indications of wind loading (past or current) or other obvious signs of instability."

The group started to move diagonally up the slope when the avalanche broke, shortly before 9:45 a.m. The unintentionally human-triggered avalanche began at about 10,600 feet elevation, along the Big Willow Aprons, sending snow 800 feet down the mountain at a width of 150 feet. Its depth was measured at about 1½ feet.

It carried all three skiers along with it. The 23-year-old reported he was knocked off his feet and "tumbled head over heels, cartwheeling down the slope," about 300 feet, before the avalanche stopped.

"When the snow stopped moving, he was sitting upright, partially buried with his right arm free and left arm covered in snow," the report states. "He took off his glasses because he couldn't see, coughed up snow and dug himself out."

A photo of the Big Willow avalanche scene. The black X marks where the 23-year-old surviving skier was at the time of the May 9 avalanche and the blue X is where he ended up.
A photo of the Big Willow avalanche scene. The black X marks where the 23-year-old surviving skier was at the time of the May 9 avalanche and the blue X is where he ended up. (Photo: Utah Avalanche Center)

Once out of the avalanche, he looked back for Cameron and Mallet but he noticed the area where they had been was impacted more heavily by the slide. All three men were wearing transceivers and the 23-year-old started scanning for his friends.

The skier partially dug out both Cameron and Mallet within 30 minutes of the avalanche, but both were unresponsive after chest compressions and rescue breaths. He called 911 shortly after 10:15 a.m. but reported he believed both were dead before help could arrive, the report added.

Recovery efforts were ultimately delayed a day because of cloud cover and poor visibility. The conditions were only good for a short enough time for crews to rescue the 23-year-old off the mountain. He was treated at a hospital and released.

Crews returned to the scene May 10 to recover the bodies of Cameron and Mallet, who had been buried about 2 to 3 feet deep and 15 feet apart from each other.

"Despite their skillsets, sometimes, accidents happen with tragic outcomes," the center wrote in its final takeaways of the incident. "Mountain travel is inherently dangerous and even the best of us can find ourselves in trouble."

A "very similar avalanche" was also reported in nearby Bell Canyon about an hour after the Big Wallow slide, according to the center. The smaller avalanche carried a skier, but that individual was uninjured.

The Utah Avalanche Center compiled its latest avalanche danger assessment May 1, but it notes, wet snow, new snow and wind-drifted snow are the top factors for spring avalanches. The storm that passed through the area over Memorial Day weekend led to at least one natural avalanche.

Related stories

Most recent Outdoors stories

Related topics

UtahOutdoorsSalt Lake County
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

STAY IN THE KNOW

Get informative articles and interesting stories delivered to your inbox weekly. Subscribe to the KSL.com Trending 5.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast