Bad news hung this Utah city with grief 10 days ago when the word came that four of the community's most ardent and expert back-country skiers had died in an avalanche.

Few people were untouched by the tragedy that left townspeople struggling to let go of their collective pain. Four funerals, held last week, helped some. But it seemed there was cause for a less formal memorial service. What Moab needed was a wake.Saturday, some 300 people gathered at the city park to remember Mark Yates, 37; Meribel Loveridge, 31; William Turk, 38; and Jeremy Hopkins, 26 - killed in the avalanche Feb. 12 in the Gold Basin area of the La Sal Mountains.

At the end of two hours of testimony, those attending the service joined hands or put their arms around each other and swayed as they sang "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." They embraced, laughed, cried and then adjourned to a nearby church social hall for a potluck reception.

"All week it has been just the pain of funerals and viewings," said Moab resident Sheri Griffith. "Today we'll go home glad we knew them, not sad we lost them."

The four victims and two other people, all members of a back-country rescue team, were on a snow-testing ski tour when the slope they were on gave way and buried them.Two of them, Craig Bigler, 54, and Steve Mileski, 34, were able to dig themselves out, but the others had perished. Bigler and Mileski, unable to revive their friends, spent hours getting back to Moab to alert authorities.

For the next three days, rescuers fought extreme weather and more avalanches as they tried to recover the bodies. By late afternoon Feb. 15, all four bodies had been recovered.

Since then, family and friends have been struggling with their grief and turned to Griffith - who owns and runs a film and special events production business - to organize Saturday's wake.

Though arrangements had been made to move the memorial service indoors in the event of bad weather, the townspeople withstood a cold rain and kept the ceremony outdoors where they believed it belonged.

View Comments

"This is an outdoor community," said Griffith. "We all deal with nature everyday. (The avalanche) reminded us of our own vulnerability to the outdoors. It shakes us to think that experts are vulnerable, too."

Phil Atkins, a friend of the victims who assisted in the search and rescue effort, said he was grateful Bigler and Mileski survived. Echoing Griffith, he said, "No matter how much we know as guides, we still can't bring people back to life."

The skiers were all members of a new rescue team, called the Southeastern Utah Winter Hasty Team, organized only a week before the avalanche took their lives.

Grand County Sheriff Jim Nyland said the team would continue and praised the people who volunteered for it. "Let me tell you, from my point of view, having people in the community who can respond . . . thank goodness I had people who knew what to do," he said.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.