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Avalanches roar down 2 canyons

No injuries reported; 2 campers walk to safety

SHARE Avalanches roar down 2 canyons

PROVO — Avalanches rumbled down two canyons on opposite ends of Utah County Wednesday morning, but no one was injured, and no property was damaged in either slide.

One slide broke near Aspen Grove at about noon, near the spot where three snowboarders were buried in December 2003. This time no one was in the area.

The second avalanche roared down Santaquin Canyon shortly after 7 a.m. Two men camping near the slide area were able to walk out safely.

Those men, commercial pilots from South Jordan and Georgia, had been camping in Santaquin Canyon since Monday. At about 3 a.m. Wednesday they woke up to find nearly two feet of snow on top of their tent.

"At that point we knew we were in trouble," said Richard Hewitt, who lives in South Jordan.

Hewitt said he and his friend, Kevin Coburn, had planned to camp in American Fork Canyon, but a rock slide there sent them to Tinney Flats, a remote camping area 2 1/2 miles up Santaquin Canyon.

"Had we known there was going to be so much snow, we wouldn't have gone," Hewitt said.

Hewitt described himself and Coburn as "hard-core campers," who were well equipped with snowshoes, avalanche probes, a sled to carry their camping equipment and enough food to last them five days if they became trapped.

The only things they didn't have were avalanche beacons, which are used to help rescuers locate someone trapped in the snow. They had also told family members the precise spot they were camping and when to expect them home.

Hewitt and Coburn broke camp at about 7 a.m. Wednesday and began hiking down the mountain over an area that had been hit by an avalanche on Monday. At about 10:30 a.m. they heard rumblings of another slide.

"It was huge. I'm not good at estimating volume, but it looked like one slide was one cubic mile," Hewitt said.

Utah County sheriff Sgt. Tom Hodgson later estimated the avalanche was a couple hundred yards wide and about 60 feet deep. The avalanche snapped pine trees in half and carried whatever lay in its path down the mountain.

"We were looking at trees 12 inches around just sheared off. It was a swath of destruction," Hewitt said.

Because the men were so far up the canyon and because the slide was so deep, they knew they were on their own to get down.

"If we weren't wearing snowshoes, we would've been trapped," Hewitt said. "It felt like we were running really fast in a wading pool."

Hewitt blazed a trail in the fresh powder with his snowshoes while Coburn used a rope to haul the sled carrying their possessions down the mountain. Hewitt's dog, a black lab, accompanied them down.

In the meantime, a snowmobiler had alerted the Utah County Sheriff's Office of the slide and reported an abandoned vehicle in the area. The officers determined the vehicle belonged to Hewitt and then called his wife.

"She was freaking out, worrying that I was caught in the avalanche, but she told them we weren't a couple of yahoos who didn't know what we were doing," Hewitt said. "She knew we'd be fine."

The search and rescue team of the Utah County Sheriff's Office quickly determined that if anyone was trapped in the avalanche, the only way to reach them would be to go up Payson Canyon on the back side. Riding up the avalanche slide could cause another.

They also sent an airplane to fly over the area to locate Hewitt and Coburn.

"We saw the plane and waved to let them know we were all right," Hewitt said. "It accompanied us the whole way down. It was a comforting feeling."

Officers then called Hewitt's wife to tell her they had located her husband.

There was a good chance there would be more avalanches in the area, Hodgson said.

There were no indications anyone else was camping in the canyon.

"It was awesome," Hewitt said of his adventure. "It was a little more than we bargained for, but will I go winter camping again? You bet I will."

E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com