SALT LAKE CITY — A skier caught in an avalanche that killed four people in Utah survived by clinging to a tree through the onslaught of rushing snow and later helped save two people, a forecaster investigating the slide said.
The avalanche on Saturday initially buried six skiers from two separate groups. When the snow stopped moving, a surviving skier let go of the tree and was joined by another skier from his group in the search for others, forecaster Drew Hardesty with the U.S. Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center said Tuesday.
The men, who have not been publicly identified, followed signals from avalanche beacons and dug through several feet of hard-packed snow to free the two people, who turned out to be from the other group.
“This is really amazing. To be caught, grab the tree, yell, go down and save two lives is really something,” Hardesty said.
The two rescuers could not reach their friends in time, though. Two men and two women in their 20s died in the snow, making the avalanche in a popular backcountry ski area one of the deadliest in nearly 30 years.
Hardesty had forecast the avalanche danger would be high that weekend. The two groups were aware of the rating, so they picked a spot that’s normally considered lower risk. The first group of five people had skied the area several times that morning.
Four of them were ascending for another run when they heard “the thunderclap of a collapse,” Hardesty said.
At that moment another group of three people was headed up from another direction. “They looked up here comes this wall of snow,” he said.
It’s impossible to know who set off the slide, and counterproductive to guess, Hardesty said. The conditions were unpredictable and dangerous because a warm early winter meant the bottom layer of snow was thin and weak beneath a thick, heavy layer of new snow from recent storms.
This winter has been especially deadly in the U.S., with avalanches coming amid an increasing interest in backcountry runs as skiers try to to avoid crowded resorts during the pandemic.
With two more months remaining in ski season, numbers gathered by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center show 22 people have died so far this season in the U.S., including 15 skiers.
A total of 23 people, including eight skiers, died the previous winter between December and April, the agency found.