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‘Heroic’ avalanche survivors dug out strangers as time worked against them

Survivor who clung to tree in avalanche that killed 4 says he now needs to ‘make a difference in the world’

Life Flight looks for a landing place as Unified police respond to an avalanche scene in Millcreek Canyon in Salt Lake County on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.
Life Flight looks for a landing place as Unified police respond to an avalanche scene in Millcreek Canyon in Salt Lake County on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — By the time the two skiers saw a wall of snow churning toward them, three others had already been swept away.

Ethan and Nate had paused on their way uphill, giving Stephanie Hopkins a chance to catch up so all three could plot out where to go and what to ski. Mindful of warnings for high avalanche danger, they planned to avoid steeper points in Wilson Glade, a 500-foot vertical run under a peak between Millcreek and Big Cottonwood canyons.

But they didn’t have a chance to talk it over. The stiff slab broke loose, 3 12 feet tall and almost as wide as three football fields. Although Nate believed the snow was advancing slowly and would miss the group, the avalanche buried all three 4 to 6 feet deep in an instant, the Utah Avalanche Center wrote in a final report.

The review, released Friday, provides a second-by-second account of the harrowing moments before and just after the avalanche claimed the lives of four skiers on Feb. 6. It praised the heroic efforts of those who survived, identifying them only by their first names.

Farther east and closer to the Wilson Peak, a separate group of five skiers — also lured to the backcountry by fresh powder on the bluebird morning — were climbing up. After a third and final lap in Wilson Glade, they would drop back into Big Cottonwood Canyon, but first paused under a giant tree before crossing the steepest pitch one at a time.

Chris, first in line, heard what sounded like an earthquake when the slab ruptured just 30 feet above. As his three companions tumbled in a crushing wave of dense snow, Chris lunged and clung to a tree, hitting it with such force that “the wind was knocked out of him,” the report says.

Among those swept away were his partner, Sarah Moughamian.

The slide was likely human-triggered, but it’s unclear by whom. Its four victims were Salt Lake Valley residents in their 20s who spent their free time at play in Utah’s wilderness: Moughamian, 29, Louis Holian, 26, Hopkins, 26, and Thomas Steinbrecher, 23. Each was equipped with gear to help them find others or be rescued themselves.

A perfect storm in Utah’s backcountry

Saturday’s avalanche was the deadliest in Utah since 1992, when a slide at Gold Basin in the La Sal mountains near Moab killed four.

Now forecasters are worried such deadly occurrences will become more commonplace in Utah, the state that boasts more than perhaps any other about the quality of its snow.

Weather is one factor. Sunlight beating down on sparse snowfall early in the season has made for a loose, granular snowpack that is catastrophically low. It’s buckling under deposits from further storms, forcing large avalanches around the state, said Greg Gagne, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center.

The pandemic also factors in. More snow sports enthusiasts are straying from the long lift lines and crowds at ski resorts, heading instead into backcountry that’s easily accessible from Salt Lake City.

But with so little snowfall so far this year, options are limited. Skiers and snowboarders are squeezing into the same terrain, upping the chances that one party could trigger an avalanche like last Saturday’s, imperiling not just their group but others.

“I’m concerned we’re going to see more of these,” Gagne said. He called Saturday’s torrent “unsurvivable” and said it was remarkable that multiple people survived.

“It could have been six fatalities,” he said.

A ‘heroic’ rescue effort

As Chris clung to the tree, he felt “immense pressure” and saw only blackness for 2 to 4 seconds, the report says. His skis tore away from his feet, and once he could see again, he was still hanging in the tree above a bed of snow — a rare occurrence in avalanches, the report notes.

Chris dropped from the tree and yelled for help from Steve, a member of the group who had sat out the final lap at a safe spot. As Steve skied down, Chris descended in a series of switchbacks and set his avalanche transceiver — a small device that emits and picks up radio signals — to search for those of his companions.

He picked up a signal and deployed his avalanche probe, a metal rod used to find buried victims. It struck a person on the first attempt, and Chris and Steve dug about 5 feet deep to find a stranger — Nate — unconscious but alive.

“Unfortunately, time was working against them,” the report says. “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.”

Nate awoke to orders from Chris and Steve to turn off his beacon and get his shovel.

Unified Police Sgt. Ed Twohill organizes efforts for rescue of people that may have been caught in an avalanche in Millcreek Canyon in Salt Lake County on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.
Unified Police Sgt. Ed Twohill organizes efforts for rescue of people that were caught in an avalanche in Millcreek Canyon in Salt Lake County on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When several people are trapped under snow and debris, the rescue of just one survivor is a victory, Gagne said, but the men saved two people in difficult circumstances, with deep burials.

Chris called 911 and spat out details to a dispatcher before rushing with Steve and Nate to uncover Ethan, knocked out but breathing and still anchored to his skis, just 2 feet away.

As he regained consciousness, Ethan began screaming. Nate, a nurse, suspected hypothermia and dug out his companion, giving him warm layers, food and water before helping to find the others.

Chris hadn’t yet found Moughamian.

Skiers believed slope was safe option

The two groups knew the area — at about 9,500 feet — was avalanche terrain. The danger was high for altitudes higher than 8,000 feet and considerable for northeast facing terrain.

Still, the slope seemed a safer option, with the larger group ascending a relatively gradual portion at 30 degrees; the other at a 25 degree portion when they paused to reevaluate, the report says. They discussed what they believed would be less hazardous routes and continually evaluated the terrain.

The group of five, for their part, “thought any avalanches in that area would be “pockety” and did not think the entire slope would avalanche as it did,” the report says.

When it comes to predicting the danger, slopes steeper than 30 degrees are widely considered more dangerous. But when the snowpack is flimsy, even a lower pitch can be risky, said Gagne.

He called the Millcreek slope “deceptively steep.” It’s bordered by steeper inclines, where several slabs had broken loose and could have given the eight the mistaken impression they were scaling safer terrain.

“It’s steep enough to avalanche, but it doesn't’ look that steep,” Gagne said.

The danger isn’t purely environmental. A greater number of snow sports retailers are catering to backcountry enthusiasts seeking less cumbersome setups so they can be more nimble as they glide uphill on “skins,” synthetic material that attaches to the bottom of their skis.

Each of those buried Saturday had tech-style bindings that make it easier to trek uphill by allowing them to keep toes pinned but release their heels, the report notes. But with toe pieces locked as they ascended, it was more difficult for the skis to release. That may have deposited the skiers deeper in the snow, which increases the risk of death.

A ‘second chance’ and a call to action

After digging out the two men found alive, the next signal led them to Chris’ partner, Moughamian, about 150 feet to the east. He tried repeatedly but could not resuscitate her. As rescue helicopters began circling overhead, he joined the others in digging out the bodies of Holian and Steinbrecher nearby, and that of Hopkins. Attempts to revive them failed.

Crews halted the effort as evening fell and they turned on the four victims’ beacons to make sure their bodies could be found the following day.

As a helicopter that would retrieve them hovered overhead, the four survivors embraced.

“We all got a second chance at life today,” Chris told the group, adding they need to “now make a difference in the world,” according to the report.

Gagne recalled his visit to the site as sobering, and said it has been difficult to see photos of the deceased that make it clear they had a zest for life and the outdoors.

“I totally understand where they’re coming from why they were there that day. I totally get it,” he said.

“I hope they get some comfort in really just how heroic, how remarkable their rescue was.”

Correction: An earlier version misidentified Moughamian’s boyfriend, who attempted CPR. He is Chris, not Nate.