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Four skiers killed in Utah, bringing U.S. avalanche death toll to 21 this season

Search and rescue crews from the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office respond to the top of Millcreek Canyon, where four skiers died in an avalanche Saturday. (Francisco Kjolseth/Salt Lake Tribune/AP)
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Four skiers died in an avalanche Saturday in Utah as the death toll among backcountry enthusiasts rose to 21 across seven states this winter.

Sixteen of those fatalities were skiers or snowboarders, in 13 avalanches since Dec. 18, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and 14 of those fatalities have occurred since Feb. 1.

On Saturday in Montana, an avalanche in the Swan Range east of Kalispell caught several snowmobilers, killing a 60-year-old man from Kalispell, the Daily Inter Lake reported, in the state’s first avalanche-related fatality this season. The man’s identity was not immediately available.

The four who died Saturday in Utah were part of a group of eight experienced skiers in their early 20s to late 30s skiing the backcountry in groups of five and three, Unified Police Department Sgt. Melody Cutler told the Salt Lake Tribune. The four who survived had minor injuries and managed to dig out the others. Those killed were Sarah Moughamian, 29; Louis Holian, 26; Stephanie Hopkins, 26; and Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, 23. All are from the Salt Lake City area.

Cutler told the Tribune that it was not clear whether the four had died of trauma or suffocation, and that two had been dragged through wooded areas.

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All were carrying beacons, shovels and probes, Cutler said, while skiing in an area where the Utah Avalanche Center had labeled the risk of avalanche as “high.” The avalanche center also tweeted a warning of “large natural avalanches overnight. Dangerous avalanche conditions. Keep it [the slope] low angle.”

As sophisticated as equipment can be, it can be no match for an avalanche.

“It’s more like being in a car accident — it happens really quickly, and it’s really violent,” Toby Weed, a forecaster for the UAC, warned Friday in an interview with Salt Lake City’s Fox affiliate. “Nobody wants to get caught, much less buried, in an avalanche. It’s a horrible thing to live through and to die doing.”

According to Drew Hardesty of the UAC, the avalanche center was aware of nearly 40 avalanches over the past week in the mountains around Salt Lake City, but he said the “actual number is likely much higher.” Weed warned about avoiding the backcountry over the weekend, saying a widespread weak layer of snow was being buried by fresh powder. The UAC had noted that the snowpack was “teetering near its breaking point for some time,” and Weed called conditions “deceiving” even to experienced skiers. “It’s not getting safer right now,” he said. “It’s getting more dangerous.”

Another contributing factor to the possibility of avalanches is the popularity of the backcountry area outside Salt Lake City. Forecasters have warned about the possibility of a tragedy like the one that occurred Saturday.

“I hope it sort of grabs people’s attention and makes them that much more cautious,” former Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker, who was skiing near the avalanche Saturday, told the Tribune.

“I don’t want to see people not going into the backcountry and enjoying it at such an enormous amount of health benefits, physically and mentally, for us, but … that’s an unnecessary risk to get on a slope like that under the conditions we’re having this winter, at least leading up to this point in time,” he said. “I hope it causes people to increase their caution in the backcountry, because yesterday was just so tragic and massive.”

Skiers had been advised to stay on slopes of less than 30 degrees and to make sure there was no steep terrain above or next to where they planned to ski.

The avalanche, first reported when Unified police received a faint signal from an avalanche beacon at 11:40 a.m. Mountain time, occurred on north-facing terrain on the ridge line separating Big Cottonwood Canyon and Millcreek Canyon, according to Hardesty. The area is just east of Salt Lake City. The center’s preliminary report indicated the depth of the slide, which was 250 feet wide, was 2½ feet and broke free at 9,800 feet.

The accident is among the worst in state history. Four people were killed in a skier-triggered avalanche in Gold Basin near Moab in 1992, and three died in an avalanche that caught up 15 people near Sundance resort in 2003.

“This is a terrible tragedy and our hearts go out to the victims and families involved,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) tweeted, warning again of the snow’s instability. “With avalanche danger high right now, please exercise extreme caution.”

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