Historic Avalanche Kills Four in Utah Backcountry

Editor’s note, Feb. 7, 2021: Officials today identified the four deceased skiers as Sarah Moughamian, 29; Louis Holian, 26; Stephanie Hopkins, 26; and Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, 23; all of Salt Lake City, Utah. Our thoughts are with their families, friends, and the local community.

Four skiers died in an avalanche outside Salt Lake City on February 6 in one of the most deadly slides recorded. The event tied the Utah state record for the deadliest avalanche since four skiers were killed on Feb. 12, 1992, in the Gold Basin of Moab. The last time any avalanche killed more people was when five died near Loveland Pass, Colorado in 2013.

According to the National Avalanche Center, avalanches kill more people in National Forests than any other natural hazard. Each winter, 25 to 30 people die in avalanches in the United States, nearly all which involve recreation on National Forests. The Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) has recorded 124 deaths caused by avalanches since they began their state records in 1958.

As covid-19 has put a strain on resort operations, many skiers have looked to the backcountry as an alternative. Backcountry-related equipment sales in the U.S. grew a combined 76 percent between August and October 2020 compared to the same period last year, according to The NPD Group, which collects point-of-sale data from over 600,000 retail locations.

The avalanche risk is so high that it’s not about having the right equipment this weekend, it’s about avoiding the backcountry entirely.

Including the four deaths from Saturday’s slide, there have been 20 avalanches fatalities in the U.S. this season, beginning December 18, 2020. Last winter saw a total of 23 deaths nationwide.

The four killed were among eight total skiers caught in the human-triggered slide that was two-and-half feet deep and 250-feet wide, according to preliminary reports by the UAC. The other four skiers were partially buried but dug themselves out before recovering the skiers who died.

Names of the deceased were not immediately available. However, Drew Hardesty, a longtime forecaster for the UAC, says the victims were experienced skiers and well known in the community. The Salt Lake Tribune reported all skiers involved carried avalanche safety gear, including beacons, shovels, and probes.

The avalanche happened on a ridge line separating Big Cottonwood Canyon, home to Brighton and Solitude Mountain Resort, and Mill Creek Canyon on a steep, North-facing slope.

The UAC had deemed the area where the incident occurred as “high” risk for avalanches on Saturday. “It’s not about having the right equipment this weekend, it’s about avoiding the backcountry entirely,” UAC forecaster Toby Weed told Utah’s FOX 13 on Friday before the slide.

Wasatch Backcountry Rescue and the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue team plan to visit the site on February 6 to make further observations and recover the bodies of the deceased skiers.