SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — four backcountry skiers in their 20s died when one of the deadliest avalanches in Utah history hit a popular backcountry skiing area, police said Sunday.
Four other people were also buried in the Saturday slide but managed to dig themselves out and didn’t suffer serious injuries, according to Unified Police of Salt Lake County.
The skiers were from two separate groups, and all eight had prepared with the necessary avalanche safety gear, authorities said.
The four killed were all from the Salt Lake City area, not far the spot where they were swept up by the skier-trigged avalanche in Millcreek Canyon.
Our backcountry outdoor community is very connected so this type of loss touches many people and really is heartbreaking,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. “These are people who love doing what they did and lived life to the fullest.”
Three of the deceased were identified as Salt Lake City residents: Louis Holian and Stephanie Hopkins, both 26, and Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, 23. The fourth, 29-year-old Sarah Moughamian was from the suburb of Sandy, Utah.
They were experienced skiers who were well known in the community, Drew Hardesty with the Utah Avalanche Center told the Salt Lake Tribune. The avalanche danger around Salt Lake was high on Saturday, the center said as it tweeted out a warning hours before the avalanche.
A faint distress call alerted police to the slide shortly before noon on Saturday. The survivors found their four companions and dug them out, but they were already dead, police said.
The avalanche was “incredibly wide,” Wilson said, and still-unstable snow conditions kept rescuers from immediately recovering the bodies Saturday. Recovery operations resumed Sunday morning.
Avalanches have also claimed other lives in recent days: the bodies of three hikers were found near Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday. In Colorado, four backcountry skiers have died in two separate slides in the last week.
Avalanche forecasters and search-and-rescue groups have been worried for weeks that more people would be venturing into the backcountry to avoid crowds and reservation systems at ski resorts during the coronavirus pandemic.
This winter is on track to be deadlier for avalanches than last year. Numbers gathered by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center show 21 people have died so far this year in the U.S., 15 of them skiers. There are still more than two months left in the season.
Last year, by contrast, a total of 23 people, including eight skiers, died between December and April, the agency found.