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Report details moments before, after fatal Millcreek avalanche

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4 rescued and 4 dead in millcreek canyon avalanche

MILLCREEK, Utah (ABC4) – The Utah Avalanche Center has released a final report on the Millcreek avalanche that left four people dead in early February.

The final report details what happened in the hours before the avalanche caught and carried seven out of eight skiers from two different groups on the north side of Wilson Peak.

UAC reports the two groups – Group A comprised of Chris, 29-year-old Sarah Moughamian of Sandy, 26-year-old Louis Holian, 23-year-old Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, and Steve and Group B with Nate, Ethan, and 26-year-old Steph Hopkins – went skiing in the Wilson Glades area of Alexander Basin on the morning of Saturday, February 6.

UAC has already determined the avalanche was human-triggered, but it cannot be determined by whom.

According to the final report, Group A started at the Butler Fork trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon at about 7 a.m. They used the trail to access a ridgeline between Soldier Peak and Wilson Peak with a plan to ski the Wilson Glades. While they knew that Wilson Glades was avalanche terrain, UAC says the group considered it a safer option during the high avalanche danger.

The group says they thought any avalanche in that area would be “pockety,” and did not think the entire slope would avalanche as it did.

At around 8:30 a.m., UAC says the group noticed a very large natural avalanche in the Wilson Chutes on the east-facing part of Wilson Peak and posted a photo on Instagram, tagging UAC.

The group of five reached the top of Wilson Peak. When at the top, UAC says the group discussed how to ski Wilson Glades but did not discuss if they should ski it or not. They did, however, discuss avoiding the steeper sections and going one-at-a-time with everyone participating in that discussion.

No other groups had been to the area on Saturday. UAC says the group descended/skied the Wilson Glades one at a time. Once they reached the bottom of the slope, the group says they started breaking a trail back to the top to ski Wilson Glades again.

At around 8:30 a.m., Group B was approaching Wilson Glades from Millcreek Canyon. UAC says the group of three began walking on skis from the end of the plowed road about three miles to the Alexander Basin trailhead.

The group began breaking a trail uphill to the Wilson Glades drainage from that trailhead, just east of Alexander Basin. According to the report, the group says they saw several natural avalanches in Alexander Basin while ascending their route into the Wilson Glades.

As they continued up the basin into the glades, they discussed the avalanche danger, according to UAC. They say they were also aware that the avalanche danger was rated high for the day in that terrain.

According to the report, the group saw they were aware Wilson Glades could avalanche and their general specific travel plan was to ascend the Wilson Glades, stop at some point before the steeper section, and then discuss a plan for where to go and what to ski.

UAC reports two of the members – Ethan and Steph – where familiar with the area, but it was Nate’s first time skiing the Wilson Glades after just moving to Utah earlier this year.

The report says both groups made observations of recent activity, but neither dug a snowpit to investigate the snowpack.

When group B reached the bottom of the Glades, they noted many tracks in the area and a recent skin/uphill track to the looker’s left to the east. They followed the skin track uphill.

When Nate and Ethan reached a point where they could see the steeper slopes above them, they waited in a sparse opening in the trees for Steph so they could discuss their plan for the day.

Meanwhile, UAC says group A had skied the Wilson Glades three times, totaling 14 tracks down the slope. After their second lap, UAC says Steve was tired and opted to wait somewhere above while the group made their third lap.

After the third lap, the report says the group planned to climb back up and descend into Big Cottonwood Canyon to the Butler Fork Trailhead, where they had started.

A photo included in the report, seen below, shows what the slope looked like minutes before the avalanche. You can see 14 sets of ski tracks taken three miles to the north.

Photo courtesy UAC, D. Nix

UAC says that after group A skied the slope for the third time, they transitioned back into uphill/walk mode and began climbing up their previously-set skin track. The group traveled together until they reached the steepest part of their skin track, where UAC says they regrouped at a large tree to cross the last part of the slope, one at a time, as they had done twice before.

UAC includes this image, seen below, showing where the groups where and the paths they were on.

While group A, made up of four people, were grouped together on the skin track at the large tree, UAC says Chris was in front and reported hearing something that sounded like an earthquake.

According to UAC, the avalanche broke about 30 feet above them. That is when Sarah, Thomas, and Louis were swept downhill in the avalanche. The report says Chris lunged for a tree and hit it so hard the “wind was knocked out of him.”

Here is what Chris experienced, according to the report:

He was able to hang onto it and felt immense pressure while the avalanche swept over him. He saw nothing but blackness for 2-3 seconds. Both skis were ripped off his feet, and he was left hanging in the tree above the bed surface after the avalanche passed.

UAC says it is very rare that people can hang onto trees like Chris did.

At this point in the incident, UAC says neither group was aware of each other except for group B seeing group A’s ski tracks and skin track.

The report says that just as most of group A was caught in the avalanche, Ethan and Nate were waiting for Steph to catch up. That’s when they looked up and saw a wall of snow coming at them. UAC says the two had only been stopped for about 15 to 30 seconds before they saw the avalanche.

All three members of group B were caught and fully buried.

UAC says Chris was able to drop out of the tree and screamed for Steve, who was on the ridge above, to come down. Chris turned his transceiver to receive and began searching downhill in a zig-zag pattern on foot.

The report says Steve heard the yelling and skied down as Chris was acquiring his first transceiver signal. He says he followed the signal to the lowest number and deployed his avalanche probe, which struck a person on the first strike.

Chis and Steve then began digging, going about four to six feet deep. While they expected to find a member of their group, UAC says they uncovered Nate unconscious but breathing. He was able to gain consciousness and helped looking for others trapped.

Photos: Millcreek area after avalanche

Here is how Nate recalled the moments to UAC:

Nate initially thought the avalanche was moving slowly and did not think it would reach them. Then he remembers the wall of snow overtaking him and Ethan, moving them only a short distance downhill, and being buried as the debris stopped moving. He quickly lost consciousness. After regaining consciousness, Nate’s next memory was assembling his shovel and turning his transceiver off.

Chris was able to call authorities and notify them of the avalanche before he resumed searching.

UAC reports Chris and Steve started to uncover Ethan, another member of group B. He was reported to have been buried about two feet from Nate at about the same depth.

Ethan was found to be unconscious but breathing. The trio left Ethan partially buried, still anchored to his skis under the snow, and continued searching for others.

After turning off Ethan’s transceiver, Chris says he walked in a circle around Ethan and acquired another transceiver signal. They followed the signal to another buried person about 150 feet to the east.

Sarah, Chris’s significant other, was found under two to four feet of snow, not breathing and without a pulse. UAC says Chris continued CPR while Steve and Nate began searching for the next person.

Just downhill from Sarah, UAC says the two found Louis, buried four to six feet deep. He was not breathing and did not have a pulse. According to the report, no further life-saving measures were taken. After Louis was uncovered, Chris stopped performing CPR on Sarah and rejoined Nate and Steve to continue the search.

At this time, the report says Ethan had regained consciousness and began screaming. Nate was able to return to him and found he was showing signs of hypothermia and was in a lot of pain. Nate finished digging him out, gave him extra layers as well as food and water, and then left him to rejoin Chris and Steve.

UAC says the three began searching again and found Thomas, from group A, buried two to four feet deep. He was not breathing and did not have a pulse. According to the report, no further life-saving measures were taken.

Sarah, Louis, and Thomas were all buried about 30 feet apart from each other down the fall line. The photo below from UAC shows the approximate locations each skier was at after the avalanche passed. A second photo in the slideshow below shows how close each of the three victims were.

UAC says Nate, a registered nurse, was concerned about Ethan and returned to his location. Meanwhile, after finding Thomas, Chris and Steve acquired another transceiver signal.

The report says they found Steph buried four to six feet deep in an upright position. She was about 100 feet to the west and slightly downhill from Thomas. Nate rejoined and cleared her airway, but the report says she was not breathing and did not have a pulse. No further life-saving measures were taken. Nate then returned to Ethan.

At about 1:40 p.m. – about two hours after the first report of the avalanche – rescue crews were arriving via helicopter to the scene. The four survivors – Chris, Nate, Ethan, and Steve – were hoisted off the scene via an air ambulance. Because darkness was approaching, UAC says the operations were discontinued and the victims were recovered on the next day, Sunday.

In the report, UAC says, “This was a massive rescue mission involving many different organizations. Chris and Steve saved two lives (Nate and Ethan from group B) with their heroic rescue efforts. Then Chris, Nate, and Steve gave their best attempt to save the rest. Unfortunately, time was working against them. 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.”

According to UAC, on the day of the incident, the avalanche danager was rated as high for northeast-facing terrain above 9,500 feet and considerable for northeast-facing terrain between 8,000 and 9,500 feet. The slope where this avalanche happened faces northeast at 9,600 feet.

A celebration of life is planned for two of the skiers killed – Louis and Thomas – for Sunday, February 14.

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