Utah police: Avalanche killed 4 local backcountry skiers

Salt Lake County Sheriff Search and Rescue crews respond to the top of Millcreek Canyon where four skiers died in an avalanche Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, near Salt Lake City. Four other skiers were injured, authorities said. The Unified Police Department told local media that it was alerted to the avalanche about 11:40 a.m. after receiving a faint distress call from an avalanche beacon in the canyon. The skier-triggered avalanche swept up eight people in their early twenties to late thirties who were in two groups touring the backcountry, Unified Police Sgt. Melody Cutler told the Salt Lake Tribune. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
LINDSAY WHITEHURST
·3 min read

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Four backcountry skiers in their 20s died when one of the deadliest avalanches in Utah history hit a popular canyon, police said Sunday.

Four other people also were 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-triggered avalanche in Millcreek Canyon.

Intermountain Life Flight helicopter pilot Richard Dobson told the Salt Lake Tribune that one person was conducting CPR on another of the skiers when they arrived at the site of the avalanche.

“Our backcountry outdoor community is very connected so this type of loss touches many people and really is heartbreaking,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said. “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.

Jill Moughamian told the Deseret News that her daughter, a market researcher, loved the outdoors and grew up “playing in the mountains and climbing trees" as she kept up with her brothers.

She said her daughter found “the two loves of her life” in Utah — her soulmate, who dug her out of the snow but could not resuscitate her, and the outdoors.

“All of them were beautiful people who love the outdoors,” Anthony Nocella, a friend of Holian, told the News. “People in the community are really missing them.”

Holian "did whatever he wanted to do. He lived life to the fullest,” Nocella said. “He’s amazing. Everyone is going to miss him. Everyone is going to miss those four people.”

They were experienced skiers who were well known in the community, Drew Hardesty with the Utah Avalanche Center told the 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: a 60-year-old northwestern Montana man died after being caught in an avalanche while snowmobiling in the Swan Range on Saturday; the bodies of three hikers were found near Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday. In Colorado, four backcountry skiers 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's. 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.

A total of 23 people, including eight skiers, died the previous winter between December and April, the agency found.

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Associated Press writer Julie Walker in New York City contributed to this report.