| Washington Post
There was a sound like an earthquake, and then a torrent of snow came tumbling down the slope in a backcountry area near Salt Lake City. The skier lunged toward a tree and clung to it as the avalanche rolled through, plunging him into darkness and tearing off his skis. (Can’t see the full story? Sign in or subscribe.)
When it was over, he and a friend made a frantic search for his girlfriend and two other companions who had been swept away. Instead, they dug out and rescued two skiers they did not recognize, who were among another group that ventured out to savor Feb. 6’s fresh powder. They found the girlfriend next. But she was not breathing.
Those details are laid out in a report released Friday by the Utah Avalanche Center, which identifies the survivors only by their first names. It is the most comprehensive account yet of the avalanche that killed four experienced young skiers – the deadliest in the United States since 2014.
In what the Utah Avalanche Center praised as “heroic rescue efforts,” Chris and Steve saved the lives of fellow skiers Nate and Ethan. And they tried, with Nate’s help, to save the four others buried in the snow.
“Unfortunately,” the report said, “time was working against them.”
Those lost included Chris’s girlfriend, 29-year-old Sarah Moughamian, described by The Salt Lake Tribune’s Kolbie Peterson and Tony Semerad as a Washington and Lee University graduate and Idaho native raised with “the mountains as her playground.” Two other members of Chris and Steve’s group were killed: 26-year-old Louis Holian, who moved from Illinois to Utah for the skiing, according to The Tribune, and 23-year-old Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, who dreamed of becoming a mountain guide.
The fourth victim, 26-year-old Stephanie Hopkins, was a nurse who “was most alive in the outdoors,” according to her obituary, and had been skiing that day with Nate and Ethan.
They are among 21 backcountry enthusiasts killed this season in avalanches across seven U.S. states. Fourteen of those deaths have happened since Feb. 1; on the same day the four skiers were killed in Utah, a snowmobiler in his 60s was killed in an avalanche in Montana, the Daily Inter Lake reported.
The Utah accident ranks as one of the deadliest the state has recorded. It came during a week when at least 40 avalanches were reported in the mountains east of Salt Lake City, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. Leading into that weekend, the center warned of dangerous conditions, with forecaster Toby Weed telling Fox 13 that many area slopes “are ready to avalanche right now.” He likened the warning to watching a train approach.
The two groups of skiers who would be caught in the Feb. 6 avalanche were the first that day to visit the site, Wilson Glades. They knew there was an avalanche risk but brought equipment and viewed the area as less dangerous than others nearby. Wilson Glades is often “perceived as safer,” the report published Friday said, and as a consequence has seen “many close calls.”
When the avalanche struck, Chris and Steve’s group had skied Wilson Glades three times. Nate and Ethan’s group was still on the way up. Along the way, they noted the tracks of the other skiers before being overtaken by a wall of snow and losing consciousness.
Chris and Steve shifted quickly into rescue mode after the snow passed. Chris let go of the tree he had held onto and yelled for Steve, who had been taking a break on the ridge above. The two followed a transceiver signal and used an avalanche probe to find the skiers buried several feet deep.
They were surprised when their digging revealed Nate and Ethan rather than skiers from their own group. After Nate regained consciousness, he grabbed his shovel and helped uncover Ethan, who was still breathing.
With time slipping away, Nate, Chris and Steve “left him partially buried, still anchored to his skis under the snow to search for the others,” according to the report. Transceivers led them to the other four, who were not breathing and could not be revived. Nate, a nurse, returned to care for Ethan, worried he could have hypothermia.
Chris gave Moughamian CPR and stayed with her until rescuers arrived, her mother, Jill Moughamian, told ABC-4. She described him as her daughter’s “soul mate” and, along with the outdoors, one of her “two loves.”
The rescue efforts made by the three men were “top-notch,” the Utah Avalanche Center report said, adding that “they did the absolute best anyone could do with six full burials.”
As helicopters hovered overhead, Chris told the three survivors and said, “We all got a second chance at life today; we need to go now and make a difference in the world,” the report said.
They embraced each other, then the rescuers carried them away.
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