On Friday, January 8, a 31-year-old man from Clinton, Utah was killed in an avalanche on the Park City ridgeline in Dutch Draw, a popular backcountry skiing area that is easily accessible from the Ninety-Nine 90 Express chairlift at Park City Mountain. It’s the fourth fatal accident in Dutch Draw in the past 15 years, and the second year in a row in which someone has been killed in an accident on the steep run known as Conehead. The tragic accident serves as a stark reminder of the inherent risks involved in backcountry skiing and has raised concerns in the community about how prevent avalanche accidents, particularly among people who are not aware of the dangers.
On the day of the avalanche, the victim Kevin Jack Steuterman and his girlfriend exited the backcountry access gate atop the Ninety-Nine 90 Express and hiked up the ridge before dropping in to snowboard down a run called Conehead. According to a report by the Utah Avalanche Center, Steuterman went first, and when he was about halfway down his girlfriend followed. An avalanche was triggered—it is not known by which rider. The woman was not caught in the slide, but Steuterman was caught, buried and ultimately killed. Rescue personnel responded to the accident when the woman called 911 immediately after the avalanche occurred, but due to risks posed by dangerous avalanche conditions they were unable to begin digging for the victim until after 2:00 p.m. Both riders had some experience in the backcountry, but neither were carrying avalanche rescue equipment at the time of the accident.
In the aftermath of avalanche accidents, it’s important to learn from the circumstances that led to them and avoid casting judgement or blame. The loss of life is tragic, and its incumbent on the community to unite in a positive way to prevent future incidents. This specific incident highlights the importance of avalanche education and preparedness, both with regards to assessing avalanche risk and carrying the appropriate gear to respond in the event of an avalanche.
A ski patroller we spoke with who was on the scene said a rescue of the victim in this particular accident could have been possible with the aid of properly equipped and trained partners. The patroller also said this accident was predictable due to recent avalanche activity in the area and the overall state of the snowpack, which features a considerable avalanche risk on a persistent weak layer of snow. Again, this is not to pass judgement on anyone involved but to stress that nobody should ever go backcountry skiing or snowboarding without the proper training and equipment, regardless of how inviting the snow looks or how many tracks are on a slope.
The area off Ninety-Nine 90 Express at Park City Mountain is a uniquely accessible backcountry area. Because of this easy access, the area in Dutch Draw and Square Top further north on the ridgeline are exceedingly popular for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Additionally, since these areas are visible from chairlifts within the resort, they are also appealing to people who may not have the experience and equipment required to safely ski and snowboard there.
Park City Mountain, however, is not able to limit access based on a person’s qualifications. The resort borders National Forest and as such is required to offer an access gate. The gate is emblazoned with a skull-and-crossbones symbol and stern warnings about the dangers inherent to leaving the resort boundary. To less experienced skiers and snowboarders, however, this signage can be difficult to distinguish from other signage warning of unmarked hazards and expert terrain common to ski areas.
Some members of the community have argued more should be done to warn skiers who may be unaware of the gravity of the dangers posed by backcountry terrain. Suggestions range stationing resort personnel near the gate to verbally inform people of the risk to requiring skiers and snowboarders to check out with ski patrol and carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. The latter approach is similar to what’s done at Snowbird with the gate in Gad Valley. This, however, requires Snowbird to control private terrain that does not directly touch to the National Forest boundary.
We reached out to Vail Resorts to see if revised procedures were possible or being considered. Jessica Miller, Senior Communications Manager for Park City Mountain responded via email, “Park City mountain places the highest value on the safety of our guests and employees. Within the ski area boundaries, Ski Patrol performs avalanche mitigation work and provides emergency response. Park City Mountain Resort does not prohibit public access to U.S. Forest Service lands outside the ski area boundary. Guests that access the backcountry from Park City Mountain must do so from designated backcountry gates that provide warnings and information about the inherent risks of backcountry travel. Park City Mountain does not manage the lands or the inherent hazards that exist outside its ski area boundary. Guests who access backcountry terrain do so at their own risk and are responsible for their safety. Guests leaving the Resort boundaries should be experienced and knowledgeable about backcountry travel, and be prepared with the appropriate gear and safety equipment.”
None of the concern surrounding the accident should be misconstrued as an effort to limit people’s access to the backcountry. I, myself, have exited the gate to go backcountry skiing on the Park City ridgeline countless times, and I vehemently believe people should have that right. Rather, the efforts are focused on helping ensure people who are unprepared and unaware of the risks associated with backcountry skiing and snowboarding aren’t unwittingly walking into dangerous situations because they see some untracked powder. Each of these accidents deeply affects the entire community, and we can all be part of a solution to ensure fewer people are injured or killed.
The current status quo, however, isn’t doing much to discourage unprepared people from leaving resort boundaries. It’s frankly surprising accidents aren’t more frequent when accounting the number of inexperienced people who access resort-adjacent backcountry terrain. If you want to go backcountry skiing or snowboarding, please put in the time to get educated and get the right equipment. Visit the Utah Avalanche Center website for information about how to get started and see current avalanche conditions.
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