An avalanche accident in the Millcreek Canyon backcountry on Feb. 6, 2021 shook the Utah ski community to its core. Thousands of words devoted to the details, causes and aftermath of the accident have already been written, but endless stories about the people involved remain untold. This is but a single one of those stories, honoring the memory of those lost and seeking to chart a path forward.
Chris Gmitro shot awake at midnight. An idea took root in his head, the kind that brings sudden lucidity even at the end of a REM cycle. Three hours remained until the alarm was set to kick off what was to be a massive day in the mountains, but the iron was hot. It was late March 2019.
Quietly, Chris got out of bed and began to pack a climbing kit—ropes, cams, nuts and carabiners—alongside the backcountry ski gear already lined out. An hour later, he woke his partner Sarah Moughamian to consider the amended plan. It was a ladies’ choice day, and Sarah had laid out an ambitious itinerary that ticked off all three skiable aspects of Lone Peak, the towering 11,260-foot monument southeast of Salt Lake City. Chris wanted to add a fourth slope. The Center Thumb, a stout 550-foot alpine climb on a west aspect that would complete the Compass Rose. Or, they could sleep for an additional two hours. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sarah was up.
Still hours from sunrise, Chris and Sarah left their car and began to climb. Every step upward yielded that snowy squeak underfoot that’s always louder in the predawn cold, part of the oddly rhythmic symphony that accompanies ski touring. The pair moved in tandem on skis up the flanks towards the Northeast Couloir where they would bootpack—laboriously stepping into snow—towards the summit of the mountain where they had first met in 2016.
It was summer then. Chris descended alone through the forested trails after climbing the granite walls of the Lone Peak Cirque. He’d come to Utah in 2006 after college in Flagstaff, camping in church parking lots and doing generally whatever he could to facilitate climbing and skiing. Sarah climbed the same trail that day on her way to scale those same looming towers. Raised in a small town, Idaho City, she hadn’t let a stint in Virginia for college or a bona fide professional job as a market analyst derail a life shaped by the mountains.
“I was immediately intimidated. Didn’t even make eye contact,” Chris says. “When I turned to look, she was already looking my way and smiling. That was it.” A few days later Sarah came into The Gear Room, the outdoor shop Chris opened with his brother Kevin in 2014. She was there to buy some gear, but it was as much pretense for an introduction as anything. You can get cams in a lot of places in the valley.
Three years later, the pair expertly dissected the terrain on Lone Peak, following the sun. First was soft cold snow on the direct East Face. Then, perfect corn snow on the South Face as it warmed. The ski kit was left on top, replaced by a climbing kit for the west-facing Center Thumb. Finally, back on skis, they exited north into Big Willow. It was a 15-hour push with ruthless efficiency hewn from hundreds of days in the mountains together. Details were second nature, turning what would for most be a staggeringly large objective covering more than 10,000 vertical feet into just another day. The Lone Peak 4X4, as Chris and Sarah coined it, was a distillation of the process and ambition at the center of their lives together. One adventure of many, with a mountain at its core.
Feb. 6, 2021, was a different type of day. No middle-of-the-night packing sessions breathtakingly early starts or lofty tick lists. This day was to be just a casual backcountry ski tour alongside friends. It was a special occasion only in that Chris and Sarah rarely skied with others.
The couple had strikingly compatible goals and they outmatched casual invites. Some of their objectives were enormous—The Evolution Traverse in the Sierras and the WURL, a 36-mile, 18,000-vertical-foot ridge linkup in the Wasatch, for example—and frankly out of reach for most. Even an “average” day—which, for these two, was considered a mere training day—was itself outside most people’s comfort zone. Written in Sarah’s journals from before she’d met Chris were three lifetime mountaineering objectives. Two of them, The Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Cassin Ridge on Denali, were also in Chris’ top three most sought-after objectives. This couple had very high aspirations.
Still, the idea of a more relaxed day in the mountains was refreshing. Joining Sarah and Chris that Saturday were Louis, Thomas and Steve. (Editor’s note: To respect the privacy of people involved, we will use primarily first names, as contemporaneous reports did.) Louis, a regular at the Gear Room, had been working at the shop for about a year and a half. A remarkably fit cyclist with a relentlessly energetic personality, he had long, curly hair, pulled over a buzzed side of his head. He wore a pink spandex suit for the ski tour. “He didn’t need your attention, but he commanded it,” Chris says.
Thomas, a frequent ski partner of Louis, had ski mountaineering race experience and was a prototypically fit and strong athlete. Steve had come through the Gear Room a year earlier. A strong climber with California roots and plenty of experience in Joshua Tree, this was one of his first backcountry ski tours. Chris recalls, “He held great value for the mountains. We’d helped him with his kit in the shop, and I wanted to fill the void as a mentor for him.”
The day’s objective was Wilson Glade, a northeast-facing slope that descends into Millcreek Canyon from Wilson Peak just shy of 10,000 feet. The group began around 7 a.m. from the Butler Fork trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Using climbing skins, they moved methodically up the steep-sided, pine-rimmed gulley toward a ridge between Soldier Peak and Wilson. The weather was mild and partly clear, and two storms that week had dropped 21 inches of snow at nearby Solitude Mountain Resort. Amid a lackluster winter, skiing conditions were finally optimal. Avalanche conditions, as they had been for much of the season, were anything but.
The skin track to the summit ridge meanders through a tightly packed, south-facing aspen forest. It’s a pleasant and still atmosphere, below the saddle separating the two canyons. Replete with views and a notable absence of sound, it was the ideal environment for backcountry skiers to feel at peace, in their element, hidden from the scale of nature. Not until nearly reaching Wilson’s summit, 3,000 feet above the car, do the more imposing aspects of the mountains emerge.
The Wilson Chutes. Perfect, nearly symmetrical barrels running almost eastward from the peak. With mid to upper 30-degree slopes blanketed by wind deposited snow, the Wilson Chutes are what powder dreams are made of. They’re also obvious avalanche terrain, devoid of vegetation often with cornices at the top and recent debris at the bottom. Today, they held an ominous sign. Natural avalanches had stripped the snow to the ground, leaving barren rocky scars in their wake. Uninviting, and a clear reflection of the day’s forecasted avalanche hazard, which the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) rated as high for persistent slab avalanches on all terrain above 9,500 feet on the eastern half of the compass.
Wilson Glade is avalanche terrain—generally understood to be any terrain 30-degrees or greater in steepness—within the high-danger parameters regarding aspect, elevation and slope angle on Feb. 6. But backcountry skiing is rarely a cut-and-dried affair, with much of the activity taking place on the margins of safety. Wilson Glade is a place where sliding scales of risk tolerance and probabilities frequently overlap. It’s avalanche terrain to be certain, but compared to surrounding areas it appears almost innocuous. Below a steep, short headwall of pine is an open meadow. It touches the 30-degree threshold, but only just, and for only a couple hundred vertical feet. Large avalanches here are comparatively rare, and all these factors can contribute to a false sense of security.
I, myself, have frequented Wilson Glade on days when considerable avalanche risk was forecast thinking, as the group on Feb. 6 did, if there were any slides they would be pockety and manageable through a combination of careful terrain choice and travel protocol. I say this without judgment and acknowledge a baked-in complacency around certain terrain and behaviors that have permeated parts of the backcountry community. Denial is the religion of the insecure.
37 people died in avalanches in the United States during the 2020-21 season according to data compiled by the UAC. Seven of those deaths occurred in Utah. These numbers are simultaneously astonishing and pedestrian. We humans have a strange relationship with risk assessment. A single shark attack fatality and a handful of encounters off the coast of Cape Cod since 2012 have people scrambling from the waves like characters in Jaws. Meanwhile, hundreds of people are killed and thousands are injured annually on Utah roadways, but there isn’t much panic-driven discourse surrounding people driving on snowy mountain roads.
Backcountry skiing is caught somewhere in the middle, more dangerous than great whites, less so than cars. But the risks are gaining wider attention. Last year was among the most dangerous on record for backcountry users, but not by a stunning margin. There were 34 fatalities in both 2007 and 2010. Still, anecdotal judgments about the cause of accidents abound. It’s new, inexperienced users because of the pandemic. It’s overcrowding on the safer slopes because of the sport’s popularity, pressuring people to push boundaries. It’s social media hype and available information on the internet getting people in over their heads. And on it goes.
Every avalanche accident is a result of cascading factors. Yes, the aforementioned concerns do contribute to some incidents. But the numbers suggest on a per-user-day basis, backcountry skiing is likely becoming safer, not more dangerous. Backcountry travel numbers are difficult to accurately count, but total UAC contacts (page views, forecast hotline calls, mobile app sessions and forecast emails delivered) peaked at around 2.25 million in 2007 and reached nearly 4.75 million in 2021. Though vague on specifics, this indicates a huge influx of backcountry users with only a mild uptick in total accidents during a year with a particularly complicated snowpack.
“A common theme across the west last season was early snow in November followed by sustained dry periods in December, almost the entire month,” says UAC forecaster Nikki Champion. “In the Wasatch, that created faceted grains and a weak persistent layer all over the range. In Utah, it’s common to deal with faceted grains on north-facing aspects, but we’re less familiar with seeing a persistent weak layer that lasts for so long. Storms weren’t deep enough to bury the weak layer and cause it to go dormant until almost the end of the season, a problem that plagued the entire west.”
Persistent weak layers are named for a reason, they persist. Faceted snow grains, which create an unstable layer, can form quickly, in hours to days, but they take a long time, sometimes months, to heal. Because facets often exist deep in the snowpack, they are widely distributed across terrain beneath thick slabs of snow. When avalanches occur on failures in persistent weak layers, the slides are often deep, well connected across entire slopes and very dangerous. Such avalanches are also less predictable than avalanches that occur in new snow, creating an ever-present threat that lasts throughout a season.
“Last year’s persistent weak layer led to issues with decision making,” Champion says. “There was user fatigue and forecasting fatigue communicating the same problem from day to day. When people are avoiding the persistent weak layer and aren’t getting negative feedback, complacency builds and it’s more difficult to respect how dangerous it still is. There’s a large range of outcomes with snowpack structure and stability, and as weather patterns change, we need to become more comfortable with them in the Wasatch.”
In Wilson Glade, Chris, Sarah, Louis, Thomas and Steve were greeted with cold powder. One by one, they made arcing turns down the open meadow for several hundred feet before a few more turns where the slope angle lessened and the trees got tighter. Afterward, they put skins on and climbed back up, spacing out one at a time to cross the steepest, most exposed portion of the slope. The skin track on the slope’s east side was commonly used and their travel protocol was sound for many days in Wilson Glade when persistent slab danger is lower. Upon reaching the ridge after the second lap, Steve decided he would rest up top while the other four took a final lap. The four skiers dropped in once more, scrawling the last of the 14 tracks they made on the slope before beginning to ascend as they had twice already.
Meanwhile, a second group of skiers was heading up to ski Wilson Glade. Stephanie, Nate and Ethan started from Millcreek Canyon around 8:30 a.m. They skinned up the plowed road until reaching the Alexander Basin trailhead, where they headed southeast towards Wilson Glade. Nate and Ethan, slightly ahead of Stephanie, waited near the bottom of Wilson Glade to regroup and discuss travel and conditions before entering steeper terrain. Unbeknownst to them, Chris and Sarah’s group was ascending just above. They, likewise, were unaware of the group below.
That’s when the mountain, suddenly, roared to terrible life. An avalanche 1,000 feet wide, between 3- and 4-feet deep, tore from the slope. It’s impossible to know exactly what triggered the slide. Chris lunged for a tree, miraculously holding on as the snow engulfed and swept past him. The very ground beneath his feet was gone, leaving him clinging to the tree above the bed surface as the torrent came to rest. Steve, on the ridge above, was safe. The other six skiers were buried, and it was silent once again.
A rescue, equal parts heroic and tragic, unfolded. Chris dropped from the tree and turned his avalanche transceiver to search as Steve skied down to assist. Chris acquired a signal, struck a person with his probe and with the help of Steve dug out the victim who was unconscious but breathing. It was Nate, who they neither recognized nor knew was on the slope. A stranger to them. Chris made a call to 911. It was 11:40 a.m., roughly 10 minutes after the avalanche. Just feet away, Chris and Steve had located and began to uncover another skier. Nate had regained consciousness and assisted in shoveling. It was Ethan, another member of Nate’s downslope group. Ethan was unconscious but breathing.
Chris acquired another transceiver signal and the three rescuers located Sarah about 150 feet away. She was not breathing and didn’t have a pulse. Chris began CPR on Sarah while Steve and Nate continued searching for victims, finding Louis just downhill. He was not breathing and didn’t have a pulse. At this point, Chris ceased resuscitation efforts and rejoined the search for victims. The group located and uncovered Thomas, and then 100 feet downhill, Stephanie. Neither was breathing nor had a pulse. By 1:40 p.m., rescue personnel were lowered onto the scene via helicopter, after which Chris, Steve, Nate and Ethan were taken from the area in a Life Flight air ambulance. Four people, Sarah Moughamian, 29, Louis Holian, 26, Thomas Steinbrecher, 23, and Stephanie Hopkins, 23, had lost their lives.
The remarkable rescue effort by the surviving skiers had saved two lives. Nobody could have achieved a better outcome under such circumstances.
Spend enough time in the mountains, and it’s likely you’ll be touched by tragedy. It’s a cruel bargain. Between our conversations, last fall, a friend of Chris and a pillar of the climbing community, Mason Boos, was killed while climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon. A loose block of granite had fallen. It was a callously random and blameless accident. Mason was 25.
Chris speaks with a poised self-awareness about life in the mountains. Utterly sincere without a trace of glibness. He has a clear-eyed understanding not only of what hindsight says about the accident that changed his life but also of the inherent paradoxes that bring people to the places where life and death can intersect.
“There are entire books and professions devoted to understanding risk, but there are no great answers,” Chris says. “We talked about our expectations and how dangerous our lifestyle could be. It’s a beautiful gift to have had those conversations with Sarah. We can rationalize our mortality, but there’s a finality I didn’t appreciate. Inherently we knew what could happen, but we never thought it would. Otherwise, why would we do it? The answer is always a dead end.”
Concrete details are evident. A persistent weak layer of faceted snow formed during cold, dry periods in December. At some point on Feb. 6, a large, though not unprecedented, avalanche for Wilson Glade was initiated on that layer, 90 cm deep, while seven skiers were in exposed terrain, and four people were killed. A preventable tragedy with lessons to learn for every honest observer. Yet, intellectual exercise can take us only so far.
Each person involved was a wonderful soul full of hope, ambition, flaws and promise. That’s what the community lost. Promise and innocence. Diagram, analyze and rationalize all you want, the only certainty is perfection isn’t possible and we will end up here again. Call it passion, desire, a sense of identity or something else entirely, but there’s a magnetism that pulls towards a mortal line. An abstract combination of randomness and fallibility determines which side oif that line any day can land on.
In the fall, Chris was rehabbing an ACL injury sustained while skiing a month after the accident. He had no plans to give up skiing and climbing. Steve, likewise, remains embedded in the mountain community, working part-time at the Gear Room.
As Chris reflects, he returns again to that day in 2019, a moment of tandem purpose and dreams liberated from the tragedy of Feb. 6, 2021. Atop Lone Peak, Chris and Sarah shivered, huddling in their warmest layers waiting for the sunrise to wash the summit in pink light. The first climb of the day was over. The reward, indefinable but endlessly imaginable, is still ahead. It is a brief respite from endless motion. Little to do but wait and find peace in thinking of nothing particular at all. “Sarah never wanted notoriety or recognition,” Chris says. “She found such joy in the purity of pursuit and the process. The most amazing stories are the ones that are never heard.”
Read more about life in Salt Lake City.