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What you can learn from a death on Deer Valley's Holy Roller mountain biking trail

Published July 13, 2017 9:52 am

Mountain biking • Layton man's fatal crash at Deer Valley last year serves as a warning on the dangers of popular "flow trails."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Richard Schmutz had taken up mountain biking only a couple of months before he went riding at Deer Valley Resort for the first time.

"He went up there just wanting to have a good time," said his wife, Nikki Anne Schmutz. "He bought a brand-new helmet, he had all the gear, and he said he was just going to go on the easiest trails."

Schmutz — a 41-year-old electrician from Layton, father of four and Boy Scout leader — took a selfie while riding on a chairlift that day, Sept. 3, 2016. About a half-hour later, he died from injuries he suffered in a crash on the Holy Roller trail.

"I don't think there's anything that can explain the feeling you get when you just saw someone a few hours ago and then you get that call," said Nikki. "It's a lot of shock."

Biking trend • Deer Valley's website describes the Holy Roller, which opened last summer, as a 3-mile trail that "flows from the top of Bald Mountain to Silver Lake Village, providing riders an easy and fun option to descend the upper mountain."

The resort classifies the trail as Easier. The other classifications are Moderate, Difficult and Experts Only.

The website warns: "Be aware that even though a trail may be marked Easier, all trails still require basic mountain bike handling skills, mountain travel skills and physical fitness." And Deer Valley's chairlift customers are required to sign a waiver acknowledging that they are aware of the risks and the resort is not responsible for injuries.

Designed by the Whistler, British Columbia-based company Gravity Logic, the Holy Roller is part of a trend in mountain biking, a "flow trail."

According to the Colorado-based International Mountain Bicycling Association's website, flow trails "take mountain bikers on a terrain-induced roller coaster experience, with little pedaling and braking necessary. This style of trail typically contains features like banked turns, rolling terrain, various types of jumps, and consistent and predictable surfaces. Conspicuously absent are abrupt corners or unforeseen obstacles."

As Schmutz rode downhill, the trail passed through a relatively steep, grassy area and into a stand of trees. There, he encountered a couple of rises in the path, where he crashed, suffering massive facial and head injuries. Nobody is known to have witnessed the accident.

Moments later, rider John Thomson came upon the scene. Two other riders — a father and son — had arrived before him.

Schmutz was lying unconscious on the ground, his helmet cracked and pushed back on his head.

"We immediately knew he was fighting for his life," said Thomson, a 50-year-old Salt Lake City resident.

The father and son said Schmutz had passed them while they took a break just a minute or two before they found him on the ground. He had not been riding at excessive speed, they told Thomson.

Thomson surmises that Schmutz picked up velocity through the grassy area before coming upon the double rises.

"My guess is, he got a little bit out of control, grabbed his front brake and went over the handlebars," Thomson said.

Called by the onlookers, Deer Valley bike patrol members arrived 5 or 6 minutes later, Thomson said. Park City Fire District personnel also responded to the call, but they were unable to revive Schmutz. He died at the scene.

Double-edged sword • Nikki Schmutz is astounded that her husband suffered fatal injuries on a trail classified as Easier.

But Bruce Argyle has an explanation: "The key factor is speed," he said.

Argyle, from Alpine, is a retired emergency-room physician and a seasoned cyclist who reviews trails for UtahMountainBiking.com.

Argyle says flow trails are safe in some regards, because they are generally designated for downhill-only travel on bikes, eliminating the potential for head-on collisions with other riders or encounters with hikers and horses. They are also relatively smooth, lacking hazards such as large rocks. But a smooth surface is a double-edged sword, allowing riders to get up to high speeds.

"It makes it more fun and in some ways safer," Argyle said. But flow trails "do allow you to ride at higher speeds, and that's when you get into more serious injuries."

Thomson describes the Holy Roller as "flat and easy with gentle rollers," but dangerous in its own right. Though he didn't see the crash, Thomson believes that Schmutz wouldn't have suffered fatal injuries if he hadn't been riding fast.

"He was a big guy, so the speed probably caught up with him … just because of gravity," Thomson said.

Steve Graff, the director of mountain operations at Deer Valley, said the Holy Roller has an average grade of about 5 percent, though the pitch varies. The resort's Moderate trails generally have a grade of around 8 percent to 10 percent, he said.

All or nothing • Schmutz had struggled with his weight for years, and Nikki said he was drawn to mountain biking as a fun way to stay in shape. He was 5-foot-10 and weighed about 240 to 250 pounds the day of the accident, she said.

He had played soccer as a youngster and enjoyed riding bikes, including while he was serving a mission in Chicago for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The day before he went to Deer Valley, he bought a full-suspension bike with disc brakes.

"He was an all-or-nothing type of person, so when he took up mountain biking, he bought everything he needed to be an extreme mountain biker," said Nikki Schmutz, a poet and author.

He went to ride at Deer Valley at the suggestion of a friend.

His wife questions why the Holy Roller does not have signs warning of features such as the double rises where Schmutz fell.

Graff said the resort could not possibly put up warnings for every potential hazard. "It would be a trail of signs if you did that," he said, noting that cyclists encounter danger from loose rocks, tree roots and muddy spots.

"The sport itself is hazardous," he said.

Thomson said he would not advise novice cyclists to ride the upper reaches of the resort.

"If you're truly a beginner, I would not recommend you take that lift up there," he said.

But Graff took his 7- and 11-year-old daughters on the Holy Roller and said he would not have done so if he thought it posed an inordinate risk.

"They absolutely loved it and can't wait for me to buy them the T-shirt," he said.

Know before you go • Schmutz was only the second rider to suffer fatal injuries at Deer Valley since the resort started offering lift-served mountain biking in 1992. The other incident happened in 2006, when an Arizona man crashed on the Thieves Forest trail, which is classified as Experts Only.

In 35 years as an emergency-room physician along the Wasatch Front, Argyle never saw a patient who suffered fatal injuries while mountain biking, but he saw riders who suffered less-severe injuries.

Argyle offers this advice: "Ride within your ability level — know what you're good enough to do," he said. "Even at that, there are going to be injuries."

Nikki Schmutz hopes her husband's death will raise awareness of mountain-biking dangers.

She said the standard bicycling helmet that Schmutz was wearing offered little protection and that riders should consider sturdier headgear, such as full-face models.

She also noted that Schmutz had little experience with disc brakes, and that could have been a factor in the accident, so riders should be familiar with their equipment.

After the accident, Deer Valley employees escorted Schmutz's family to the spot where he died, in an effort to afford them some closure, Graff said.

Nikki Schmutz saw plenty of hazards on the Holy Roller.

"Even though a trail can be labeled 'beginner,' " she said, "it doesn't mean there's not danger out there."






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